Almost four centuries after it was sold off, Charles I’s great collection is being reunited for a once-in-a-lifetime show
It is arguably the most elegant vision of kingship ever painted. Dressed in a shimmering silver jacket and radiant red breeches, with a pearl-drop earring and wide-brimmed hat, Charles I stands in the countryside, one gloved hand resting nonchalantly on his hip. You wouldn’t guess it from his dandyish attire, but he is out hunting.
Moments before, he would have been hurtling through the landscape on the dappled grey steed that now stamps and froths behind him, frenzied with exhaustion. Yet here (in the image reproduced on this week’s Review cover) he has dismounted to witness the climax of the hunt – a kill – which has just occurred “off-screen”, to our left. He appears the epitome of serene nobility, unruffled by the chase, as befits a monarch who wished to project effortless command.
Today, this monumental portrait, almost 9ft high, is known as Le Roi à la chasse, or Charles I in the Hunting Field, after a listing in pidgin French (“Le roi a la ciasse”) written by the genius who created it, Anthony van Dyck, in a memorandum to the King in 1638. Later this month, it will return to England for the first time since the 17th century, as the cornerstone of Charles I: King and Collector, an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London that reunites about 140 masterpieces that once belonged to the Stuart monarch, who, in fewer than two decades, amassed “the finest collection of pictures ever assembled in this country”, in the words of the eminent art historian Francis Haskell.
Van Dyck was born in Antwerp, but, in 1632, Charles lured the then 33-year-old artist to England to be his court painter, rewarding him with a knighthood, a gold chain, a studio at Blackfriars with a private jetty on to the Thames, and an impressive annual salary that allowed van Dyck to indulge his princely tastes. During nine-and-a-half years in England (he died at Blackfriars aged 42, in 1641), van Dyck transformed the history of portraiture. His opulent canvases, characterised by a sort of artfully rumpled, glamorous grace, immortalised the Stuart dynasty and their courtiers.
Overall, van Dyck produced four major portraits of Charles I, among them three full-length equestrian compositions. The most beautiful was Le Roi à la chasse, which most likely left England in the 1640s amid the turbulence of the Civil War. In 1771, it was offered for sale in Paris, but George III decided not to buy it. Soon after that, it entered the collection of the Louvre, where it remains.
“It was a tragic loss for the Royal Collection,” laments Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures (a post created during the reign of Charles I, and first held by the Dutchman Abraham van der Doort). At the Royal Academy, Le Roi à la chasse will hang alongside van Dyck’s two other equestrian portraits of the King for the first time ever, since each was commissioned for a different palace.
Today, Charles is considered Britain’s connoisseur-king par excellence. As well as securing the services of van Dyck, whom the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick described as “the glory of the World”, he commissioned another Antwerp master, Peter Paul Rubens, to decorate the ceiling of Banqueting House, a neoclassical structure designed by Inigo Jones that still stands in Whitehall, and outside which, in 1649, Charles was beheaded.
For his part, Rubens recognised Charles’s enlightened attitude towards the visual arts, describing him as “the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world”. One of the attractions of England for Rubens and van Dyck was the chance to study Charles’s extraordinary collection of Italian high renaissance paintings, which hung at Whitehall Palace, his main residence.
Like van Dyck, Charles was obsessed with Titian – the First Privy Lodging Room at Whitehall, for instance, was hung floor to ceiling with a “startling display of works” then attributed to the 16th-century Italian artist, according to Per Rumberg, the co-curator of the Royal Academy exhibition. Some of these, such as the Louvre’s Supper at Emmaus (c 1530), will be returning to London after they were dispersed during the so-called Commonwealth Sale of 1649-51, in which the King’s property, including about 1,500 pictures and 500 sculptures, was sold off at Somerset House, in the chaotic aftermath of his execution. Supper at Emmaus went for £600, while the most expensive work of art was Raphael’s La Perla, now in the Prado, valued at £2,000. In addition to these works by Titian and Raphael (then considered the pinnacle of painting), Charles owned pictures by Leonardo and Correggio, as well as Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which, at the time, would have seemed daringly avant-garde.
One of the more intriguing questions posed by the RA’s exhibition is whether credit for the magnificence of the collection really is due to the King himself. After all, although his passion for art is not in doubt, Charles was clearly emulating other well-established collectors in England, such as James I’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, who was assassinated in 1628. Charles’s mother, Anne of Denmark, had also been a keen collector, as had his older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales, who died aged 18 in 1612, leaving Charles the heir apparent.
Moreover, there were artists at court, such as Inigo Jones and Charles’s master of music, Nicholas Lanier, as well as van Dyck, who – unlike the King – had travelled in Italy, and studied renaissance art first-hand. There were also noblemen with more advanced tastes than Charles, such as the Earl of Arundel, a great connoisseur of antiquities and drawings. Charles, on the other hand, was happy to swap an entire album of beautiful drawings by Holbein for one small panel of St George and the Dragon by Raphael, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
There is one figure, in particular, however, who tends to get overlooked in accounts of Charles’s art collection: his Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France and the Florentine Marie de’ Medici, and sister of Louis XIII of France. Charles married her when she was just 15, in 1625, the same year he acceded the throne. To begin with, the royal couple did not get along – she was far younger than Charles, and spoke only French. By the 1630s, though, after the Queen had given birth to a son, they were fonder of one another, and Henrietta Maria wielded considerable power at court.
At the RA, a ravishing portrait of the Queen wearing a blue-satin hunting-dress, painted by van Dyck in 1633, and on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington (left), will provide a sense of her character. An orange tree in the background is thought to suggest a passion for gardening, while the ape perched on the arm of the dwarf Jeffrey Hudson (whom the Duke of Buckingham had “given” to the Queen as a gift) indicates her playfulness. Painting Henrietta Maria beside Hudson was a flattering way of enhancing her small stature: the top of her head only came up to her husband’s shoulder – and he himself was no taller than 5ft 4in.
According to Rumberg, the Queen’s taste, unlike her husband’s, was “unusual” for the period, at least in England, where, although there was a burgeoning interest in the arts, the court lagged seriously behind its European counterparts, which had been collecting Italian and northern renaissance pictures since the century before. Henrietta had been raised at the French court – “so,” explains Rumberg, “she had grown up with pictures, whereas Charles hadn’t. She had more sophisticated tastes. She played a huge role in assembling the collection.”
While Charles lusted after Italian pictures from the previous century, Henrietta Maria, it seems, was fired by contemporary art. It was she who commissioned the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi to decorate the Queen’s House at Greenwich. Thanks to her Catholic contacts in Rome (she was Pope Urban VIII’s god-daughter), she persuaded the sculptor Bernini to create a marble bust of Charles (the artist’s first portrait of a foreign monarch), based on the famous triple portrait of the King by van Dyck that had been sent ahead to Rome. Sadly, the bust, which was considered one of the jewels of the Stuart royal collection (Henrietta Maria paid for it with a diamond ring valued at £800), was destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698.
Most tantalising of all, though, is the suggestion of Henrietta Maria’s involvement with van Dyck’s finest portrait of Charles, Le Roi à la chasse – which was not included in the Commonwealth Sale. Rumberg makes a compelling case that it was commissioned for Oatlands Palace in Surrey, which belonged to the Queen and was used primarily for hunting. He also argues that Henrietta Maria took Le Roi à la chasse with her when she went into exile in France in 1644.
“It’s such a bespoke picture,” he says, “that I think it’s clear it was painted for the Queen. We can’t prove that Henrietta Maria took it with her, but it would explain a lot – and add a very personal dimension to a fabulously intimate and lifelike portrait of her husband.”
Charles I: King and Collector opens at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8090) on Jan 27