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King Charles II and the power of art

King Charles II and the power of art

After a decade as a republic, Britain welcomed back its monarchy in a blaze of colour

After a decade as a republic, Britain welcomed back its monarchy in a blaze of colour

Martin Oldham | December 20th 2017

On his 30th birthday, May 29th 1660, King Charles II entered London in triumph. His return marked the end of the Commonwealth, a decade-long experiment with republicanism following the civil war and the trial and execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649. The restoration of the monarchy was met with widespread popular rejoicing, but Charles II knew his place on the throne was far from secure. The powerful men who had put him there could just as readily unseat him. 

He was keenly aware of the need to project the right image of kingship: one that would reestablish the splendour of the monarchy, without alarming those subjects who feared a return to royal absolutism. One of the means to achieve this was through art. The current exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, “Charles II: Art & Power” examines the vital role the arts played in rebuilding the authority and legitimacy of the king. It explores the rebirth of princely grandeur and tradition, art as a token of diplomacy, the reestablishment of the royal art collection and the revival of courtly culture. The curators have brought together a wide range of paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, tapestries, silverware and furniture from the Royal Collection to demonstrate the style and spectacle of the Restoration court. 

Ownership, display and appreciation of art were ways of signalling Charles II’s princely credentials, demonstrating that he was the equal of the monarchs on the continent, and particularly Louis XIV of France. Charles I’s celebrated collection had been sold off by Parliament to pay for their army, and one of Charles II’s first acts was to pass a law requiring all goods formerly belonging to the crown to be returned. Other notable paintings were acquired as gifts or purchases. By the end of his reign Charles II owned over a thousand works of art, which form the basis of the Royal Collection today. 

 

“Charles II” (c.1676) by John Michael Wright

The coronation of Charles II on April 23rd 1661 was the most extravagant since that of Elizabeth I. He ordered new crown jewels to replace those melted down or sold off by the Parliamentarians. Wright’s arresting portrait shows the king enthroned, magnificently clothed in the costume of the Order of the Garter beneath his parliamentary robes, with his new crown of state, orb and sceptre. However, this painting is not thought to be a royal commission. Analysis of the costume indicates it was painted at least ten years after the coronation. It might have been made for Robert Vyner, the royal goldsmith, who had supplied the regalia for the coronation. Wright has paid careful attention to these details.

The portrait emphatically presents the person of the king. His voluminously robed body fills a canvas almost three metres high. The straight-on, symmetrical pose and shallow pictorial space would have been considered old fashioned, looking back to Tudor conventions of royal portraiture and particularly those associated with Henry VIII.

 

“The Sea Triumph of Charles II” (c.1674) by Antonio Verrio

Wright was a British-born artist, which was unusual in England during the Restoration period when the most successful artists were from mainland Europe. Antonio Verrio, an Italian, had already established a reputation with his work for aristocratic clients when he presented “The Sea Triumph of Charles II” to the king. It was a specimen piece, designed to show off the artist’s talents. Complex multi-figure allegorical paintings were a fashionable mode of art in continental courts, but beyond the skills of most home-grown artists. 

Verrio depicts Charles II in classical armour, sitting calmly at the apex of a pyramid of idealised nudes, the whole ensemble on a sea-chariot drawn by Neptune. (It is not hard to see why this style of painting had been rejected by Puritan tastes during the Commonwealth). The victorious British fleet can be seen in the distance. It is a piece of sycophantic propaganda – Charles II was no great naval commander – but it achieved Verrio’s aim, winning him the most important commission of his career: the decoration of the newly built state apartments at Windsor Castle. 

 

 

“The Massacre of the Innocents” (c.1565–67) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Charles II paid 1000 florins for this painting, the most expensive in his collection. It had previously belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. The subject matter – the murder of the children of Bethlehem on the orders of King Herod – was an indictment of royal tyranny and the abuse of power. Bruegel was alluding to the brutal oppression of the Netherlands in his own day, by depicting the soldiers in the distinctive costumes of the Spanish army and their German mercenaries. At some point later the victims were painted over, removing the connection to the biblical story, in order, presumably, to make it more palatable to its imperial owners. It is not completely understood why Bruegel’s images of peasant life, with their implicit criticism of authority, were so avidly collected by princes in this period. But Charles II’s interest may have owed more to its imperial provenance than its subject matter. 

 

“Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel” (c.1535–40) by Titian 

Charles II was particularly fond of this painting, with its rich, harmonious colouring and serene mood. Titian had also been a favourite of his father. It came into the collection as part of the “Dutch Gift”, a generous donation of paintings, antique sculptures and furniture made by the States of Holland and West Friesland to Charles II shortly before his return from exile. The gift had been made to strengthen the alliance between the Dutch and English courts, but relations soon deteriorated and by 1665 the two countries were at war.

 

“Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland” (c.1665) by Sir Peter Lely

Charles II’s return heralded a relaxation of the Puritanical moral values of the Commonwealth period – he became known as the "Merrie Monarch”. Within weeks of arriving in London, he appointed the portraitist Sir Peter Lely as his official painter. Lely was adept at capturing the essence of the new courtly culture, its sensuousness and theatricality. This painting of Barbara Villiers is one of the “Windsor Beauties” series, a set of 11 portraits he made of celebrated society women. Villiers was Charles II’s principal mistress during the 1660s and one of the most influential women at court. She openly flaunted her relationship with the king, and they had five children, all of whom he acknowledged and ennobled. 

She was also Lely’s muse, and was painted by him at least ten times. In this portrait he playfully casts her as the goddess Minerva. The way the painting subverts the classical ideal, and elevates a sitter known primarily for her transgressive relationship with the king, demonstrates how traditional cultural and moral authorities were challenged during the Restoration. As royal authority was ultimately underpinned by the maintenance of such values, Lely’s portrait reveals that the relationship between art and power was not always as straightforward as the premise of the exhibition suggests.   

Charles II: Art & Power The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until May 13th 2018