Charles I - King and Collector at Royal Academy: Five stunning highlights from a very royal art collection

Jessie Thompson

If you’ve ever fancied seeing a royal art collection up close, you can now abandon your plans to sneak into Buckingham Palace under the guise of the corgis’ newest dog walker. Thanks to the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, much of Charles I’s resplendent group of works has been reunited under one roof for the first time - and the exhibition opens this week.

Charles I: King and Collector left our critic Matthew Collings “reeling”, and in his five-star review, he describes the exhibition as “tremendously well-presented and toughly thought-out.”

The show offers more than just a rare chance to see stunning works by Van Eyck, Rubens and Titian up close - it allows visitors to walk amongst artefacts of one of the most turbulent periods of British history.

The events that took place were unprecedented, and have never been repeated since. Charles I was executed by Parliament in 1649, following the long English Civil War which ran from 1642 until 1645, ending with his defeat. His regicide and the subsequent abolition of the monarchy still have the power to shock.

At the time of his death, Charles I’s art collection comprised of around 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures. The Commonwealth sold much of it off using Somerset House (then Denmark House, after Charles’ mother Anne of Denmark) to showcase the works. Total sales of the works came to £185,000 - a considerable sum for the time. These were worksthat formed the taste of the nation and, when it came to royal portraits, helped cement Charles I’s image in history.

Here are seven highlights from a very stunning royal collection.

Charles I in the Hunting Field, Anthony van Dyck (c. 1636)

Cahrles I in the Hunting Field, Anthony van Eyck (RMN-Grand Palais)

Anthony van Dyck’s royal portraits are some of the most famous in history, thanks to a style defined by narrative excitement and psychological insight. He painted several family portraits of Charles I, his wife Henrietta, and his children (and their dogs - including a Lyme Mastiff, which is now extinct as a breed). Several of his portraits of Charles depicted him on horseback or out hunting. This one is thought to have been kept by Henrietta after she went into exile following his execution as it never appeared in the Commonwealth sale.

The Triumph of Caesar, Andrea Mantegna (c.1485-1506)

Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484-92 (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)

It’s been said that Charles built his art collection to demonstrate his own power, and his acquistion of the Gonzaga collection in 1629 provided him with some of the finest works of Italian Renaissance art in the world. This epic nine-part work by Andrea Mantega is a breathtaking sight to behold in the Royal Academy galleries, take up an entire room. They show a procession to mark the arrival of Julius Caesar, indicating the lofty heights of Charles’ own self-image.

Peace and War, Rubens (1629-30)

It’s not just the painting that’s extraordinary - the story behind it is fascinating too. In 1629, Rubens came to England as an envoy of Philip IV of Spain, tasked with trying to negotiate peace between the two countries. Whilst he was there, he worked on this painting which shows Minerva driving away Mars, the god of War. When it was completed, it was presented to Charles I as a gift.

Adam and Eve, Jan Gossaert (1520)

This 16th century is a true slice of history: it’s thought to have inspired John Milton’s descriptions of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost (written in 1667).

The Mortlake tapestries (c. 1600s)

These stunning tapestries fill an entire room in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, and it’s easy to imagine them lining the walls of Charles’ opulent home. Based on drawings by Raphael, a sign of their worth perhaps comes from the fact they were one of the only items in the collection that the Commonwealth actually kept hold of after they sold the rest of it off.

Charles I: King and Collector, sponsored by BNY Mellon, is at the Royal Academy, W1 from Saturday until April 15; royalacademy.org.uk