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Wednesday, 7 June 2017


Good news travels fast, and it seems great news travels at the speed of a cheetah – London’s Royal Academy of Art have announced their 2018 exhibition ‘Charles I: King and Collector’. So far, only general details have been released about the exhibition, and it is not known exactly which 150 paintings from the great collection will be on display.  However to keep up the hype until next year, we thought we’d provide a bit of historical context to Charles I and his fabulous art.  Our aim: to give you some idea as to why this will be such a highlight of 2018.  Let us know if it helps!


  •  The exhibition will reunite 150 artworks which Charles I acquired for his private collection between 1620 and 1640.   
  • Major European Museums have confirmed that they will be lending artworks for the exhibition, including Paris’ Louvre and the Prado Museum in Madrid. 
  • The pieces in the exhibition will not have been seen together for almost 400 years, since The New Model Army overthrew Charles I, beheaded him, and sold his private art collection.
  • · Details are yet to be confirmed but the exhibition promises to bring together artworks from the sublime and the great including; Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, Coreggio, Raphael, van Dyke and Holbein.


Between 1620 and 1640 Charles I amassed a private art collection consisting of 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures. His interest in the arts was ingrained from childhood through watching plays and performances at the court of his father, James I.  Additionally James I had worked hard to repair England’s fractious relationship with the Habsburgs which had been strained by Henry VIII’s split with Rome in the 1530’s.  This reconciliation allowed England once again to look to Europe for cultural direction, a change that could only improve the current royal art collection which heavily featured work by Holbein and Hilliard (no bad thing), but was desperately lacking the art of the contemporary masters who were the height of  popularity in Europe, such as; Titian, Raphael and Botticelli.

Before he even took the throne Charles I set about building his historical art collection.  He had a trusted group of art advisors, including The Duke of Buckingham and Sir Balthazar Gerbier, to guide him on his acquisitions.  In 1620 Charles had been keen to acquire a painting of a lion hunt by Rubens which on arrival and closer inspection, was found to be a studio work and not by Ruben’s himself -  luckily this was spotted by Sir John Danvers, another advisor, and the painting was returned, shortly to be replaced by an original.  A pivotal moment for Charles and his love of art was his visit to Madrid in 1623.  Accompanied by The Duke of Buckingham and Gerbier, the intention of the trip was to encourage a possible Anglo-Spanish marriage between himself and the Infanta Maria.  However when Charles returned home without a bride, and in her stead, paintings by Titian, Velasquez and Rubens it was clear what had caught his eye more – King Philip IV’s fabulous art collection.

Philip was a huge enthusiast of the arts, his collection was thought to be the greatest in Europe and by his death in 1665 it consisted of 4,000 works. Understandably Charles was like a moth to a flame when he visited, his eyes were opened to the most prominent artists of the time and their most enviable masterpieces.   The large collection of artworks which Charles returned home with were not only ones he bought or commissioned.  Art and politics have always  been conjoined and this era was no different.  Gifting art played a huge part in political persuasion, and with the hope of a future Anglo-Spanish marriage, Charles received a gift from Philip IV in the form of Titan’s Charles V with a Dog.  There have probably been subtler ways to persuade your intended brother-in-law to convert to Catholicism than by presenting him with a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor…  However this would not have dampened Charles' delight at the present!  Unfortunately the marriage between Charles and Maria never did materialise, and although Charles returned home with a chest of masterpieces (including a free Titian) and a penchant for Spanish attire (which quickly became customary at the English court) he had done little to improve relations with Spain. Clearly art had taken precedence over international relations and the welfare of his country, a pattern which would be frequently repeated throughout his reign.

Between 1627-28 Charles continued his rather gratuitous spending and bought the entire art collection of the Duke of Mantua. This was a collection which contained Raphael’s Holy Family, Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar and Caravaggio Death of the Virgin to name a few.  Again, this decision can be seen as art taking priority over current affairs - the money which was spent on the collection was intended to aid a war at La Rochelle which The Duke of Buckingham was currently fighting.  Possibly not to acquire a collection of artworks for the private pleasure of the King.

In 1649 the New Model Army overpowered the royalists and Charles was executed on 30th January.  Cromwell took position as Lord Protector and the Charles’ private art collection became, yet again, a tool of political propaganda. Charles' interest in art had brought it back into public interest,  it had become a symbol of wealth, taste and intellect, and Cromwell wanted to eradicate this.  He ordered for a sale of all the artworks to take place at Somerset House.  The £118,000 which was raised from the sale was used to provide for the recent war widows, Charles’ creditors and funding the navy.  Cromwell hoped to remove the majesty of art by making it universally available. Did he realise that this would form the foundations of the modern art market?   Probably not, but by lowering the price of the art, as well as gifting it to tradesman who would have been unable to acquire it otherwise, he enabled art to reach the masses, not just the affluent.

Following Cromwell’s death, and a short leadership by his son, Richard, Charles II, returned to England in 1660 and took the throne.  Throughout his reign he endeavoured to reclaim his father’s collection.  He managed to reacquire 1,100 of the original artworks however many prominent pieces had been bought by European Royals from the sale at Somerset House and were now part of their own court collections.  These paintings could not be recovered and are now part of collections forming the Louvre and the Prado - paintings which we hope to see in the RA’s exhibition next year. 

Over a forty-year time span England went from having a modest Royal art collection, to one of the most sort after, then back to nothing and finally to the 1,100 original works from Charles’ collection which we have today.  A remarkably journey and one surrounded by a huge amount of history.  Should Charles I have been preoccupied with building a fabulous art collection rather than concentrating on stabilising his country? From the perspective of a ruler, no.  However from the view of the art world, he has provided the UK with one of the most phenomenal art collections, which really is something to thank him for.

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