The curiously Catholic tastes of King Charles I

Charles I in Three Positions, by Anthony van Dyck (Wikimedia Commons)

The Royal Academy’s exhibition that reassembles, in part at least, the art collection of King Charles I, is a show not to be missed. It represents a lifetime’s chance to see these pictures, sculptures and tapestries, which, seen together, tell us a great deal about King Charles’s royal project. Just as he pursued a policy of “Thorough” in the so-called Eleven Years Tyranny, these works of art too push out the boundaries of royal power and prestige.

The Guardian review, which is beautifully illustrated, makes the following important point:

“Sickly from childhood rickets, barely 5ft 3in and constantly trying to build himself up with strenuous hours in the saddle, Charles appears in supreme command of various gleaming stallions; out on the civil war battlefields; or at home with his family, finger to pensive temple as if he were a philosopher king. His even shorter wife is depicted alongside a dwarf, to boost her height, mouth painted with such suave vagueness as to disguise the fact that her front teeth projected, people said, like guns from a fortress.”

In fact even van Dyck cannot really cover up the personal inadequacies of the King: the splendour of his costumes, the glory of his horses, the regal posing are all in the end just that – a pose. Thousands were prepared to die for the Stuart King, and thousands unfortunately did, but the exhibition is haunted by the verdict of the victorious Parliamentarians: “Charles Stuart, that man of blood.” None of the portraits can quite disguise the vanity of the man, and the egotism that allowed him to lead the country to Civil War and disaster. The pictures’ labels reinforce the point, telling us where each one hung in the Palace of Whitehall, and how much each was sold for and to whom in the auction after the Civil War. The art is magnificent, but death and failure stalk these galleries too.

The Daily Telegraph makes the singularly uninformed point that Charles was “a closet-Catholic autocrat”. He was certainly autocratic, but he was no Catholic in sympathy or in belief, and died, he claimed, for the Church of England. All his children were brought up Protestant, with the exception of the youngest, who became Catholic without his consent, indeed, against his will. Nevertheless, his foes suspected Charles of being a crypto-Romanist and a would-be absolutist on the Continental model: it was widely assumed that absolutism and Catholicism went together. Certainly, the Parliamentarians had difficulty in distinguishing between Laudian High Churchmanship and Catholicism, and one cannot entirely blame them. Even the Pope of the day supposedly thought Archbishop Laud was a secret Catholic.

Despite his Protestant allegiance, there can be no doubt that Charles’s taste in art was deeply Catholic. A Madonna and Child, once thought to be by Raphael, hung in his bedroom, perhaps evidence for an object of private devotion, and one of the stars of the show is The Supper at Emmaus by Titian. Along with these examples of explicitly Catholic iconography are paintings, such as those by Correggio and Veronese which no Protestant could ever have produced. There is not a single work by an English artist in the whole exhibition. Charles’s favourite painter, Anthony van Dyck, was a Catholic, as was Peter Paul Rubens, that other great artist patronised by the Stuarts. In fact, I doubt there is a single work by a Protestant in the whole exhibition, apart from the Cranach Adam and Eve. No wonder the Commonwealth was so eager to sell the collection off and to break it up. To them, Charles’s great collection must have seemed to have been the work of the devil. Thankfully many of them went for high prices – the Correggio made an astonishing £800, though the Veronese was knocked down for just £11 – otherwise the Parliamentarians might have burned the lot.

So what does this tell us? In one sense not very much. English painting was then in its infancy. An art collection in those days was necessarily full of Flemish, Italian and Spanish paintings. Catholics were painting busily, thanks to the patronage generated by the Counter-Reformation Church. Protestants by and large were still living with the after-effects of iconoclasm. Charles’s taste lay with the Catholics, and while that tells us something about his aesthetic leanings, and quite a bit about his political ambitions, it does not very much about his faith.

In the end, this exhibition is a celebration of marvellous taste, which flowered under royal patronage all too briefly, only to be swept away by the Roundheads. But one takes away a note of hope too: there are two pictures of Charles II as a child, a solemn, rather ugly little boy. He resembles Henrietta Maria physically, and his father not at all. Through his maternal grandmother, he was descended from the Medici. He inherited their political skill as well as a certain Florentine charm. He was to grow up to be the great King that his father never was. And, just in case one forgets, this exhibition is being held in the Royal Academy; Britain is still a monarchy and we still have a Royal Collection. For this, we must thank Charles II a great deal – his father, sadly, not at all.