'Charles I - King and Collector'

January 26 2018

Image of 'Charles I - King and Collector'

Pictures: BG

I enjoyed the new Royal Academy exhibition, 'Charles I - King and Collector', so much that I had to blag a press pass and go again the next day. As the private view ended, the security staff had to almost physically push me out. I would have been the last to leave, but Anne Webber, of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, bagged that honour. 

As I said below, I was ambushed by a BBC film crew in the last room of the exhibition, and asked for my reaction to the show; 'one of the greatest feats of curation of modern times; it'll be a blockbuster', I said. And it's true. You can read glowing reviews almost everywhere. 

This isn't a review, more a series of thoughts. I'll be writing in more detail about the exhibition in The Art Newspaper next month, and I've also recorded a podcast for them on the exhibition. That'll be out soon. 

First off, the exhibition is magnificently paced and presented. Each room is filled with just enough masterpieces; it's not too busy, and even with the usual crowds, it shouldn't feel too difficult to get a good look at everything. The curators have gone for a less is more approach. I'm probably not making much sense in saying that, given the sheer number of wonders on display. But remember that what we see at the RA is only a fraction of what Charles I amassed. 

Anyone who knows the extent of the bartering that goes on between museums these days will know how difficult it is to pull off important loans. 'You can borrow my Titian, if I can borrow your Rubens', is how it usually goes. The RA, having only a limited collection of its own, is not in a strong position to do this. So in bringing together the works they have, the RA's Per Rumberg and the Royal Collection's Desmond Shawe-Taylor and have achieved something extraordinary.  

Then of course there are the works themselves. There are four Titians - including the Supper at Emmaus from the Louvre, and four giant Mortlake Tapestries based on designs by Raphael. The series of Mantegna paintings, the Triumph of Caesar look as good here as they ever have done. There are too many wonders to list here. Not one is a disappointment. (Well, perhaps the newly cleaned Guido Reni & Studio Toilet of Venus from the National Gallery, but only because it is hung beside so many great Gentileschis).

But as a Van Dyck obsessive, I'm pleased to report that he steals the show. In the first room, we are faced immediately by his Triple Portrait of Charles I. And there he is also represented by the well known but little seen Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, which hangs beside self-portraits by Rubens and Daniel Mytens. The latter two self-portraits were owned by Charles I (who also owned a self-portrait by Van Dyck) but the Sunflower self-portrait overshadows them both with its... well, its sheer pizazz.

There were instructions not to photograph the Sunflower self-portrait, but since it was once owned by my 5 times great grandfather, I gave myself a special exemption. I'll write more about this picture, and the self-portrait which Charles I owned, sometime soon.  

The Van Dyck quota gets even better in the following rooms. We not only see his full length portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and those of his children, as well as other members of the court. But here amassed for the first time are all four of Van Dyck's large-scale portraits of Charles; theRoyal Collection's Great Piece, the Equestrian Portrait from the National Gallery, the Equestrian Portrait with Monsieur de St Antoine from teh Royal Collection, and the Portrait of Charles Hunting from the Louvre. Hanging discretely in the corner is Van Dyck's portrait drawing of Charles. To stand in one place and be able to see all of these is about as good as being an art lover gets. At least for this one. 

And then in the final room we see one of my favourite Van Dycks, his Cupid and Pysche, as well as the NPG self-portrait and his portrait of his mistress, Margaret Lemon. Also here is his Itlian Sketchbook, on loan from the British Museum. Which is a slight bore for me, as I was wanting to film it soon. But that's enough about Van Dyck. 

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian has drawn some ire by suggesting that the exhibition should make us take a more revolutionary view of the Royal Collection itself, arguing that we should:

Nationalise the egregious monarchist folly that is the Royal Collection. Put these wonderful paintings and sculptures in our public galleries where anyone can see them for free, any time we like.

Now, ardent monarchist as I am, I have to say that I can see why Jones left the RA show thinking this. The 80 works from the Royal Collection look so good in the RA's almost unrivalled exhibition galleries, that it's hard to think of them going back to their less vaulted and less visited homes, in various royal palaces across the South East. Hopefully, a more balanced approach between the Royal Collection being a working collection in busy palaces, and something that can be more generously spread across the UK, can soon be struck.

So there's no doubt, then, that the RA show is a visual feast, of a kind rarely seen. I would have liked to have seen a little nod towards 'context'. Not necessarily of the wider historical scene in England in the 17th Century - there wouldn't be space to do that, in a way that might fully explain, say, whether Charles' devotion to art contributed to oubtreak of the Civil War. But in an exhibition so devoted to the personal taste and decisions of one man, I'd like to have seen an attempt to understand more about that man's motives. We see here what Charles collected, and how he collected it - but not why he collected it. (Personally, I think Charles was more driven by a rivalry with his late, older brother, Henry Prince of Wales, than many suspect. Henry showed every sign of being as astute a collector as Charles, but was physically stronger and cleverer than Charles too, and would doubtless have been a better ruler. Certainly, comparing Van Dyck's larger portraits of Charles with Robert Peake's portraits of Henry is revealing.)

It might have been enough to explore all these questions in the catalogue, but that alas is the only slightly weak part of the equation. Perhaps it's unfair (because the RA doesn't have depth of curatorial presence you get in most other big institutions) but a comparison can be made with the current Royal Collection exhibition on Charles II at the Queen's Gallery. For that show, a typically thorough catalogue uses the moment of assembling the exhibits to re-evaluate and re-assess them and their context. We don't get this in the RA catalogue, and instead have only a series of quite brief essays, some of which seem merely to be going through the motions. Still, a less than satisfying catalogue should only persuade us to spend more time in the actual exhibition itself. That's what the RA does best - it puts on great exhibitions. I can't wait to go again. 

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