No better insight can be gained into the character of King Charles I - the king who in 1629 dissolved Parliament to begin an eleven-year stint of Personal Rule - than by visiting The Royal Academy of Arts’ exhibition entitled “Charles I, King and Collector”. His art collection was at the time the largest in Europe. Tranches of it were inherited; much of it was commissioned or purchased from the public purse. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts and miniatures totalling the best part of two thousand in number decorated the royal palaces. Twenty years later, Charles was tried by a re-constituted Parliament, steered by Oliver Cromwell, found guilty of high treason and beheaded. The royal collection was sold lot by lot to the highest bidder.
The Royal Academy in conjunction with the Royal Collection Trust has assembled over a hundred of these works of art for an exhibition of unrivalled splendour. Titian, Correggio, Holbein, Dürer, Van Dyck, Rubens and many others are represented in all their glory.
Charles I was born into both privilege and ill-health. He suffered rickets, was stunted, stammered and was physically frail. This may explain the exhibition’s preponderance of portraits bearing his likeness. The signature one by Anthony van Dyck, painted in 1635-6 - but one of 40 portraits the King commissioned of him (some of which were sent abroad as gifts) - is the triple portrait prepared for the Roman sculptor Bernini, whose finished bust was shipped to its patron in 1637.
No amount of silk and lace can totally conceal the awkward mix of arrogance and self-consciousness, the latter an unfortunate consequence of three gazes from the same pale face intersecting across a single canvas. Elsewhere in the exhibition are grandiose and imposing portraits of the King, again by van Dyck, where Charles is astride impossibly large horses that possess unnaturally small heads. Art as propaganda which, in this case, was successful for only a few years, holding at bay the inevitable political backlash against unrestrained power.
The sheer volume of art in the exhibition is staggering. Each of the dozen galleries focuses on different features of Charles’ collection, some of them on an almost monumental scale. Inevitably, with such a huge display one’s attention is caught by very specific details. Where the crush of fellow visitors eased and allowed one to linger and scrutinise that detail, what follows formed my take-away delights.
The Mortlake Tapestries after Raphael
Two such details were incidental. The gallery’s lecture room contained a collection of seven enormous silk tapestries woven in the late 1630s in Mortlake, west London. These were based on cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X of Raphael in 1515-1516 and bought by Charles I in 1623. They were conceived as being designs from which tapestries would be made. The ones displayed here were the Mortlake versions, woven in 3 to 5 metre widths and stitched together to form rectangles a bit more than 3 metres high. They represent scenes from the lives of the apostles St Peter and St Paul.
The first detail concerns the relationship between Raphael’s original cartoons and the tapestries that were made from them. To appreciate this more clearly, here is the Raphael original of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes which is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Below is the tapestry made from this cartoon by the weavers at the Mortlake workshops. Charles requested that borders be added to the original design, but the other obvious difference is that the two are mirror images of each other. The weavers worked from the back of the tapestries viewing Raphael’s original cartoon as they worked. The accuracy of the copy is testament to their skill.
The second detail is that, seen ‘in the flesh’ and across the Academy’s wide, central lecture room, the vertical and horizontal friezes of each tapestry have a surprising three-dimensionality. The cherubs and religious and royal insignia have been woven with associated shadows. They were designed to resemble gilt wooden frames. Extraordinary! I prefer the relative simplicity of Raphael’s original drawings. That they live on also in this reversed, woven form is very special.
Colour-fast for 500 years
Charles inherited much of the royal art collection of the time so the inclusion in it of work that by then was a hundred years old should be no surprise. Here is a Portrait of a Lady in Green by the Italian artist Agnolo Bronzino, thought to have been painted between 1530 and 1532.
Although this won’t work for people with a red-green colour-blindness, the juxtaposition of the reds and greens provides an exquisite tonal balance. The vividness of the green paint of the sitter’s dress - after 500 years - is simply breath-taking.
The sitter is unknown but evidently wealthy but, try as I might, I find it hard to detect obtrusive artifice here. The exaggerated slope to the shoulders and the unusual slenderness of the fingers say that physical labour is done by others. Exchange her clothing for something more casual and there’s an approachable human being there.
Postcard from London
The next eye-catching portrait was one by Holbein the Younger, painted around 1533. The sitter, one Derich Born, was a merchant in the Hanseatic League working on the north bank of the Thames. He was aged 23 when this was painted. It was probably commissioned to be sent back to his family, a sort of bespoke postcard!
Aside from the sitter’s uncommon self-confidence, there is a similar degree of simplicity as with the portrait by Bronzino. The composition is restrained. It would be good to know what symbolic function the fig leaves behind the sitter served.
Robert Cheseman was 48 when Holbein the Younger painted him in 1533. He was a commissioner, judge and member of parliament, as well as being Henry VIII’s chief falconer. Assuming that Holbein’s depiction of the bird is accurate, it is a lanner falcon.
I have to work hard with this portrait because there is more than a passing resemblance between the sitter and the actor Dennis Waterman, who appeared in a scruffy British TV serial called Minder in the 1980s. Once I’ve leap-frogged that association, I find that I like the fact that Holbein has Cheseman not face-on but attentive to something out of frame. The undecorated, washed background adds a simplicity which highlights the bird. With the bird’s eyes masked from view, it is the speckled plumage and the scarlet sleeves of its handler that is what this portrait is all about.
Crowns and other jewels
Charles I, King and Collector is a gargantuan exhibition. There is more than enough to satisfy anyone’s taste in art. We came across an abundance of crowns and crucifixes and learned a lot about how unfortunate England, Scotland and Ireland were to have such a king as Charles I. In the end, we found that the smaller and least expected details were the most striking ones.
Charles I, King and Collector is on at The Royal Academy of Art until April 15th.