On the other side of Green Park from the Burlington House is an exhibition of the art collection of Charles II in the Queen’s Gallery comprising paintings, drawings, prints, furniture, silver and sculpture; all from the Royal Collection. Her Majesty’s walls must be virtually bare, as she has generously lent over 90 of the 140 works to this major exhibition at the Royal Academy as well. Charles I was a consummate collector of art, both from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including works by JacopoTintoretto, Titian, Mantegna, Veronese, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Peter Breugal the Elder, Raphael and Correggio. He also commissioned paintings by contemporary Dutch artists, like Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, both accepted into the royal circle in London. By the time of his untimely death in 1649, he had amassed a collection of around 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures. When Cromwell sprang to power with his Commonwealth, he largely disposed of the collection across Europe, sometimes at unrealistically low prices, but when Charles II was restored to the Stuart throne after a decade of Civil War, he managed to retrieve many works, although some were lost forever to the Prado in Madrid and the Louvre and the Mobilier National in Paris. This is the first time since the 17th century that these works have been reunited, and the overall effect is somewhat overwhelming.
There are twelve galleries, each seemingly with larger and larger works, until the last but one room contains four absolutely colossal tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles measuring up to 5 metres by 7 metres, based on seven cartoons drawn by Raphael for Pope Leo X a hundred years earlier, and purchased by Charles and woven at the Mortlake Workshop set up his father King James I of England. They now hang in Paris. Andrea Mantegna’s monumental series of nine paintings The Triumph of Caesar, was purchased as part of the Duke Gonzago’s collection in Mantua, and were hung in Hampton Court, where they remain today. All these works are displayed in darkened rooms, and, in the case of the five Roman marble busts from the Gonzago collection, dramatically lit, with great effect.
The sheer scale of some of the portraits is exaggerated almost beyond belief, bearing in mind that he was a bit of a shrimp, some reports stating that he measured a mere five foot in his stocking feet. There are three equestrian portraits by van Dyck of the King, the most successful being of him in the Hunting Field, dismounted after the chase from his steed, which is being attended by a groom, casually posing, one hand on hip, the other on a cane in a nonchalant manner. The more classic compositions on horseback display animals with diminutive heads, totally out of proportion, to emphasise his control and power, in a strangely primitive manner. Van Dyck also painted one of the very best paintings in the show, the deeply sensual Cupid and Psyche, with the sleeping maiden being woken by an adolescent Cupid. His triple portrait of the King,Charles I in Three Positions, was actually painted as a guide for the great Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini as a reference for a marble bust, which was delivered from Rome a year later, and was much admired. Charles’s wife Queen Henrietta Maria wrote to Bernini asking that he make one of her, but, although portraits of her by van Dyck survive, the bust was never completed, and his bust was destroyed in the Whitehall fire of 1698.
A strange and ‘busy’ painting is Landscape with St George and the Dragon by Rubens, one of the few paintings he produced while in England, although it was shipped back to Flanders for him to finish. Before he left, however, he finished nine canvases to decorate the ceilings of Inigo Jones’s magnificent Banqueting House in Whitehall. It is ironic that, 13 years after they were installed, Charles was found guilty of high treason and executed directly outside the same building. There are so many focal points in the landscape, with clusters of onlookers, weeping mothers with toddlers, angels, corpses, a man in armour on horseback, and, of course the saintly George handing the girdle back to the once endangered Princess in the centre. Another foreigner to visit London was the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, who arrived with three sons, followed by his seriously talented daughter, Artemesia, who arrived one year before her father died, aged 72. In one notable painting, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, he uses the theatrical devices of heavy drapes, a figure receding into the darkness beyond, and the shunned, brazen woman failing in her attempt to seduce the blameless Joseph.
Rubens lent his name to a form of painting voluptuous female nudes, and nowhere is this more apparent than his 1629 Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War), with swirling melange of flesh, drapes and clouds, a muscled satyr, plump putti, a cornucopia, a playful leopard, children and Ceres, goddess of the earth, squirting milk from her breast. In the same gallery is a stunning Roman marble statue from the 2nd century AD of Aphrodite (The Crouching Venus), a stance adopted by Rubens in some of his paintings, when he saw it in Mantua. It was bought from the Commonwealth Sale by Sir Peter Lely, before being owned by Charles II. After the intimidating scale of many of the paintings in the collection, it was a relief to discover some of the contents of the King’s Cabinet Room; a private enclave in his apartments, containing some smaller paintings, drawings by Holbein and others, miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, bas-reliefs, statues, a portrait by Rembrandt of his mother, medals, coins, ivories, books and mathematical instruments.
The catalogue is a sumptuous publication for £28 softback that does the exhibition justice, with many intelligently-written essays to explain the complexity and provenance of the collection. One is always amused by what the merchandising people come up with in the shop, and the ‘luxurious selection of jewellery, homeware and accessories’ does not disappoint. One can choose between a King Charles Spaniel necklace at £32.50 or a King Charles Spaniel Salt & Pepper Set for £20.00. Or how about a Tapestry Patterned Silk Scarf for £120? Hungry? Then a jar of Red Legged Partridge Paté at £9.50 could fill that gap, followed by a bar of Rococo Rose chocolate or a Raspberry and Chocolate Nougat Slice, also available in Amaretto, all washed down with a bottle of McQueen Super Premium Dry Gin at £35.