Student Review | Charles 1: King and Collector, Royal Academy

This is certainly a majestic exhibition which must have taken almost as much care and diplomacy to assemble as Charles I’s original collection. The exhibition was designed to coincide with the RA’s 250th anniversary year. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other small objects have been amassed from royal palaces and major art galleries in Europe and America, in particular the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London and the Queen’s personal collection. The artworks have had a chequered history, most being sold when Charles I was executed in 1649.

Some of the few items that Oliver Cromwell did not sell were the series of Mantenga’s Triumph of Caesar paintings. Indeed, the composition and colour of these nine large egg tempora paintings is magnificent.

Andrea Mantenga (1430-1506) The Triumph of Caesar; The Vase Bearers c.1485-1506

Charles I’s original intention was to rival the art collections of other royal courts. There was considerable social and political importance in forming an art collection that could stand comparison with those of other European dynasties. The Stuarts were a new dynasty and the previous ruler James I had little interest in art. At the age of 22 Charles went to Madrid for a prospective marriage (which did not eventuate) and was struck by the grandeur of the Spanish court. He returned to London eight months later with several paintings including some by Titian and Veronese. A few years later he purchased the Conzaga collection (which included the Triumph of Caesar) after the death of Ferdinando I Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and so the royal collection began.

At that time expenditure on buildings, ceremonies and furnishings demonstrated a monarch’s fitness to rule. Charles returned from Spain also with Raphael’s cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles originally intended to be used for tapestries in the Sistene Chapel. These were copied by Cleyn and woven in the workshop of Mortlake with silk and gold thread. Unfortunately these tapestries are now much faded.

Charles I had many connoisseurs and advisors, most notably Inigo Jones. Collecting was often by diplomatic and political gifts. The Italian Renaissance paintings were prized above all else and it was difficult to obtain works by Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael. But the Northern Renaissance paintings were also highly valued and there were paintings by Durer, Holbein and Frans Hals. Charles I’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria was very interested in art collecting and was responsible for much of the Italian Baroque painting bought for her residence at Greenwich.

In the 1630’s artists were attracted to London: Van Dyck for portraiture, Rubens (also acting as a diplomat) for the Banqueting House ceiling, Le Sueur for bronze sculpture and Cleyn for tapestry. These artists were impressed by King Charles’s collection, Rubens particularly influenced by Mantenga and the Venetian’s exciting handling of colour, Van Dyck more influenced by Titian.

In 1632 Van Dyck was appointed Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties. He was a poetic painter and perhaps his portraits of Charles I are the most memorable in this exhibition. He certainly used poetic licence in his equestrian paintings of the King who, being less than 5ft in reality, appears taller than any man in his divine right. Perhaps the best portrait is of Charles I in the Hunting Field where he shines out accompanied by
everyday huntsmen.

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) Charles I in the Hunting Field c.1636

In the collection there are many self-portraits most notably of Van Dyck, Rubens, Durer and Rembrandt. Van Dyck’s final self-portrait reveals the skill he had acquired in handling paint in such a short life. The brush strokes are bold and loose but from a distance appear accurately detailed.

Artworks were often procured for particular locations and the Cabinet Room was where only closer associates would retreat. In this room the paintings were smaller, and there were medals, coins, miniatures and other small items that were of more personal interest to the King. It is here that we find A
Portrait of an Old Woman by Rembrandt (the artist’s mother) and in my opinion in its truth and handling of light is one of the finest paintings in the royal collection. Here too were many fine chalk drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) Portrait of an Old Woman (the artist’s mother) 1627-29

Without doubt, Charles I collected some of the greatest masterpieces of the 15th to 17th century, but this not only served to embellish the English throne, it has as a nation shaped our appreciation and the development of art.

by Helen Ball.


I was eager to see this exhibition and see the impact Charles’ status as King had on his influence as collector.

As the story goes, Charles I visited Madrid in 1623 at the age of 23. The visit had a profound effect on him. He returned with several works including works by Titian and Veronese and became intent to expand his collection. Two years later he married the fifteen-year old Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France and Marie de’ Medici, connecting him to this powerful art world family of the time. In 1626, he was crowned King of England.

In 1632, he appointed Anthony van Dyke as his “Principal Painter to their Majesties”. He also commissioned some of the most famous artists including Peter Paul Rubens. Clearly an avid fashionista, Charles expanded his wardrobe with the most exquisite cloths imaginable. His love for grandeur and design has been captured in most of his portraits. It is said that the contents of one of his wardrobes alone was worth more than all the money he gave to his official court painter.

Anthony van Dyke, Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, 1633. Van Dyke wears a chin he received as a gift from Charles I.

By 1649 Charles had acquired about 1500 paintings and 500 sculptures. Though he was a successful art collector, he wasn’t quite as good at being King. Charles I dissolved parliament and began an eleven-year “Personal Rule”, which laid the foundation for the English Civil War. But this period of instability did mean that Charles I needed to bolster his kingly image, and he therefore commissioned several grand portraits, featuring highlights from his fancy wardrobe. Reportedly, Charles I only grew to a peak height of 5 feet 4 inches (163 cm). But as we can see in this portrait by Daniel Mytens, his artists didn’t dwell on this.

Daniel Mytens, Portrait of H.M. King Charles I, 1628

Charles I also wanted to have a bust. He commissioned van Dyke to paint him and send his likeness to Gianlorenzo Bernini in Rome. This resulted in the most magnificent triple portrait of Charles I. This single painting on its own makes this exhibition a worthwhile visit. The three portrait views of the king include front-on, profile and three-quarter all lined up precisely so that a sculptor can create a bust using only the information that is provided in the painting.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Charles I in Three Positions, 1635–36

Unfortunately the bust has not survived to this day. It is believed that it was destroyed in the Palace of Whitehall fire of 1698. How I wish I could see this sculpture. I am currently studying full-time at LARA and I have just finished painting the cast of Costanza by Bernini. This is an infamous cast in ateliers the world over for the tremendous amount of concentration and attention to detail drawing it or painting it requires.

The instruction from the great tutors at LARA was invaluable but one instruction in particular was particularly helpful and now always runs through my head when I am drawing or painting. Giles Lester told me that I needed to paint the cast in such a way that if I were to give my painting to a sculpture, he would be able to sculpt it based only on my painting. This advice prompted me to examine my painting and realise how I was missing so much crucial information! I was simplifying a lot. My shapes were too generic. I was inventing stuff that didn’t exist and ignoring stuff that did. I had cast shadows that didn’t relate to the form. I had missed shadows and halftones that were crucial in defining the form. I now saw that above all, what form was of upmost importance and if I wasn’t consciously aware of the form while painting, I was guaranteed to make a mess. This single lesson propelled me significantly forward and to this day, I consider it as the simplest, most powerful and most elegant idea to think of while engaged in representational painting.

And this is what made me wish to see Bernini’s sculpture of Charles I. Bernini, the man himself, created a sculpture out of a painting given to him by van Dyke, no less. Did van Dyke include everything about the form? Was Bernini able to do a decent job of making a life-like bust or did he struggle?

Did he ever curse van Dyke for not including something? Did Bernini have to make anything up? What did van dyke think of the bust?

All we know is that the bust arrived in London a year later and that Charles I liked it. Even though Bernini and Charles I had never met face-to-face, Bernini had managed to pull it off and the bust was considered a success.

by Ethan Honary.


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