Charles I—King and Collector paints “that man of blood” as a man of art.
The Royal Academy’s exhibition brings together the art collection of Charles Stuart, the English monarch who lost his head in 1649.
After the execution, the House of Stuart’s artworks were sold at knock-down prices in the Commonwealth Sale.
Anyone who loves art will enjoy the Academy’s galleries.
Tensions runs through Italian painter Cristofano Allori’s composition of Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Jewish hero Judith grips the head of invading Assyrian general Holofernes by a tuft of his hair.
Judith’s large, brown eyes look down on us in contempt as his haggard face stares at the floor ashamed at failure.
While the breadth of the artworks is impressive, Charles doesn’t seem particularly cultured.
He comes off as a spoilt princeling and king who fell into buying impressive art because he wanted to impress.
In 1629 Charles and a group of his Hurrah Henry friends thought they could help Anglo-Spanish marriage negotiations by rocking up in Madrid. The 14 year-old Infanta Maria Anna—oldest princess—was indifferent.
Determined not to leave without new possessions, Charles bought paintings by Titian, Correggio and Velazquez.
The Stuarts were small beer in aristocratic terms compared to the likes of the Hapsburg dynasty who ruled Spain. They all had impressive art collections—and Charles was determined to use the power of paintings to catch up.
And he certainly cuts an impressive figure in Dutch painter Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I with M de St Antoine. Charles is dressed in outdated body armour, rides a white horse, and holds a Roman Emperor’s baton.
A large part of the exhibition is centred on van Dyck, who became Charles’ court painter. Van Dyck’s talents are clear—but he was a man wasted on painting for the wealthy and powerful.
Europe’s rulers often looked towards Ancient Greece and Rome to justify their rule by proving they were apart from their subjects.
The stand-out room displays the Triumphs of Caesar, a series of nine panels painted by Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna between 1484 and ’92. The vast canvases celebrate Roman emperor Julius Caesar’s triumphs.
In the foreground of the fourth canvas men carry treasures of cities sacked by Rome. At the back there is a crumbling ancient city.
It shows both the splendour—and hubris—of the Roman Empire. Charles emulated both.