Charles II: Art and Power

Charles II: Art and Power


England was no longer a Monarchy after King Charles 1 of England, Scotland and Ireland was executed in 1649 at Whitehall Palace. This brutal act marked the climax of the English Civil War.

The following period was known as the ‘Interregnum’, and England was, de facto, a Republic, ruled by Oliver Cromwell. Charles 11 had been proclaimed King of Scotland, but Cromwell defeated him at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Charles was deposed from the Scottish Throne and fled to Europe, France, the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands, into exile.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, a political crisis led to the Restoration of the Monarchy, and Charles 11 returned by invitation. He arrived in London, triumphant and was publicly proclaimed.

Charles I, his father, had amassed an amazing collection of art, greater than achieved by any other Monarch. It included the Crown Jewels.  Much of this collection was sold or melted down by Cromwell’s Republican Government. Charles 11 had a single minded purpose to have the surviving pieces returned to their rightful, legitimate owner, himself, as King. He was successful with many of the treasures. His father had collected numerous old masters and contemporary works which remained the basis of the Great Royal Collections of the Louvre and Prado Museums.

During the Restoration Charles 11 held the firm view that possession of great art represented power and reinforced his rightful claim to the Monarchy. He became a serious collector. His Courts were sumptuously furnished and decorated with valuable acquisitions. They echoed the lavishness of French Palaces such as Versailles known to him during his exile.

In the Exhibition. ‘Charles 11: Art and Power’ we see some fine pieces illustrating the King’s love of luxury, pomp and ceremony. Republican England under Oliver Cromwell had been very austere.

Observe John Michael Wright’s oil painting of the Coronation, with all its grandeur of the restored Monarch, resplendent in Parliamentary robes over the Garter Costume, together with King Edward’s Crown. Notice the new Orb and Sceptre by Robert Vyner.  Charles commissioned much new regalia.

The work by Wenceslaus Hollar depicts Westminster Abbey, scene of the Coronation, well. The Choir of the Abbey, with its deep tiers of seats in the transepts, is filled with spectators watching this great occasion.

Some spectacular Altar Plate of the Abbey is on display. including an Alms Dish of silver gilt by Henry Greenway, with its sunken centre revealing the Last Supper in which Charles’s crown is placed near Christ. The Royal Stuart Arms appear on the rim. This piece was used at later Coronations and Royal Weddings.

A very famous Coronation present given to Charles 11 is also on view, namely, ‘The Exeter Salt’. It was created by Johann Haus. It is a silver gilt table salt in the form of a tower with cylindrical corner turrets resting on a chased mound supported by dragons on ball feet. Furthermore, it is encrusted with almandine garnets, turquoises, sapphires, emeralds, rubies and amethysts, a fitting, elaborate gift for a restored King. It was presented, surprisingly, by the once Parliamentary stronghold of Exeter, maybe for propitiation and  in recognition of the King’s power.

The Exhibition includes several famous paintings, either acquired by, or restored to Charles; these include a work by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, entitled ‘ The Slaughter of the Innocents’and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘ The Sibyl’. Old Testament Prophets were often represented as Sibyls and this is one of a series of twelve. On view is Charles de La Tour’s ‘Saint Jerome’. thought to have been purchased by Charles11. It is one of the artist’s best candlelight compositions revealing his knowledge of Caravaggio and his use of chiarascura. Note the religious authority that emanates from the painting. Again the themes of Art and Power come to mind.

A great work of Paolo Veronese, ‘ The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria’, is on display. Before her Martyrdom she was mysteriously married to Christ, symbolising pious souls’ betrothal to God. Also Titian’s ‘ Madonna and Child in a landscape with Tobias and the Angel’ is displayed. This is an exceptional work. Observe the richness of her ultramarine mantle and the precision painted foliage and flowers. They symbolise her purity.

Charles 11 loved drawings which were not so popular at that time in England. He would have seen many during his exile. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘ Bearded Man in Profile Confronted by a Grotesque Profile’ is in the Exhibition.

There are also tapestries and furniture. Do not miss a side table covered with silver sheets and chased with the crowned cypher of Charles 11. Silver furniture was very popular during the late 17th century.

It is interesting to see Peter Lely’s paintings of Barbara Villiers. She was the  King’s mistress for many years and bore him several children. Peter Lely was appointed Limna and drawer at the Court.

The Reign of Charles 11 led to a resurgence of the Arts and to Patronage of them. Possession of great works glorified the restored King. His royal Courts could now take their place on the European stage. He lived a flamboyant lifestyle, he loved beautiful women, yachts, theatre, horse racing and his patronage of them gained him the support of the country. He was keenly interested in Science and used it to improve his navy and army so he could take his place with pride among the European states. He set up the Observatory at Greenwich and founded the Royal Society.

I particularly liked, in the exhibition, Antonio Verrio’s’ The Sea Triumph of Charles 11′ . The King wears classical armour and is driven through the water by Neptune in a high shell backed chariot, accompanied by three females bearing crowns, embodying his three kingdoms. Above his head ‘Fame’ carries a scroll inscribed thus,

“Imperium Oceano Famam qui terminet astris”

Putti carry the Royal Arms and beyond Minerva and possibly Venus look upon the British Fleet.

The exiled and restored King Charles 11 sought power through Art and the display of wealth; an idea pioneered by ancient Kings, leaders and Pharaohs long before his time.


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