Van Dyke, Charles I in Three Positions. Photo: Wikipedia Van Dyke, Charles I in Three Positions. Photo: Wikipedia

John Rees looks at the Royal Academy’s prestige exhibition, ‘Charles I: King and Collector’

As a grand visual feast there’s no doubt this works. Although it’s still a fraction of the thousands of works of art that Charles I collected it stretches across 13 substantial galleries at the Royal Academy.

And, whatever the subject matter, there’s a lot to be savoured in reflecting on the work of Reubens and Titian, Anthony Van Dyke and Tintoretto, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hans Holbein the Younger in room after room.

But of course, there is so much more going on here than the art in and of itself. This is marketed by the RA as the first time such a selection of Charles I artwork has been collected in one place since parliament ordered ‘the sale of the late King’s goods’ after his execution in 1649. In doing so the RA acknowledges the very political nature of this show.

And once that is acknowledged context becomes key. The RA makes some nods in this direction, but not many. 

Let’s start with the RA exhibition itself. Great play is made of the re-constitution of Charles’ collection, but rather less is made of the fact that of the 140 works on display some 89 come from the Queen’s own collection today. Thus, this is almost as much an ‘Exhibition of the Current Queen’s Goods’ as it is a reassembly of the late King’s goods.

There is an obvious political point to be made here about the continuity of wealth and privilege. But there is also an important historical dimension the goes little examined about the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the process by which these artworks were, over many years, returned to royal ownership.

The RA does put some effort into explaining the significance of Charles’ collecting in introducing Renaissance art to England (or, more accurately, a tiny elite sliver of England). But there is very little said about the significance and context of the sale of the artwork by the Republic.

This is a shame because Jerry Brotton’s 2006 book, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods, has a fascinating story to tell on both counts.

What the RA exhibition omits entirely, but which Brotten is especially good on, is the social significance of the sale: ‘For the first time in their history, the English struggled to define a new vision of their political life that judged its masters according to their financial and political worth, rather than their innate right to rule. Royalty was up for sale’.

And who was it up for sale to? Foreign collectors and courts certainly. The domestic wealthy of course. But also, as Brotton observes, ‘Over the next four years, merchants, drapers, glazers, brewers, cutlers, widows and orphans across London acquired objects from the royal collection’. 

There is much that could be said about the market-led, semi-democratisation of ownership in comparison with the semi-feudal representations of Charles and his family, the monarch never without his garter of St George, in the exhibition. But it goes unsaid by the RA.

And then there are the paintings of Charles himself, largely by Van Dyck. These dominate the entrance to the exhibition and its central gallery. The famous Charles I in Three Positions still astounds. You can look into the face and think you know the man in this luminous triptych. 

But there is no escaping the fact that, as art critic Waldemar Januszczak said on the BBC programme that was broadcast at the start of the exhibition, these are works of propaganda.

Charles was just over 5 feet tall, weak, and with a stammer that lasted all his life. But in these portraits he is a 17th century Alexander the Great. Just to look at Charles’ horse in the equestrian portraits gives the game away. Either it is a glorious misrepresentation of the stature of the King, or he is riding a Shetland pony.

Indeed, as Angus Haldane notes in his excellent Portraits of the English Civil Wars Van Dyck painted one of the most celebrated of these equestrian portraits around 1637, just as John Hampden was being prosecuted for non-payment of Ship Money and just as Charles was about to enforce a new prayer book on Scotland. The horses’ head appears shrunken, its chest enlarged, so that Van Dyck could ‘imbue the animal with the true sense of a tamed beast’. Charles thus ‘effortlessly controls this animal with the lightest touch on the reins’, a visual metaphor for the King’s control of his Kingdom. However artistically rendered, nothing could have been further from the truth.

When Charles dissolved parliament in 1628 and embarked on the 11 years personal rule he said that ‘Princes are not bound to give an account of their Actions but to God alone’. That ideology is faithfully reproduced in these portraits. 

But how and why it failed, and the part the sale of the King’s goods played in this process, is barely visible here. What remains is mostly spectacle, art as misdirection, now as then.

Charles I: King and Collector runs at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London until 15th April

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.