Who’s King? Charles I demonstrated his cultural credentials by amassing an astounding collection of art, which was scattered to the wind in the ultimate yard sale after his head was chopped off and Cromwell took over Britain. The Royal Academy of Arts’s new show, Charles I: King and Collector fills all the gallery space with sensational paintings reunited for first time since the 17th century.

Charles I was an art collector on an epic scale and, though this remarkable exhibition at the Royal Academy fills every corner of the gallery with glorious art, it by no means represents the full collection which once graced the walls of royal residences in the early 1600s.

Charles I was educated, spoilt and phenomenally vain. He loved a portrait and was lucky enough to meet, and become friends with Anthony van Dyck, a super-talented painter who made countless images of the mighty monarch.  In terms of image manufacturing van Dyck

was an essential and supremely confident confederate for Charles.  In rooms devoted entirely to images of a king who, ultimately, lost touch with reality, as well as his head, we are left in no doubt as to how he would have looked and how he wanted to be seen.  Drooping eyebrows, disdainful eyes, full and sensuous lips framed by a twirled moustache and neat pointy beard, the king’s image  must have been easy to describe and it’s no wonder that he was recognised and captured after losing the civil war to Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.  Cornered in the Isle of Wight (after some thrilling escapes, clever outwitting of Parliamentarians and the fierce loyalty of aristocratic families and landowners who hid him) the end was brutal – a public execution on Whitehall before a baying crowd in 1649.

The Commonwealth Sale of the Royal Collection (to recoup money after the ruinous war) got underway at Somerset House soon after the king’s death   This show, Charles I: King and Collector reunites 140 of the most important works which have not graced the same walls since the seventeenth century.  The information cards next to each painting often included the price gained for a painting.  Some major works by leading Renaissance painters, such as Rubens or Titian might have made over £100 but some went for peanuts –  there’s a magnificent portrait by Rembrandt of his mother which went for a mere £4. The mind boggles!


The variety and quality of the paintings is breathtaking.  For me, the stars of the show were a series of portraits by Holbein the Younger, most of which are now in the Royal Collection, which show the extraordinary ability of the artist to really ‘eyeball’ his subjects and capture spirit, character and personality through the sparest amount of pencil marks or strokes of the paintbrush.

The show is on until 15th April and is bound to be very popular but I do recommend catching this one if you can, not only for the glorious works on show, but for the insight into an unrivalled collection of art in the history of English cultural investment.  Sponsored by BNY Mellon, in partnership with the Royal Collection Trust.

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk @royalacademy @royalacadmyarts

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