Charles I: King and collector

From martinet to martyr at the Royal Academy's show examining the art collection of Charles I

Daniel Johnson

“Charles I”, 1535-1536, by Anthony Van Dyck (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)

Charles I is the only monarch to have been declared a martyr by the Church of England. On the scaffold the king’s last recorded word, to his chaplain Bishop Juxon, had been a royal command: “Remember!”

They did: the Civil War, renamed by Clarendon “the Great Rebellion”, had killed a larger proportion of the British population than either world war, and in Ireland the losses were far greater than in the Famine of the 1840s. On my wall hangs the allegorical frontispiece of Charles’s book, Eikon Basilike (“the king’s portrait”), compiled and published as he awaited execution. This mystical yet subversive tract, perhaps the first instant book, went through scores of editions. The anonymous artist who created this “icon” shows him kneeling in prayer, holding a crown of thorns, his earthly crown underfoot, contemplating a heavenly crown. Only a propagandist of genius could have turned his sovereign into a saint.

Yet Charles is remembered as the most elegant of English kings, thanks to the gorgeous portraits of him, Queen Henrietta Maria and their court painted by his favourite artist, Sir Anthony van Dyck. He was the most talented collector of art ever to have occupied the throne. This year’s spring exhibition at the Royal Academy attempts to reassemble his exquisite collection, much of which was sold off by the Commonwealth after 1649. We also have a sprightly and original new biography by Leanda de Lisle: White King (Chatto, £20).

Charles first encountered great European art as Prince of Wales on his 1623 visit to Madrid with the Duke of Buckingham, where he bought Titians and Raphaels. Rubens himself was impressed by the knowledge and taste of this “greatest student of art among the princes of the world”. The admiration was mutual: Charles commissioned the Flemish master’s great ceiling fresco for Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House in Whitehall — from which he would one day emerge to be executed — and made Anthony van Dyck, whom Rubens thought the best of his “disciples”, his “principal Painter in ordinary”. Both Rubens and Van Dyck have the rare distinction of having lent their names to the English language: “rubenesque”, from the former’s voluptuous female subjects, while a “Van Dyck” is a beard of the kind made popular by the latter’s portraits of Charles and his courtiers. Knighted by Charles, Van Dyck even became a “denizen” (half-way between an English subject and an alien) and died in London on the eve of the Civil War.

In one of the best-known of some 30 portraits of Henrietta Maria, Van Dyck artfully juxtaposes her with her favourite dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, to exaggerate the Queen’s height (she only reached the shoulder of Charles, himself a very short man), thereby lending her a statuesque regality. Though pictured here aged 14 with a pet monkey, Hudson later became a formidable cavalier, quick to anger when called nicknames such as “Lord Minimus”. During the Queen’s exile in France, he challenged the brother of her Master of Horse to a duel. This man refused to take Sir Jeffrey seriously and arrived with a giant squirt; the diminutive David shot his Goliath in the forehead.

“Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson”, 1633, by Anthony van Dyck (National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.39. Photo © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

“Cupid and Psyche”, 1539-1540, by Anthony Van Dyck. (Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017)

The art collection that was Charles’s pride and joy was dispersed after his death. According to de Lisle the supposedly puritanical Cromwell kept some erotic Italian nudes to decorate his palaces. His officials evidently had little idea of the value of such works: Leonardo’s St John was sold for just £11, while a plumber was paid for his services with a Titian. Royalists secretly acquired as many pictures as they could and returned them to Charles II after the Restoration. Among them are the two Van Dycks seen here: the triple portrait of Charles and the Titianesque Cupid and Psyche, both of which have remained in the royal collection. The model for Psyche may have been Van Dyck’s mistress Margaret Lemon, but the painting was intended for Henrietta Maria’s house in Greenwich; this most Catholic Queen was no prude, even if many of her subjects were.

Indeed, one of the highlights of Leanda de Lisle’s biography are several hitherto unpublished letters in Henrietta Maria’s inimitable French, which enable the reader to see through her eyes the rise and fall of her beloved, gifted yet flawed husband. She herself was an early victim of “fake news”, in the form of a pamphlet, The King’s Cabinet Opened, which published extracts from the correspondence between Charles and Henrietta Maria captured after the Battle of Naseby. This scurrilous persiflage depicted the Queen as “the true controller of the breeches” who “marcheth at the head of an army and calls herself the Generalissima”. De Lisle shows that her real crime was to support Catholic toleration, which was unacceptable to Roundheads of any stripe.

When the King refused to save his chief lieutenant Strafford from the block, Archbishop Laud, who would later also lose his head for the Royalist cause, despaired of Charles as “a mild and gracious prince who knew not how to be, or be made great”. De Lisle rightly finds this a damning judgement. Yet he was not remembered as the Cromwellian “man of blood”, guilty of inciting the Civil War. My 1766 folio of the Book of Common Prayer prescribes “a Form of Prayer with Fasting, to be used yearly upon the Thirtieth of January, the Day of the Martyrdom of the Blessed King Charles the First”, to implore God’s forgiveness for the shedding of the King’s “innocent and sacred blood” by “cruel and unreasonable men”. In death he was transfigured from martinet to martyr, but it was Charles I’s connoisseurship that has kept his memory bright.

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