Monday, January 29, 2018

Charles I King & Collector and Charles II Art & Power

I'm still being floored by a really vile cold - it's nasty enough to have made reading a chore, and to have destroyed my interest in shopping (both indicators that I must be quite ill). Despite feeling utterly disgusting we had train tickets and plans for Saturday (it was our 11th anniversary) so armed with a lot of tissues, a packet of lockets, and a litre of orange juice, I went to London anyway.

It was worth it to see the two Charles exhibitions - Charles I King and Collector, which opened at the Royal Academy on Saturday, and Charles II Art and Power at the Queens Gallery (happily just across the Green Park). Plans to find bergamots were forgotten though.

I learnt from the Jasper Johns exhibition that first thing on a Saturday morning (the RA opens at 10am) is a good time to beat the crowds. We turned up at 10 to 10, so joined a queue to get in, but it was a short one, and the crowds in the gallery were manageable (also if you keep coughing and blowing your nose loudly people will wisely avoid you). I'm grateful for this because it's a magnificent exhibition and you need a bit of space to appreciate it. It was also really good to see both exhibitions together.

There are so many highlights in the Charles I show that it's hard to pick from them, but I certainly came away with a new appreciation of Van Dyck. He emerges as a real star of this show, more than holding his own against some very illustrious company, and seeing so many of his iconic images of the royal family together is powerful. I really love Holbein as well, so seeing his drawings and a couple of wonderful paintings was also a treat. D loved Mantegna's 'The Triumph of Caesar' series, which certainly have an impressive presence, as do the Mortlake tapestries, but if there was one particular picture it would have to be Rembrandt's portrait of his mother (or at least it's thought to be his mother modelling for a genre piece of an old lady) which is mesmerising.

Altogether it's an almost overwhelming display which shows the breadth and quality of Charles I collecting ambitions, along with those of his Queen, Henrietta Maria.

Charles II Art and Power, in the Queens gallery at Buckingham palace is a smaller show, but again, very high quality. It explains more about Charles II artistic ambitions and intentions as well. This is a man creating a show of power to bolster and confirm his position as king, drawing a line under the austerity of the interregnum, and competing with his French cousins for personal magnificence.

The number (around 80) of objects from the royal collection in the Charles I show are a testament to how successful the son was in retrieving bits of his fathers collection. Much of it by simply demanding it back. He couldn't get much of what had left the country, and I feel a little bit sorry for whoever had to give back that Rembrandt, but at least when it came to art works Charles left the monarchy a tremendous legacy.

I could wish that the RA show touched more on why Charles I collected, it does a tremendous job on how and what, and I hoped that the catalogue would answer the why rather more comprehensively. A bit more discussion of how contentious, even dangerous, the religious works would have been would have helped as well. I've been reading around since Saturday and realise that I know very little about the general period beyond the bits you pick up at school, and not nearly enough about the reign of James I and VI (when did the country become so vehemently anti catholic?)

Regardless of the gaps in my knowledge both exhibitions are literally dazzling both in content and breadth. See them if you can.


  1. We are planning to go to both exhibitions next month (with lunch at Franco Manca in between) - so very pleased to see you enjoyed them. Looking forward to it even more, now.

    Did you get your Queen's Gallery tickets stamped?

    1. They're a treat! And yes, I did get my ticket stamped. I'm not in London often due to prohibitive train fares, so I might not use it, but if I get the chance I'd see this exhibition again (both of them actually), and I know that the Indian treasures one that's coming up is excellent because a lot of it was on show in Leicester last year (it was stunning, and free, and I saw it 3 times) it sounds like there will be more context with it when it's in London so I'd happily see it again.

  2. I'm so sorry you're ill, Hayley! I hope you get better soon. Colds can be really horrible and make you very ill (I do HATE it when people claim their cold is flu - it devalues the nastiness of the cold).

    I love both Holbein and Van Dyck and am envious of your lovely day. I had never thought that collecting religous paintings might be contentious, what a good point! I have a feeling that the religious hatred goes back to Mary and Elizabeth, all that threat from Spain and spies and Mary Queen of Scots, but I couldn't say for sure.

    1. I totally agree re colds, they're quite nasty enough without being over dramatised (it's a pet hate when people struggle into work, clearly unwell and contagious, and spread their germs around like they're some sort of hero).

      There could have been more discussion (and maybe is in the catalogue, but my partner bought it and is busy with it at the moment so I haven't properly read it) about the impact what Charles was collecting had on his position. I think the tipping point politically must have happened during the reign of James 1 & 6th. Elizabeth was relatively tolerant if I remember correctly, and there were still prominent catholic families, but I guess post gunpowder plot, and Scotland becoming ever more Calvinist, the political as well as religious mood must have changed quite dramatically. I should read more about it (along with all the other things I keep meaning to read up about...).