To reach the scaffold where he was to be beheaded, the king walked one last time through the long rooms of the Banqueting House. Inigo Jones had designed these to be the heart of the sophisticated Stuart court in London. Glancing up, he would have seen the magnificent painted ceilings that Peter Paul Rubens had created for him 13 years earlier, images of an altogether happier time with, at the centre, his father King James I ascending into heaven after a long and peaceful reign.
Now, the country was ravaged by debt piled up through fighting abroad and at home. No sooner would Charles’s head be severed than his successors would hand over his crown to the Royal Mint to be melted, its precious stones dispersed. The royal plate, barge and bedlinens would also be sold. The king’s artworks, amassed over just two decades of daring acquisition into one of the most renowned collections in the world, had already been removed and each piece priced for sale.
Charles was just three when his father became king; 12 when his older brother died and he became heir to the throne. Although London was full of economic and religious migrants from mainland Europe, royal taste, at least at the start of the Stuarts’ rule, was still dominated by dour wall-hangings and flat dynastic portraits of kings and queens in opulent, bejewelled clothes. These were symbols of power rather than things of beauty.
When 23-year-old Charles was sent to Madrid to negotiate a possible marriage to the Spanish infanta, he encountered a completely different visual culture. At its heart were the artists of the Italian Renaissance: painters such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Giorgione who worked with colour and light to create works of such human drama and warmth they were known as poesie, the visual equivalent of poetry.
The royal marriage never happened but the Spanish king gave Charles his first Titian and he bought two more before he left Madrid. As a collector he never looked back. Rubens would call him “the greatest lover of paintings among the princes of the world”.
From Madrid, Charles visited the artistic centres of France and the Low Countries. It was his only ever foreign trip, and he made the most of it, returning home with Raphael’s magnificent tapestry cartoons for “The Acts of the Apostles” and many other treasures. After he became king two years later, he paid £18,000 (equivalent to just over £4m today) for one of the continent’s most spectacular collections: the Renaissance treasures amassed by the Gonzagas, Dukes of Mantua, which included nine canvases by Mantegna of the “Triumph of the Caesars”, with its elephants, trumpeters and prancing horses.
If Charles’s European trip did much to shape his artistic taste, the Gonzaga acquisition propelled him into the front ranks of art buyers – and forever changed English painting. Italian art became a fixture for the greatest English collectors, such as the Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Buckingham, who had accompanied Charles to Madrid. And the new enthusiasm for art drew European painters to London.
The greatest of these was Anthony van Dyck, who was mad about Titian and owned 19 of his works. In 1632 Van Dyck was appointed “principalle Paynter in Ordenaire to their Majesties”. The king and queen both visited his studio at Blackfriars and offered him a knighthood. Van Dyck would paint 40 pictures of Charles and his family, on horseback, on the hunting field, and in a triple portrait (main image) that was sent to Rome so Bernini could sculpt the monarch in marble.
Charles’s paintings changed the English visual landscape, inspiring artists for generations to come. But the collection itself would be disbanded and sold to pay for the navy. Many of the finest works were bought by foreign agents and carried off to France and Spain, where they remain in the Louvre and the Prado. Rubens’s ceiling for the Banqueting House is one of the only works that remained in situ. Now, in a new exhibition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), much of it will be seen together for the first time since the 17th century.
The Louvre is sending the magnificent “Charles I at the Hunt” by Van Dyck (above right), a loan that took a year to negotiate. The queen is lending 90 works from the Royal Collection, another feat of diplomacy. When David Gordon, then secretary of the Royal Academy (and a former managing director of The Economist) asked her in 1999 if she would consider lending the great equestrian portrait that hangs at Buckingham Palace for an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Van Dyck’s birth, she replied briskly: “It looks very nice where it is.”
The RA is not trying to recreate the exacting hanging of the original collection. Not all the pictures have been retrieved, and in any case the RA on Piccadilly is a very different building from the Banqueting House. Instead, the exhibition, at the RA until April 15th, will focus on conjuring up the atmosphere of Charles I’s court. Van Dyck’s four great equestrian portraits, which have never been seen together, not even by the artist himself, will crown the show.
The importance of this exhibition is not academic; it isn’t even about making a contemporary copy of history. As a painters’ academy, the RA will focus on the artists. Many visitors will know individual works, but by bringing them back together the RA is recreating the magic Charles confected three and a half centuries ago.