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Royal Academy marks 250th anniversary with landmark Charles I exhibition

To celebrate the Royal Academy’s milestone anniversary, an astonishing collection of works have been collected together for a landmark exhibition on Charles I

Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony Van Dyck, 1635-6 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)

Charles: King & Collector at the Royal Academy was five years in the making and really is a landmark event - worthy of the curators’ description that it is their ‘greatest ever assembling of art’ and the perfect way to celebrate the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary. Filling twelve galleries of the Royal Academy and designed in such a way that visitors do not have to take a linear tour, but can return to areas of greatest interest as and when they wish, much time needs to be allocated for a visit. It is also worth noting that this exhibition will not travel i.e. it can only be seen in London - so another good reason to find time to visit this stunning exhibition.

The first gallery, entitled Artists and Agents, acts as the perfect introduction, not least because the visitor is greeted with the iconic masterpiece by Anthony Van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions, which is positioned directly opposite the entrance. Less well known, perhaps, is that the painting was sent to Bernini, the most renowned sculptor of the age, to act as the basis for a bust, which he subsequently produced, but which was sadly destroyed in the Whitehall fire of 1698. Bernini kept the painting, demonstrating his admiration for the work of the Flemish painter’s work. Other walls are filled with portraits of figures who were key to Charles I collection, which he determined should rival those housed in other European courts.

Prior to his visit to Madrid in 1623, where he was involved in marriage negotiations with Philip IV’s sister (in an attempt to end the 30 years' war), Charles I had been exposed almost exclusively to rather static dynastic Tudor portraits and he was instantly impressed by works from the Italian Renaissance artists. He was presented with a Titian portrait depicting Charles V by his great grandson, Philip IV (who was unable to ask for its return once marriage negotiations came to nought), and it was no surprise that two years later, Charles sent Nicholas Latimer to view the collection amassed by the Gonzaga family who needed to sell some of their treasures to satisfy a mounting debt.

Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484-92. Tempera on canvas.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The third room is devoted to nine paintings by Mantegna from that collection. These huge pictures from the early 16th century are displayed to advantage and depict the Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers. These help contradict the criticism sometimes levelled at Charles I, claiming he was less interested in the subject matter of the works he acquired, than their style. Mantegna demonstrated his learning and these imposing canvases were the only paintings retained by Oliver Cromwell, whilst the remainder of the collection was sold following the end of the Civil War and execution of the king.

Other areas are dedicated to themes such as the Northern Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance and works chosen by Henrietta Maria (Charles I influential wife). These paintings have been carefully hung to replicate their original positions within the various royal palaces and captions accompanying each picture not only contain this information, but also identify the initial purchaser (when the collection was originally dispersed), plus its current home (The Royal Collection, Louvre and Prado have been extremely generous in loaning key pieces to enhance this outstanding exhibition).

Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine, Anthony Van Dyck

Charles I on Horseback, Anthony Van Dyck, 1937-38

Intentionally, the best has been left until last in this review. The Central Hall houses three equestrian portraits by Van Dyck , which have been brought together for the very first time. The earliest is the most formal and is entitled Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (his equerry). This painting took pride of place in St James Palace and the regal depiction of Charles now adorns the walls of Buckingham Palace. Adjacent to this is the Charles I on Horseback (1937-38), which was painted for display in Hampton Court and has a far more rural feel but the angle at which it is painted helps ensure Charles’ lack of stature is not evident! The third painting, Charles I in the Hunting Field, creates a completely different mood, where the king appears to look effortlessly perfect.

Family portrait of Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their children, by Anthony Van Dyck

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

As the visitor looks from the Central Hall, another Van Dyck masterpiece has been carefully positioned so that it is framed by the arch, and depicts Charles and Henrietta Maria in a family portrait with their two children, the future Charles II and his younger sister, Princess Mary. This is just one of the paintings by Van Dyck in the gallery devoted to Charles I royal portraits and helps to highlight the developments in royal portraiture during his reign. Daniel Mytens (the first court painter) produced a rather flat portrait of the king, whose facial features are of less interest than the quality of his clothing he wears, which juxtaposes the almost intimate painting of Charles and Henrietta Maria sharing a laurel wreath, as well as looks of undoubted affection created by Van Dyck.

This really is an exhibition not to be missed. The fact that Charles I collected these exceptional paintings during a period of global unrest within the space of approximately 20 years is a source of wonder in itself. The fact that so many of these pieces have come back together at the RA is a testament to the collaborative approach so evident within this exhibition.


Charles I: King and Collector

Royal Academy, London

27 January - 15 April 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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