19.03.18 — Article


Exhibition open: 27.01.18-15.04.18

The Royal Academy’s latest exhibition presents an array of paintings fit for a king! Indeed, England’s King Charles I amassed the sumptuous collection of Italian Old Masters, many from the Gonzalo collection, and luminous portraits of Europe’s elite that hang heavy upon the walls of the Royal Academy from 27th January to 15th April 2018. One hundred and fifty pieces from the Royal Collection, that were lovingly acquired by Charles I in the 1630s-40s, have been carefully gathered from the Prado in Madrid, London’s National Gallery and The Louvre, Paris by the Royal Academy’s curator Per Rumberg. The show is a rare opportunity to see such a rich assortment of masterpieces from the baroque period, and the first time that Charles’ collection has been reunited under one roof. Rumberg has arranged the show to reveal a comprehensive understanding of Charles I’s heavily Italianate taste. He emphasises that the exhibition was not intended to be a glorification of Charles, the man or martyr, or of 17th century politics but rather a celebration of the paintings.

The story of the Charles’s collection begins in 1623, when the twenty two year old Charles travelled in disguise to Madrid. It was the only time Charles travelled to Europe; Royal travel was not common, or advisable, in the turbulent political landscape of 17th century Europe. Charles’ journey across the Channel to Spain was an attempt to forge a marital alliance with the Hapsburg dynasty between the Prince of Wales and Infanta. However, Charles’ trip to Madrid did not end in wedding bells. Instead of returning to England with the Infanta as his bride, he had spent his time in the lavishly decorated Alcázar, Madrid, Charles conducting a passionate love affair with art, which proved long lasting.

The tall ceilings and original mouldings of the Royal Academy’s gallery space are a perfect frame for the rich satins, silks, velvets and brocades draped over the princely figures of Charles I and his close confident and fellow collector, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Charles, unlike the older Buckingham, had little interest in antiquities, instead his focus was on the contemporary paintings of Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Velasquez (1599-1660), Rembrandt (1606-1669), Rubens (1577-1640), and Van Dyck (1599-1641), and a large selection of high Renaissance Italian painters, such as Titian (1488-1576), Caravaggio (1571-1610), Correggio (1489-1534), Bronzino (1503-1572), and of course Mantegna (1431-1506). The Italian Renaissance is allotted two rooms (5 and 7) in the thematic division of the exhibition, as well as the tapestries of Raphael’s cartoons, and Mantegna’s nine monumental panel paintings of The Triumph of Caesar, 1492, in room 3 which dominate the large gallery. The panels are on loan for the first time as a unit form Hampton Court, and create a breath-taking space just off the Central Hall. The nine panels cover all four walls of the dimly light room immersing the viewer in a dream scape of soft tones and ghostly forms parading in triumph. The staggering realisation that in only two decades Charles amassed the impressively large collection of international names and significant works to rival the Spanish creeps up on one as one wanders from masterpiece to masterpiece.

Upon entering the exhibition, the one is met by Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s masterly portrait of Charles I. The portrait shows the King from three angles with a delicate and painfully mournful expression. His watery grey eyes have slightly red rims and his long aquiline nose also has a slightly rouged tip, as if he has just been crying. This tear stained appearance is difficult to shake from the mind when one learns of Charles’ tragic fate. It is tempting to see Charles’ melancholic expression as prophetic of his execution in 1649 outside the Banqueting House, Whitehall. The portrait is unusually comprehensive and includes three individual portraits of Charles; two in profile and one centre frontal. The painting was in fact a study for Bernini to sculpt a marble bust of the King, displayed in the centre of the gallery. Further into the exhibition, at its red-walled heart, is another portrait of Charles by Van Dyck. This time the King is mounted on a white horse, dressed in armour beneath the same wide white lace collar and blue sash around his shoulders. Although, he is mounted in a classically imperial pose, the equestrian portrait originating in Marcus Aurelius’ bronze statue, his expression is still mournful and again his head uncrowned allowing his long soft curls to fall about his shoulders. It is recognisably Charles.

Rumberg has deftly laid-out the rich combination of humanist narcissism, seen in the many portraits, beside sensual mythological scenes with fleshy nudes falling out of loose drapery and moralising religious scenes. The drama of monumental scenes such as Ruben’s Peace and War, 1629-30, and Orazio Gentileschi’s theatrical Old Testament scenes from the ceiling panels of the Queens House, Greenwich, 1533-5, are balanced by quieter moments of contemplation, such as Rembrandt’s pursed lipped mother (1627-9) who gazes gently into the distance from beneath her brown velvet hood. The exhibition closes, in room 10, with a reflection on the highly prolific and popular Flemish painters, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and his pupil Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Both painters were knighted by their Royal patrons, the Kings of England and Spain for services to the crown that moved beyond painting into the complex world of politics, particularly for Rubens who undertook several diplomatic missions for the Spanish court from 1629. The last image is of a quintessentially English Landscape with St. George and the Dragon, (1630-35), by Ruben’s painted “in honour of England” after his year, 1629-30, spent in the country as a diplomat. St. George stands on the head of the dead dragon in the centre of the composition before a woman (possibly the Queen, Henrietta-Maria, or a personification of England) in a red dress of contemporary cut. The figure of St. George, the patron saint of England, is strikingly reminiscent of the soft brown curls of Charles I’s in Van Dyck portraits; he even wears a similar suit of armour, with a red sash draped around shoulders and waist. Behind him the River Thames curves off into a blue horizon. A city scape of London extends on the opposite bank, with St Mary Overy’s church tower thrusting skyward and Lambeth Palace sitting further down on the curve of the river. But in the foreground of this English landscape are scattered the figures from classical mythology: two winged putti hover between the clouds and earth and below them stand a cluster of three young girls, the Virtues. Elements of the composition, particularly the poses of the foreground figures surrounding the triumphant St. George, are reminiscent of the earlier Italian masters Titian, Veronese and Gentileschi, whose work Charles adored and lovingly collected. The landscape, like the exhibition, is thus a monument to the English King’s love affair with Italian art.

Written by Ottilie Kemp

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Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, London, 1973.
Lamster, Mark. Master of Shadows, The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens New York, Doubleday, 2009.
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The Royal Academy.com, Accessed on 10.03.18 at https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/princes-painters-whos-who-charles-i
SIR PETER PAUL RUBENS (SIEGEN 1577 – ANTWERP 1640), Landscape with St George and the Dragon 1630-35, Oil on canvas | 152.5 x 226.9 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 405356, The Royal Collection.Org. Accessed on 13.03.18 at https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405356/landscape-with-st-george-and-the-dragon