While the world watches the outstanding Charles I exhibition at the RA (King and Collector), the exhibition dedicated to his son Charles II sits patiently in its sterile wing of Buckingham Palace, attracting little comment. Charles II: Art and Power is on until May and a comparative study of the two exhibitions will quickly tell you that the Merrie Monarch’s display is far less striking, not nearly as powerful and altogether less impactful.
But that is not to say that it should be overlooked.
In theory, Art and Power explores Charles II’s attempts to assert his majesty through art. And displayed here are some works that nod towards that theory, with John Michael Wright’s vast portrait of the King taking centre stage. In practice, the exhibition is more of a journey through Charles II’s trials and tribulations and, of course, his ultimate triumph over the beastly Oliver Cromwell, who serves as the villain throughout.
The viewer is propelled into the drama, as the exhibition opens with the 1649 Act for Abolishing the Kingly Office – fairly self-explanatory but there is something marvellously frightening about seeing the print of the Act itself and imaging the chaos and uncertainty that it threw the country into. We are then – at this point becoming increasingly indignant – shown Edward Bower’s depiction of Charles I at his trial, where of course he was accused of being a ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer and enemy against the Commonwealth.’ And so this continues through to Charles II’s great escape (as portrayed by Willem van de Velde the Younger) and so on and so forth until we are smacked in the face by kilos and kilos of gold and silver, in the form of the regalia that Charles II commissioned for his coronation.
Following this event, Samuel Peyps wrote in his diary that “I may now shut my eyes against any other objects, or for the future trouble myself to see things of state and shewe, as being sure never to see the like again in this world,” and whilst Art and Power offers only a fraction of this – without of course the hysteria and hell of the puritanism – one can see that living under Charles II must have been jolly good fun.
As well as the endless regalia, there are more touching, personal items, such as the bible that he took with him in exile – embroidered within an inch of its life and this probably gives us a better indication of Charles II the man than the endless portraits of courtiers who were hanging around at the time. Similarly, Art and Power offers interesting facts (such as information on Charles II’s ‘touching ceremonies’) which make the display accessible to adult and child alike.
It is a crying shame that Charles II: Art and Power should run alongside Charles I: King and Collector. Comparisons are of course odious, but the proximity of these two displays – geographically and historically – encourages such activity. That aside, the exhibition dedicated to Charles II is a totally different offering: it isn’t really about the art, but instead about monarchy, state, merrymaking, pomp and circumstance. It’s about triumph over puritanism and the deliciousness of luxury, decoration and celebration. And in today’s pessimistic world of populism, poverty and celebrity politicians, it’s jolly good fun to be reminded of the joys of revelry.