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Stuart collections in London: ‘Charles I: King and Collector,’ ‘Charles II: Art & Power’

“Last royal patron of the arts, | He was, alas, too fond of tarts.” So went the jingle for King George IV in a collection about our kings and queens that English children used to learn. But if George was the last—few of his successors have been notably cultivated, and some have been frankly philistine—he wasn’t the first.

What with one king beheaded and another deposed, the Stuarts who ruled England from 1603 until 1714 cannot be accounted a political success. And yet in their record as patrons of the arts they surpassed any other dynasty in British history, something made clearer than we may ever have realized by two brilliant exhibitions in London.

At the Royal Academy, “Charles I: King and Collector” celebrates the connoisseurship of the man who inherited the throne in 1625. A visit to Madrid didn’t result in the royal marriage it was intended to, but it did inspire Charles’s collecting zeal, and he returned which a rich haul of paintings. Inspired by these first purchases, Charles acquired much of the great collection of Mantua’s House of Gonzaga, including Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, a series of nine huge canvasses on display here, and he hired (and knighted) Sir Anthony van Dyck as his court painter. After the civil war ended with Charles’s execution in 1649, Oliver Cromwell, his nemesis, dispersed the king’s collection in a kind of fire sale to clear his own debts and pay his army.

The fortunate French picked up Titian’s Supper at Emmaus for £600. Veronese’s luscious Mars, Venus and Cupid went for an absurd £11, while some pieces were given away: the royal plumber received The Flood by Bassano. A good part of the dispersed collection was re-acquired by the king’s successors, so that 89 out of the 140 works in this show come from the Royal Collection.

Its riches are coincidentally displayed at the Queen’s Gallery, a ten-minute walk from the Academy’s home at Burlington House, in the exhibition “Charles II: Art & Power.” In 1660 the martyred king’s son was restored as Charles II, who began the re-acquisition. He was even fonder of tarts than George IV, but he also loved art, if not with his father’s pure taste, and he combined the two enthusiasms by commissioning Sir Peter Lely to paint portraits of his sundry mistresses wearing not much or nothing at all.

If the grandeur of the first Charles’s collection wasn’t quite matched by his son’s, it was in part because of the ups and downs of European art. The favorite painter of the king and the aristocratic elite was now Antonio Verrio, who was no Mantegna or Rubens. But where the Second Charles did surpass the First was in his enthusiasm for drawings, richly displayed here.

Some ironies about these two shows are inescapable in the age of Brexit, when England seems to have turned its back on the Europe with which we have been for so long and so intimately connected, as almost every single work on display reminds us. And in a final note to Brexiteers, there are two really fine catalogues for the exhibitions, both of them beautifully printed — in Italy.

“Charles I: King and Collector” is at the Royal Academy in London until April 15. “Charles II: Art & Power” is at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace until May 13. 

Category: Exhibition