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Charles II dazzles at Queen's Gallery

After over a decade of austere Cromwellian rule, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to a resurgence of the arts in England. A fascinating new exhibition showcases the rich material world of Charles II's court and shows the role of the arts in the re-establishment of the Stuart monarchy

John Michael Wright, Charles II, c.1676. Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Immediately on entering this exhibition, Charles II’s awareness of the importance of restoring princely tradition to reinforce his legitimacy and position as Head of the Church is apparent. The dazzling display of the new royal regalia and silver-gilt altar plate remind the visitor that the original pieces had been melted down by the Parliamentarians and replacement pieces were needed to ensure Charles’ coronation on 23rd April (St George’s Day) 1661 rivalled that of Elizabeth I. It is an awe-inspiring sight that provides an early indication of Charles II’s use of the arts throughout his reign in order to, once again, create a court that could rival the luxury of the French court of Louis XIV, where he had spent time during his 14 year exile.

Henry Greenway, Alms dish, c.1660-61. Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The second room in the exhibition includes a selection of items designed to remind us that Charles was not solely interested in re-establishing culture in the form of luxury, theatre and the role of the court. Evidence of his interest in science (he founded the Royal Society in 1660, which included such great scientific minds as Isaac Newton) and maps of colonies around the world are displayed. Mezzotints adorn the walls depicting Charles and his immediate circle. The king was very aware of the need to disseminate images of himself to his people and Sir Peter Lely, Limner and Picture Drawer, ensured that it was his paintings that provided the basis for these regal images. One cannot help but think that Charles II would, today, be an ardent user of Twitter or other electronic forms of self-promotion! The mezzotints were certainly ‘state of the art’ in the 17th century. Pageantry also had an important role to play and this is captured on a grand scale in Antonio Verrio’s canvas, ‘The Sea Triumph of Charles II’.

Sir Peter Lely’s series of three-quarter length portraits are imposingly displayed as the exhibition continues in a room dominated by the portrait of Charles II himself, by John Michael Wright.

Subsequently known as ‘The Windsor Beauties, these paintings include Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, the king’s most favoured mistress in the 1660’s, and reinforce the traditional view of Charles II as the Merrie Monarch. Nell Gwynn is also in evidence, apparently wearing a robe that belonged to her greatest rival, Louise de Kerouaille (Duchess of Portsmouth and Charles II’s favourite during the 1670’s), depicted alongside the children she bore Charles II. Yet these paintings also include images of the Chinese Jesuit, Michael Alphonsius Shen Fo-Tsung, who frequented court, as well as the actor and playwright, John Lacy, in three striking poses, based on his most famous roles and these paintings could not provide a greater contrast to the rule of Commonwealth government: highlighting its limitations.

In a small adjacent room, it is possible to see a significant display of Renaissance drawings, which entered the Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign, donated by Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel. The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring in their anatomical exactitude, but it is the work of Hans Holbein the Younger that depicts people in such a way that their characters simply leap from the simple pen and ink drawings housed within this annex. (Above: Abraham Blooteling, Carolus II Dei Gratia Anglia Scotia Francia Et Hibernia Ibernia Rex, c.1680-90 Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)

It is in the final room that the visitor becomes aware that one of the first acts of Charles II reign was the recovery of his father’s art collection. The Commonwealth government had sold much of his father’s art collection and in May 1660 Parliament commanded that all persons holding goods formerly belonging to Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria or the new king were to be returned to them with immediate effect. Renowned works such as ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ by Pieter Breughel the Elder, are positioned alongside Italianate artists such as Veronese in paintings presented by the Dutch to Charles II on his accession as a sign of goodwill and in the hope that a lasting peace could be established. Sadly, this was not to be. Tapestries and silver furniture within the room continue to reference the influence of the luxurious French fashions Charles had encountered during his exile and demonstrate the importance he laid on returning the court to its rightful place of pre-eminence on the world stage by reintroducing visual and decorative arts.

Pieter Brugel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1565 - 1567. Royal Collection Trust/(c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

This exhibition will soon be accompanied by another, Charles I: King and Collector, which will be on show at The Royal Academy of Arts from 27th January -15th April, 2018. The BBC’s Royal Collection Season will be broadcast to coincide with both exhibitions in January and February 2018. It includes Art, Passion and Power: The Story of the Royal Collection, a four part series on BBC4, written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon.


Charles II: Art and Power

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Showing until: 13th May 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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