‘A subject and a sovereign are clean different things’ declared King Charles I at the scaffold at Whitehall Palace on the day of his execution, 30 January 1649. This proclamation permeates Charles I: King and Collector, which sees the Royal Academy of Arts bring together a vast number of masterpieces owned by the first and last English monarch to have been executed. The historic collection – made up of portraits, paintings, sculptures, tapestries – provides insight into Charles I the man, the monarch, the politician.
It is rare in life that an exhibition is so proud, so brilliant, and so informative. All too often, displays of collections seek to communicate with the audience by employing fluffed up language or complicated and tactics, but there is none of that here. King and Collector is so truly magnificent that critique is not required. The masterpieces speak for themselves – and indeed for the white king.
The first layer of the exhibition is comprised of Big Names: there are Titians, Van Dycks, Hans Holbein the Youngers, Mantegnas and Corregios galore. Then there are the Big Names as depicted by the Big Names – van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria; Van Dyck’s impression of the Earl of Arundel; Reubens’ painting of the Duke of Buckingham etc. etc.
Subjects are familial (of course), biblical (Adam and Eve naturally make an appearance, as do the Virgin and Child, as well as some lesser known representations, such as Hans Vredeman de Vries’ painting of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary), mythological (a colossal Reubens of Minerva protecting Peace from Mars) and historical. Through these we start to understand the collector as a man with a thirst for aesthetic beauty and visual splendour.
We see less of Charles the husband – but that’s OK, because presumably he didn’t occupy his own time worrying about spousal sensitivities and suchlike. However, Queen Consort Henrietta Maria absorbs much of the focus here – the exhibition claims that she played an active role in shaping her husband’s collection and although the supporting evidence isn’t quite clear, one doesn’t really care because there is so much to be excited by. We learn that ‘Charles was intent on reflecting his magnificence by creating a collection that would rival those of European courts’ and perhaps this is where Henrietta Maria came in. She certainly owned a fantastic collection herself, some of which we are privy to, including a rather touching Gentileschi, The Finding of Moses, which shows women flapping around the baby much as they would have upon the discovery of the child, in Henrietta Maria’s court, and as they do today.
Such is the enjoyment of King and Collector that one can’t help but feel put out at the discovery of only four of the Mortlake tapestries on display – much like the King himself, the audience becomes greedy for more as the exhibition goes on.
Art is here depicted as an essential form, a visual necessity, and the ultimate symbol of power and magnificence. Of course, Charles I eventually learned that no power is completely impenetrable: ‘I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.’ But it is truly glorious to glimpse at a moment in time when the Crown was absolute, and the right of the kings was divine.