‘Charles I: King and Collector’
27 January–15 April 2018
The Royal Academy of Arts, London
When, in 1649, a matter of months after the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s commissioners instigated the ‘Sale of the Late King’s Goods’, they raised more than £184,000 for the Commonwealth’s coffers but destroyed one of history’s greatest art collections. Some 1,500 paintings, 500 statues and innumerable tapestries that Charles had so painstakingly acquired were scattered to the four winds, and innumerable prime works were lost to these shores forever. Up to a point.
‘Charles I: King and Collector’ at the Royal Academy wasn’t just another exhibition, however choice, but a major act of historical reconstruction. When the curators Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor gathered together some 150 works from the broken collection of the man Rubens called ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’, it was the first time in nearly four centuries that such masterworks as, for example, Titian’s Portrait of Charles V with a Dog (Prado) and Holbein’s portrait of Robert Cheseman (Maurithuis) had hung alongside Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Three Soldiers (Frick Collection) and Velázquez’s Portrait of King Philip IV (Dallas).
The exhibition represented a roll-call of 16th- and 17th-century great names – Mantegna and Raphael, Rubens and Van Dyck, Tintoretto and Veronese, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Dürer and Holbein – as well as antiquities including the Queen’s meltingly beautiful 2nd-century Roman marble of Aphrodite (‘The Crouching Venus’). The stellar gathering made it possible to glimpse something of a collection that was truly royal in quality as well as in name.
The exhibition also represented a major feat of diplomacy: the persuasive powers of Rumberg and Shawe-Taylor to convince the world’s great art institutions to relinquish some of their prize possessions were worthy of the diplomat Rubens himself. The result was an exhibition so visually thrilling and intellectually satisfying that those intervening 370 years seemed almost worth the wait.
Michael Prodger is a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham and art critic for the New Statesman.
The Winners | Personality of the Year | Artist of the Year | Museum Opening of the Year | Exhibition of the Year | Book of the Year | Digital Innovation of the Year | Acquisition of the Year | View the shortlists