Some highlights of the show.
It’s more than forty years since the last major exhibition of works of art associated with Charles I and his circle. In 1972, ‘The Age of Charles I’ at Tate Britain (-then just the Tate Gallery-) provided an inspiring overview of ‘Painting in England, 1620-1649’, at a time when interest was starting to grow in the history of collecting and networks of patronage. With over 250 works on view, gathered from collections in the UK and abroad, the show included a number of canvases by Rubens and van Dyck, as well as a selection of paintings by a range of other mainly Netherlandish artists and a group of provincial English painters. The exhibition also encompassed masque designs by Inigo Jones, a section devoted to the collection of Buckingham, a number of portrait medals, a dozen pieces of sculpture and 50 miniatures.
It was, at the time, a breath-taking show, and would probably be just as impressive now. Sir Oliver Millar (then Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures) was largely responsible for both the choice of exhibits and the catalogue, and at the time was also in the process of editing the 1649 inventories of Charles I’s goods for publication by the Walpole Society. His edition was to prove an invaluable source for art historians – and for historians generally – with an interest in Charles’s patronage of painting, music and drama. Together with ‘The Age of Charles I’ it provided a major stimulus to research in the years that followed.
Forty years later, and an exhibition relating to the same period is drawing massive crowds at the Royal Academy, where one of Millar’s successors, Desmond Shaw-Taylor and Per Rumberg, with a cohort of colleagues have put together a grander, and in some ways a more complex show. Reuniting many of the biggest, and most brilliant items from Charles I’s own collection, begged and borrowed from collectors and galleries around the world, they have attempted to recreate the effect that Charles’s assembled art works would have made on visitors to Whitehall in the years before the start of the Civil War. The exhibition actually contains a smaller number of objects than in 1972, with the focus on Charles’s personal tastes, and the inclusion of so many large scale and lavish works creates a very different impression. Where the 1972 show offered a cross-section of artistic activity in England during his reign, the current one concentrates on the King himself, and presents some of the most magnificent, imposing, and large-scale works that Charles collected. And apart from this, the most obvious difference between the two exhibitions is the inclusion this time of so many Italian and Italian-inspired works. From both the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the grand canvases that came with the Mantua Collection, the enormous van Dyck portraits of Charles and his family and the jewel bright compositions of Gentileschi and Reni appear as astonishing to the exhibition-goers as they must have done to the courtiers of the 1630s.
This is not the kind of exhibition that encourages you to take a leisurely pace around the galleries, stopping to meditate for a while on a single work, or make a few notes here and there. It is a large-scale show designed for the general visitor to walk through as part of a crowd, absorbing grand impressions and catching the occasional detail – which probably echoes the experience of most seventeenth century visitors to Whitehall.In fact the large number of people present at any one time can make it quite difficult to focus on specifics, although the design and layout of the exhibition is a great help, as is the leaflet that comes with the ticket, and includes a useful plan. The rooms are defined by well-chosen themes, e.g. The Northern Renaissance, The Royal Portrait, The Whitehall Cabinet etc. and each room is large enough to permit a clear overview. The galleries are clearly numbered, and the first wall of each one carries an introduction to its theme, so that even someone with my poor sense of direction can find the way easily. The whole show has been really well thought out and the works arranged in relevant categories. We can see what Charles I – and his advisors – liked, and we can see why.
It would be easy to come out feeling completely dazzled, and in retrospect I was quite surprised at how many individual works remained with me as moments of particular pleasure. Some were familiar; others were works I had not seen before. For instance, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, had loaned Rubens’s oil sketch for his Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Buckingham – it was a delight to see it in real life. I have less of an excuse though, for never having seen Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which have been at Hampton Court since the 1630s – until now not even Cromwell was willing to remove them from their usual home. It’s fortunate that 21st century expertise has allowed them to be transported to Burlington House. They are immensely busy paintings, and since they are in tempera, they resemble slightly faded frescoes. Yet they still seem fresh and lively – each of the panels is enjoyably full of figures and action. The story culminates in the figure of Caesar On His Chariot, a slave holding the obligatory laurel wreath over his head, and presumably reminding him of his mortality. Though it has to be said that the chariot is going nowhere: it looks as solid as though carved from stone, and the horse’s harness is attached – impossibly – to the axle of the chariot wheel.
Of the van Dycks, those from the Royal Collection are generally the most exciting: of the big Equestrian portraits – all three are hung as a group – the painting of Charles riding through an arch, with M. de St. Antoine seemed an unquestionably finer picture than the one from the Louvre, or even the familiar portrait from the National Gallery. It was fascinating to see the three together – certainly a one-off occasion! Another rewarding canvas was Rubens’s Landscape with St. George and the Dragon, which I had seen before, but without noticing how much is going on in the periphery of the picture. Among the more typically Rubensian figures is a zombie-like creature in the foreground, which could have come from a modern horror movie.
Seeing it for the first time in a while, I thought van Dyck’s Cupid and Psyche was particularly poignant. It is only in real life, as opposed to a reproduction, that one realises that its composition is quite daring, or even a little odd. A great deal of the picture is taken up by the tree, in gloriously full leaf, above the figure of Cupid. And this tree contrasts vividly with the almost dead tree trunk leaning at an alarming angle above poor Psyche. The urgency with which Cupid races to her aid creates a sense of drama that one does not usually associate with van Dyck. (Though I could not avoid the suspicion that Psyche has a dislocated right hip.)
Among the other van Dycks – the Charles I in Three Positions, made for Bernini; Henrietta Maria shimmering in her wonderful yellow dress – I was interested to see the portrait of Buckingham’s two little boys, George and Francis. Standing before a curtain in their improbable taffeta finery, and looking a little bored, they seemed to exemplify the fragile fairy-tale of court life, that would fall apart a few years later. The Greate Peece, renowned as a striking depiction of the King and Queen with their two eldest children, seemed to gain much of its grandeur from the space above the figures. It is that additional height, rather than the sumptuous clothing of the sitters, that marks it out from other family portraits of the time. It imparts a certain distance that has the effect of separating the viewer from the family. Without it one could almost be looking at any prosperous, 17th century English or Dutch family, recording themselves for posterity.
Both Northern and Southern Europe are well represented by the exhibition. Works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto testify to Charles I’s feeling for Italian light and colour, and Gentileschi’s clear geometric lines and vast blocks of brilliant colour draw the eye from across the gallery. Jacopo Bassano’s Journey of Jacob, with figures moving in every direction, includes a compelling flock of sheep, which reminded me of Bassano’s engaging, small canvas of a ewe and her lamb in the Galleria Borghese. From the North, a group of drawings and superb portraits by Holbein serve as a reminder of the gems that Charles I inherited from his predecessors. From the English tradition of painting in little, the curators have included a marvellous cluster of portrait miniatures by Hilliard and the Olivers.
I suppose one of my highlights was always going to be ‘Minerva Protects Pax from Mars’ – the large Rubens canvas that is usually the first thing I visit when at the National Gallery. There is always a new detail to catch the eye, and of course the link with Gerbier is inescapable. Three of his children served as models, and he presumably watched his guest bring the composition together while Rubens stayed with him and his family at York House in 16290-30. I still wonder about the identity of the younger girl – is this Catherine (born 1623) or Susan (born 1624)? (Marie, born in 1627, was probably a little too young.) It is of course a gorgeous painting, but on this occasion was overshadowed by a small picture that for me was the most moving piece in the show: Rubens’s oil sketch for the Banqueting Hall ceiling, depicting the Apotheosis of James I. This rather inconspicuous little panel was not attracting a great deal of attention from the visitors. Rather beige in tone, with a few swift lines and scattered, gentle highlights indicating the layout of the enormous finished canvas, it could scarcely compete with the majestic images around it. But it was a fascinating picture, because in it one can see Rubens thinking through his design, placing ovals to accommodate the figures, creating a sense of movement, and planning where light and shade will meet. It probably says more about Rubens as an artist than does the finished article, and it seemed completely appropriate that this work should have been acquired in memory of Sir Oliver Millar, who had such a meticulous art-historical eye, and an acute sense of the creative process.
Both the show and the catalogue draw attention to the fellow collectors, diplomats and agents whose influence or intervention contributed to the assembly of Charles I’s great collection. They varied from connoisseurs such as the Earl of Arundel, and members of the household like Nicholas Lanier, to diplomats like Dudley Carleton and Henry Wotton, as well as professional dealers and negotiators such as Daniel Nijs. Between them, they supplied the King with gifts, purchases and sometimes a fortunate swap.
And of course Gerbier’s tastes and influence in many ways hover over the entire exhibition. Without wanting to exaggerate his impact on the formation of Charles’s collection, one cannot help asking a – perhaps unanswerable – question as to what difference he made. Without Buckingham’s collection as a model, would Charles have gathered such an extensive collection, and one of such exceptional quality? Gerbier was far from being the only knowledgeable buyer of artworks for the patrons of his day, though he was arguably the most passionate and tenacious of them. And the artists whose works he assembled for his master at York House tended to be those whose pictures also appealed to the King, and continued to do so in the years after Buckingham’s death. Charles, whose eyes had been opened to the light and colour of southern Europe on his trip to Spain, remained consistent in the tastes he had formed as a young man, right up to the moment when his world imploded. He was fortunate in having people about him who shared – or at least knew – what he liked, and his acquisitions were often down to good luck, and having someone in the right place, at the right time. Gerbier’s life was often one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there is no doubt that as far as English collectors were concerned, he judged things well, and contributed to the energy that drove collection and patronage. Perhaps we should simply say that Balthazar Gerbier was one of a number of men who influenced the development – and the quality – of Charles I’s art collection, and his discriminating eye, steadfast enthusiasm and undisguised love for these pictures contributed to the remarkable selection in the Royal Academy show. Gerbier would have enjoyed discussing the works with the curators, and I think he would have approved of their choice.
(The Exhibition continues until 15th April 2018. For copyright reasons, I’ve not been able to include photos, but clicking on the links in the text will take you to an image on the relevant site.)