The Royal Academy’s big New Year exhibition is Charles I, King and Collector bringing together paintings and other works collected by the seventeenth century King, many of which have since been dispersed around the world. We went along on Friday evening.
This is a sizeable show and popular, it took more than two hours to go round and that was without returning to take a second look at particular works – it was too crowded. Fortunately many of the works are large and it was possible to appreciate them, even in rather full galleries. Do not let its popularity deter you from visiting – it is an excellent show.
I had not appreciated until recently just how important a collector Charles I was. He seems to have had real enthusiasm for the art, especially that of the Italian Renaissance, but, more important to him, he understood the benefits a court painter could bestow upon a monarch. This he learned in Hapsburg Spain, when he was there negotiating a marriage which never took place, but he came away with the determination to acquire his own collection and his own court painter/image maker. The painter to the Hapsburgs at the time was Titian.
The painter Charles lit upon was Anthony Van Dyck, pupil of Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens was known to Charles, first as a painter, then as a diplomat and there are a number of his paintings in this exhibition. I liked very much the self-portrait in Room 1, it reminded me of just what a supremely skilled an artist Rubens was. Charles hired him to paint the canvases for the ceiling of Inigo Jones’s newly constructed Banqueting House, which are still in situ and were the very last pictures which Charles would ever see.
The young Van Dyck probably couldn’t believe his luck and he promptly decamped to London. His huge royal paintings are at the core of this exhibition and I sat and stood in the Central Hall, where the three equestrian pictures are hung together, for quite a while. Here we see Charles the triumphal King, astride his charger, triumphal arch in the background, or Charles the dominant and commanding monarch, easily taming the massive-chested war horse in the English landscape, or Charles, the effortlessly graceful, almost insouciant royal hunter. Each picture resonates with power, wealth and hauteur. In life, Charles was short and rather weedy. In Van Dyck’s art he is magisterial, forceful and strong (and rather beautiful in a languid, masculine, etiolated way).
What an amazing propagandist Van Dyck was. Not, of course, that it did Charles much good in the long run. It is difficult to see the images, particular the triple portrait made for sculptor Bernini, without thinking of Charles as essentially sad. Whether this is just because of the cast of his features, or because we cannot look at it without knowing his end, it is difficult to say (and this from someone who would have supported Cromwell, not Charles).
The exhibition is, however, about more than Van Dyck’s work. Charles inherited the royal collection of northern European art, which he enlarged upon. So there are several excellent Holbeins (see his portrait of Sir Robert Cheeseman, above right) and a simply stunning Rembrandt – do get close up to it, the rendering of tissue-like skin is remarkable, as is the detail of the clothing. The Quintin Massys portrait of Erasmus was familiar to me, but not its companion piece, of fellow scholar Gillis ( to whom Thomas Moore dedicated Utopia ) and I will seek out more works by this artist, the portraits glowed with life and colour.
I had particularly looked forward to seeing the The Triumphs of Caesar, Andrea Mantegna’s nine huge panels recreating Julius Caesar’s triumph in Rome, usually hung in crepuscular gloom at Hampton Court Palace. They occupy one very large room and, while one can see them better here than previously they are still, necessarily, under-lit (tempera on canvas being a fragile medium and already faded since the fifteenth century). This is a master-work of epic proportions and, though much of its glory is gone, enough remains to allow us to appreciate what a truly stupendous artist Mantegna is.
There is so much in this exhibition, I could go on and on (though a bit too much Italian renaissance of the second rank I felt). It is a unique opportunity, in that these paintings will not been seen together again in one’s lifetime. Even Van Dyck would not have seen his huge equestrian masterpieces as we can see them here, together and alongside the equally large, so-called ‘family’ portrait, The Great Peece. So go and see it before it ends, it is so well worth a visit.
Charles I, King and Collector runs at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, until 15th April. Admission costs £20/£18 without donation (concessions available). The Academy is staying open until 10 o’clock each night of the last weekend.
If you enjoyed reading this article there are others about other current, and past, exhibitions on this site. Try Impressionists in London Political Pots East End Vernacular Eric Ravilious Paul Nash America After the Fall