England: How the Masterpieces Came and Went

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
David Teniers the Younger: Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery in Brussels, 1651–1653. Many of the archduke’s pictures were bought in bulk from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton after the duke was executed during the English Civil War.

Until about sixty years ago art historians were mainly interested in works of art and the artists who had made them. But especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they also began to consider the wider setting in which art was produced, often associating artistic changes with other social developments. Art, it was claimed, reflected the spirit of the age—which of course it was bound to do, since the spirit of the age was usually defined by its artistic style.

It was against this background that the British art historian Francis Haskell began his first research project, on the supposed influence of the Jesuits on the emergence of the Baroque style, especially in Rome. That Baroque art had been promoted by the Jesuits was then a commonplace, especially among German scholars, but after looking carefully at the evidence Haskell was able to show that it was a myth: the Jesuits themselves had wanted their principal churches to have plain interiors, but their wealthy ecclesiastical supporters preferred something much more ornate, and since they were paying they got their way.

Haskell then turned to a much more wide-ranging survey of artistic patronage in Italy, and especially in Rome and Venice, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which led to the book that established his reputation, Patrons and Painters (1963). This showed all the qualities that made him such an outstanding and influential scholar, as well as one of the few whose work could be read with pleasure and interest by nonspecialists: fluent and often witty prose; extraordinarily wide reading and intensive research in primary sources; skepticism about all received opinions, especially when based on historical generalizations; and a great curiosity about the character and foibles of people in the past.

In his later work Haskell continued to concentrate on the consumption rather than the production of art, extending his interest from patrons to collectors, to the growth of exhibitions and museums, and more broadly to changes in taste and the ways in which these came about. He was always fascinated by the process by which certain types of art were first extravagantly admired and then largely disregarded, the most obvious example being the monumental statues of ancient Rome, on which he wrote an influential book with Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique (1981). But similar ideas underlay his Wrightsman lectures, published as Rediscoveries in Art (1976), which dealt with more recent art.

Haskell died in 2000. The King’s Pictures is not the first posthumous book of his to appear. The Ephemeral Museum, a study of exhibitions and their development, was still not quite finished at his death, but his intentions were clear and the manuscript was sufficiently advanced that it required little additional work before it was published. The situation is rather different with The King’s Pictures, which is closely based on a series of lectures given in 1995. These in turn were derived from a long and important article that Haskell had published in 1989 on the collection of Charles I and on the collecting activity of some his contemporaries.

Although Haskell apparently continued to assemble material about the subject after 1995, it seems evident that he would not have published his lectures without additional research, which would have extended the scope of the book. For example, although the subtitle reads “The Formation and Dispersal of the Collections of Charles I and His Courtiers,” there is much less on the formation of the collections than on their dispersal. But even though a great deal of new material has come to light since Haskell’s death, to which reference has been added in the notes, the book was certainly worth publishing, since it is such a lively and intelligent survey of the subject.

It is easy enough to understand why Haskell was drawn to the topic. As he points out, at the beginning of 1642, on the eve of the English Civil War, many masterpieces were to be found in London, especially by Italian artists, but including also major works by modern, mainly Flemish, painters, “which, as regards quantity, quality and variety, could hardly have been rivalled anywhere else in Europe.” Already in 1629 Rubens, then in London on a diplomatic assignment, had remarked:

Certainly in this island I find none of the crudeness which one might expect from a place so remote from Italian elegance. And I must admit that when it comes to fine pictures by the hands of first-class masters, I have never seen such a large number in one place as in the royal palace and in the gallery of the late Duke of Buckingham.

But by the 1650s, following the defeat and execution of Charles I by the forces of Parliament, the great majority of the paintings had left the country, never to return. Almost all of them had belonged to the king or his supporters. Those that were not seized and sold by Parliament were exported by the owners or their heirs and sold to raise funds. Many of them can now be seen in the Louvre, the Prado, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, while works by the leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, such as Titian and Raphael, were not acquired again in significant numbers by British collectors until after the French Revolution.

The scale and quality of collecting in England in the first decades of the seventeenth century are all the more striking given that there had never been a native tradition of large-scale painting of any distinction. On the rare occasions when such work was required, foreign-born artists were employed. In the reign of Henry VIII, which ended in 1547, the most prominent painter was the German-born Hans Holbein the Younger, almost all of whose output in England consisted of portraits, since the demand for religious images more or less dried up with Henry’s break from the Roman church.

Under Elizabeth I, contacts with continental Europe remained much reduced. But the ruling elite were aware of and influenced by recent cultural developments in Italy. This was most evident in the field of education, which, following Italian models, was increasingly based on the study of the classics and of rhetoric. As any reader of Shakespeare will know, Italy was regarded as highly exotic and glamorous, sophisticated and potentially dangerous. Some English people would have been aware of the names of the leading Italian artists, such as Raphael and Michelangelo (or in Shakespeare’s case, Giulio Romano), and by the end of the sixteenth century they could have known something about Italian Renaissance architecture, through the illustrated books of Palladio and Serlio.

Still, almost no one in England had yet seen a modern Italian building (or for that matter an ancient Roman one), let alone a major example of Italian painting. Titian’s famous Venus and Adonis arrived in England when the future Philip II of Spain was there during his brief marriage to Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, but there is no record of anyone seeing it beyond Philip and his immediate entourage. It is impossible to say whether this group included Mary herself, but this seems rather unlikely, since the picture was considered at the time “excessively lascivious.”

With the accession of James I, the first of the Stuarts, in 1603, contacts with continental Europe became much more common, especially with Venice, which was well regarded in England both because of its hostility to the Papacy and its university at Padua, which attracted a number of English students. In court circles, too, there was a more tolerant attitude toward Catholics, and this encouraged foreign travel, although Rome itself was out of bounds. It is not surprising that the first and most interesting of the four main collectors discussed by Haskell, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, had been brought up as a Catholic and his wife remained one. He traveled extensively on the Continent, making several lengthy visits to Italy, one of which was in the company of the architect Inigo Jones. Arundel, to a degree without precedent in England, practiced what was then the most prestigious and sophisticated form of collecting, the acquisition of ancient statues and inscriptions, even sending an agent for this purpose to the eastern Mediterranean.

Equally unusual, indeed unique in England at the time, was his interest in Old Master drawings (to use an anachronistic but accurate expression), of which he acquired a huge collection. He was personally acquainted with a number of artists, and many of the paintings that he acquired he bought himself, rather than relying on others. He also had unusually wide tastes, assembling an unsurpassed collection of works by Holbein, a painter not much esteemed by his contemporaries in England but admired by the Duke of Tuscany, who persuaded him to part with one Holbein portrait that is still displayed in the Uffizi in Florence. Arundel, whose wife was also an enthusiastic collector and patron in her own right, also acquired major works by artists as different from one another as Dürer and Titian.

The second major collector is George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Whereas Arundel belonged to one of the oldest noble families in the land, Buckingham came from a much more modest background. His career was made when he attracted the affections of James I, and then the devoted friendship of James’s son Charles, with whom he traveled to Spain in 1623 in an attempt to arrange a marriage for him with a Spanish princess. The marriage never took place, but the trip was decisive in other ways for Charles. Spain’s young king, Philip IV, provided him with a model of how a monarch ought to conduct himself in public, while the royal collection, notable especially for the greatest group of pictures by Titian ever assembled, evidently exerted an immediate fascination on the prince.

On his departure Charles was presented with major works by Titian, although not as many as he had hoped, and after his return to England he began to assemble a collection no less impressive than Philip’s. His greatest coup came in 1628, when he was able to acquire the greater part of the collection accumulated over more than a century by the Gonzaga, the ruling family of Mantua. This was probably the largest and most impressive single purchase of Italian art that has ever taken place, because the collection included large groups of paintings by Titian, Mantegna, Correggio, Raphael, and Giulio Romano, as well as works by later artists such as Caravaggio, Guido Reni, and Domenico Fetti.

Buckingham too was evidently impressed by the Spanish royal paintings. He had already begun to collect a few years earlier, and soon assembled a vast collection of pictures, as well as a number of ancient statues, in part acquired from Rubens. It was Buckingham too who seems to have persuaded a major Italian painter then working in France to move to London. This was Orazio Gentileschi, who began to work for Charles after Buckingham was assassinated in 1628.

Dominique Nabokov
Francis Haskell and Charles Rosen, New York City, 1982

The last of the collectors discussed in detail by Haskell is James, Marquis and later Duke of Hamilton. He was much younger than Buckingham, whose nine-year-old niece he had married at the age of fourteen, and he had also been briefly in Madrid in 1623. In his collecting he seems to have sought to emulate Buckingham, buying large groups of paintings by major artists, especially from Venice. How much pleasure he took in them is open to question. According to Haskell, “His plentiful surviving letters make it clear that for him picture collecting signified essentially the continuation of politics by other means.” But politics was to be his undoing, because his support of Charles during the Civil War cost him his head.

Charles’s enthusiasm for and judgment about paintings was often noted by contemporary observers, such as ambassadors, but like Buckingham and Hamilton, he employed agents to assemble his collection. In this respect Arundel was exceptional. Inevitably, he too used agents, but he had a distinctive taste of his own and much more extensive firsthand knowledge of art than any of the other main collectors in England. When they could, the agents seem mainly to have selected pictures by famous artists. No one could complain when receiving a work said to be by Titian or Raphael, provided that it was reasonably presentable. It was not surprising that a Madonna by Raphael, now often considered to be in large part painted by assistants, was regarded as the great treasure both of the collection of Charles I and later that of Philip IV. But neither of these monarchs, of course, had even seen a good selection of Raphael’s major paintings, since this was possible only in Rome or Florence.

The names of the leading Italian artists of the previous century were widely known, not only from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, of which no more than two copies were said to exist in England, but also from many other books, such as Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. The main source of pictures supposedly by such artists was Venice, which had large private collections and excellent diplomatic ties with England; and the export of works of art from there was permitted, whereas from Florence, for example, this was not the case. For prospective purchasers Venice had other advantages too: many of the pictures available for sale had excellent provenances, and there were plenty of artists there well qualified to give advice on questions of attribution and quality.

It was much harder, and also riskier for the agents, to obtain works by contemporary Italian artists, of whom Guido Reni, Guercino, and Pietro da Cortona were the most successful.partly because most of the leading ones were based in Rome and partly because it was much less easy to find out about them from books, since almost nothing of note on the subject was published until 1642. Northern artists, too, were less popular among the English, apart from Rubens, who was personally acquainted with Buckingham and then served in London for a while as a diplomat, and his pupil Van Dyck, who earned a fortune in England as a portraitist. Perhaps one reason why northern artists and their works were otherwise not much in demand was that the main book about them, by Karel van Mander, was not translated from the Dutch.

It is often remarked, including by Haskell, that while he was in England Van Dyck was almost never asked to paint anything but portraits, even though he also excelled at the kind of sensual mythological subjects so much admired today. But there is no reason to suppose that most of his patrons shared our modern enthusiasm for such pictures, or perhaps it was one thing to acquire them abroad, another to commission them. This certainly seems to be borne out by the rather prudish patronage of English artists in the eighteenth century. The English certainly wanted flattering portraits of themselves and their families, and they increasingly came to believe that paintings by famous foreign artists were an essential decorative feature of grand houses. But because of a lack of demand for religious images, the bread and butter of most Continental artists, England was never a particularly attractive destination for leading foreign painters.

How strongly the various English collectors (with the apparent exception of Arundel) responded to the magnificent pictures in their own collections is impossible to say. What can be said is that collecting became a popular activity at a court in which lavish expenditure was expected and indeed almost obligatory. As Rubens put it:

The first thing to be noted is the fact that all the leading nobles live on a sumptuous scale and spend money lavishly, so that the majority of them are hopelessly in debt…. Splendour and liberality are of primary consideration at this Court.

It has often been claimed that Charles’s huge expenditure on his collection was widely resented and contributed to his unpopularity, but Haskell points out that there is little or no evidence about this. The king’s pictures attracted hardly any comment of any kind. This was true even though they included many whose subject matter was specifically Catholic. After the king’s execution, a few puritans in Parliament called for the destruction of the pictures that they found most objectionable, but in the event nothing of the kind seems to have happened to them.

Nor, so far as we know, were people much troubled by the display of female nudity in some of the king’s paintings, such as those by Correggio. The highly sophisticated Cardinal Barberini had advised in 1640 against sending from Rome a picture of Bacchus Finding Ariadne by Guido Reni for Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, on the grounds that “the picture appears to me to be lascivious. I hesitate to send it for fear of further scandalizing these Heretics, especially since the subject of the work was chosen here in Rome.” The queen, however, was unperturbed, and Haskell aptly comments:

Was she being merely insouciant, frivolous and obstinate, unaware of—or indifferent to—the challenge that was already threatening her position? Or was she being perfectly sensible in grasping the fact that whatever else might be arousing the hostility of Parliament, works of art were not of the slightest concern?

After Charles’s execution his collection was put on sale at Somerset House, a former residence of Henrietta Maria, in order to pay off his debts. There was not an auction, but pictures were offered individually or in batches at fixed prices. Because of the high prices asked, many of the paintings were bought by syndicates, and almost all the buyers seem to have seen their purchases as investments. Although their actions caused some of them problems after the restoration of Charles II, large profits were made when the ambassadors of Spain and France bought up the best pictures for their respective monarchs and leading courtiers. That, of course, is why so much of the collection ended up in Madrid and Paris. For a few years, however, and for the first and last time ever, masterpieces by some of the most famous of all European artists could be found in England in the houses of people of quite modest social position, such as haberdashers, glaziers, and painters.

The other major collections were also dispersed at about the same period. Arundel and his wife both left England, and their pictures were gradually sold abroad, and the same is true of the collection of Buckingham, while Hamilton’s paintings seem to have been bought in bulk by the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, the Habsburg ruler of the Spanish Netherlands. He did not keep them for himself, but after a few years sent his entire collection, which also included major works by Rubens, to his elder brother, the Emperor Leopold I. Many of his pictures can still be seen in Vienna.

Even if, as Haskell argued, the collecting activity of Charles I and members of his court had little or no lasting impact in England, it was of fundamental importance for the creation of other royal collections that are at the heart of some of the most famous European museums. Charles and his fellow collectors managed to gather in London a large proportion of the major works then available by the most famous Italian Renaissance painters. Of course, such works continued to circulate occasionally, but usually only as a result of accidents of war or changes in dynasty. They were the supreme example of the sort of luxury items that royalty has almost always coveted—hugely admired, very hard to find, prohibitively expensive, and of no practical use.

To own such treasures became the most widely accepted mark of princely prestige, after the construction of a huge palace. The point is made very clearly in a wonderful series of paintings by David Teniers, showing the collection of Leopold Wilhelm, one of which, appropriately enough, is reproduced on the cover of Haskell’s book. In each of these paintings the archduke is depicted with a few courtiers in a huge (and certainly imaginary) palatial room, hung from floor to ceiling with works from his collection. Leopold Wilhelm, who was the first collector to publish an illustrated catalog of his pictures, is dressed austerely in black, but he has no need to be ostentatious, because his status, wealth, and culture are proclaimed in the clearest possible way through his possessions.