Fine art: False beards, failed betrothals and a love of art

A detail of van Dyck’s Triple Portrait of Charles I. Bernini based his Charles I bust on it

Charles I, as we all learned at school, was our only king to have his head chopped off – by Oliver Cromwell, who then banned fun. What we probably didn’t learn is that Charles I founded the Royal Collection of works of art – and that Cromwell flogged them all off in a fire sale. After the Restoration, Charles II set about recovering as much of his father’s art collection as he could. Today’s Royal Collection has about half of them; some works were lost, others scattered around Europe.

The 12 galleries of this huge exhibition at the Royal Academy in London gather together 140 of the most important and often stunning paintings, not only from our present monarch’s collection, but also from the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Prado and elsewhere; some are reunited for the first time since Charles I’s execution.

Charles inherited the beginnings of his collection from his mother, Anne of Denmark, but it took off when he travelled to Madrid with a friend in 1623, both incognito in false beards, to organise his engagement with the infanta. That fell through – but instead he fell in love with the works of Titian. By the time he became king two years later his collecting was in full flow. There are paintings in this exhibition by Titian, van Dyck, Bruegel, Mantegna, Tintoretto, Holbein and many others. Van Dyck’s triple painting of Charles greets you in the first room: full-face between both profiles. It was sent to Rome so that Bernini could model his bust from it. In front of the painting is a bust of Charles – though not Bernini’s, now sadly lost.

There are many highlights in this exhibition: the informal family portraits with children and pets, a complete shift in approach from the stiff Tudor portraits. Charles looked good with horses: there are three classic paintings by van Dyck, including the startling Charles I on Horseback with M de St Antoine, with the king riding through an archway directly towards us.

There are, of course, religious pictures: Jan Gossaert’s Adam and Eve and Holbein’s Noli Me Tangere are familiar; somewhat less so is Dosso Dossi’s Virgin and Child with Saints, in which the infant Christ is for some reason holding a cockerel.

Charles also had an eye for the deeply sensual: Correggio’s Venus with Mercury and Cupid hangs next to Veronese’s Mars, Venus and Cupid and Rubens’s Minerva Protects Pax from Mars – all of them gorgeous. Charles’s French wife Henrietta Maria also helped shape the royal collection with both biblical and classical scenes, including three by Orazio Gentileschi.

Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy, London, until April 15