Published  26/01/2018

Charles II: Art and Power

Charles II: Art and Power

The Royal Collection’s exploration of the Merrie Monarch is a historical exhibition par excellence, presenting the king as a gateway to the art, culture and advances of the Restoration

John Michael Wright, Charles II, c1676 (detail). Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London
8 December 2017 – 13 May 2018


The first thing that strikes you about John Michael Wright’s portrait of Charles II (1671-76) is its sheer scale. The enthroned king, 6ft 2in in life, looms over the room as if more than mortal. Then there is the magnificence of his parliamentary robes, which he wears over his Order of the Garter costume, and which cascade to the floor in crimson and gold, shining as brightly as his orb, sword and sceptre. Charles’s face, framed by an oversized crown and an even larger hairdo, mingles solemnity with an almost rakish smirk. The portrait is not a masterpiece of the order of Van Dyck’s or Velázquez’s earlier depictions of rulers, but as a depiction of power and pomp with which the restored monarch sought to present himself, it more than does the job.

John Michael Wright, Charles II, c1676. Oil on canvas, 281.9 x 239.2 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Wright’s painting is a fitting centrepiece to Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery, which draws on the Restoration-era holdings and acquisitions of the Royal Collection. This handsome exhibition serves as both a prequel and a sequel to the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector, which opens on 27 January and runs until 15 April. But while that show – of which the Royal Collection Trust is partner – reunifies many of the paintings collected by the father and then auctioned off by the Commonwealth, this one is concerned with those that remained or were retrieved by the son. And while it can’t offer the same density of superb canvases and sculptures as its sister show, it instead marshals an immense assembly of artworks, objects, documentation and ephemera to construct a thorough survey of its subject’s age and interests.

Leonardo da Vinci, Oak (Quercus robur) and dyer's greenweed (Genista tinctoria), c1505–10. Red chalk with touches of white heightening on pale red prepared paper, 18.8 x 15.4 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

We begin before the beginning, with the execution of Charles II’s father and the subsequent interregnum. Edward Bower’s portrait Charles I at his Trial (1648-49), eerily slight right-hand aside, is an acute depiction of a man maintaining his bearing even as his doom approaches. After his death, prints and etchings transformed this all-too human autocrat into a martyr. Symbolism proliferated. The frontispiece of the first edition of Eikon Basilike (1649), a royal memoir allegedly written during the civil war, places him in the contrite pose of a medieval saint. His earthly crown lies discarded on the floor, replaced in his hand by a crown of thorns; a ray of celestial light shines down into his head and shoots back up again to form a heavenly crown reading Gloria. The man has been replaced by an emblem.

Johann Hass, The Exeter Salt, c1630. Silver gilt, enamel, mounted with almandine garnets, turquoises, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, amethysts, 45. 7 x 30.2 x 30.2 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

When the younger Charles was invited to take the throne in May 1660 after 14 years of exile, he was keenly aware of the importance of presentation in retaining his role. He had witnessed firsthand the splendours of Louis XIV’s court, and was eager to replicate them. In preparation for his coronation, he ordered a new set of crown jewels to replace those melted down during the Commonwealth. Rather than pure gold, however, finances forced him to settle for silver gilt: an apt analogy for an institution that had been humbled in all but appearance.

Abraham Blooteling, Carolus II Dei Gratia Anglia Scotia Francia Et Hibernia Ibernia Rex,
 c1680–90. Mezzotint, 68.3 x 51.5 cm (sheet). Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

From France, Charles brought back the ritual of the king’s touch, whereby those suffering from scrofula would be cured by the touch of their monarch’s hands. The miracle of Charles’s escape during the civil war was said to make his touch particularly effective. A cabinet here contains copper tickets given by surgeons to those certified for treatment, and smaller gold touch-pieces worn around the neck of whose who had been so blessed. It is fascinating to see such an ancient superstition bureaucratised, an intangible power signified by coin-like tokens.

Wenceslaus Hollar, The Coronation of King Charles the II in Westminster Abbey the 23 of April 1661, 1662. Etching, 36 x 48 cm (sheet). Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

In apparent contrast to this revival of superstition, Charles was also a patron of the burgeoning natural philosophy. He granted the Royal Society a charter in 1662, and was the dedicatee for Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), the first important work on microscopy, which featured engravings of its author’s fantastically detailed drawings of creatures and objects previously invisible; the copy in the Queen’s Gallery is opened at a page showing a louse grasping a single strand of human hair. A 1676 etching by Francis Place, made after a drawing by Robert Thacker, shows portraits of Charles and his brother looking down over the astronomers of the recently founded Royal Observatory at Greenwich, as if presiding spirits.

Francis Place, after Robert Thacker, Prospectus Intra Cameram Stellatam, 1676, showing astronomers at work in the Royal Observatory. Etching, 22.2 x 30.2 cm (plate mark); 25.4 x 35.1 cm (sheet). Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

There were other advances. Prints flourished as never before, with engravings and mezzotints of the king and his family circulated around the country by commercial printers. A 1660 engraving adapts an earlier equestrian depiction of Oliver Cromwell by Elias Küsel, replacing the severe Protector with the king but leaving all else intact. The king was far from the only subject of this blossoming ephemera. Events such as the Great Fire of 1666 could be reported nationally and internationally with remarkable celerity. Although news pamphlets had first blossomed in Britain during the civil war, the Restoration saw the rise of gazettes, bearing partisan digests of recent events, sent to subscribers.

Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea Odoni, 1527. 104.3 x 116.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The theatres were reopened and were abuzz with comedies that were satirical and sexually explicit to a depth unplumbed by even the bawdiest of their Jacobean predecessors. The cult of celebrity took off to an unprecedented extent. An excellent triple portrait (c1668-70) of the actor John Lacy, also by Wright, shows the comic in three of his most popular roles, as a Scotsman, a priest and a foppish courtier; it was painted specially for the king. The most storied actor of the period was Nell Gwyn, who rose from obscure origins to become one of the king’s favourites. An engraving from c1677-80, attributed to Antoine Masson, shows Nell in the pose of Venus, chest bare, and her two sons with Charles as twin Cupids; the king stands proud in the distance. Such licentiousness would have been unthinkable to the previous generation.

Sir Peter Lely, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, c1665. Oil on canvas, 124.5 x 101. 4 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Gwyn was but one of Charles’s many mistresses. The Earl of Rochester, in A Satyr on Charles II, cast the king as an inveterate libertine: “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore / A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.” Through the 1660s, the pensioned court artist Sir Peter Lely painted 11 large-format portraits of the most celebrated women of the Restoration court, several of them mistresses. Barbara Villiers appears in the guise of Minerva, saluting her wisdom and allowing for a comparison of her beauty with the ugliness of Medusa’s head, while the Duchess of Portsmouth is a paradigm of elegance and regality. Lely may be no Van Dyck, but his best portraits here have a dreamlike sensuousness all their own.

Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, c1674. Oil on canvas, 224.5 x 231 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Another of the monarch’s favoured painters, the Italian Antonio Verrio, allowed him to indulge in a taste for kitschy extravagance. The Sea Triumph of Charles II (c1674) places the king, in skimpy classical armour, astride a clump of nymphs, tritons and horses; the heightened, mythological mode helps to conceal Restoration England’s rather poor naval record. It is not a particularly successful painting, but as a work of flattery it did wonders: Charles later appointed Verrio to decorate the state apartments and chapel at Windsor Castle. The Italian responded with frescos so lavish that they would fit in any court of Catholic Europe, and reveal a very different manifestation of English baroque than the restrained model pioneered by Christopher Wren. Unfortunately, only a fragment survived George IV’s dull 19th-century refit.

Pieter Brughel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, c1565–67. Oil on panel, 109.2 x 158.1 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Charles did not collect older paintings with the same zeal as his father, but that is not to say he was slack. In 1660, he struck up a relationship with the art dealer William Frizell, from whom he eventually bought 72 pieces. The highlight of these purchases is a Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-67) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Formerly owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, it was converted from an image of Habsburg pillage to a less politically sensitive scene of general plunder in a Netherlandish village. Slaughtered babies were replaced by bread and meat. Occasionally, the second layer of paint gives way, making visible the concealed violence below. Maarten van Heemskerck’s The Four Last Things (1565), from the same bundle, is a mannerist allegory that makes up for its ill-defined figures with sheer hallucinogenic vitality.

Maarten van Heemskerck, The Four Last Things, 1565. Oil on panel, 68.5 x 155 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

A royal proclamation of 1660 demanded the return of works that had been “purloyn’d and embezilled, or upon pretences seized” during the Commonwealth, excepting those that had been given by the king in exchange for the clearance of debts. But even the owners of the latter were often persuaded to hand over their treasures, in return for favour with the new order. Many of the best works here were given to the king as bribes, the most extraordinary instance of which was the Dutch Gift – 28, largely Italian Renaissance, paintings granted in a futile attempt to avoid Anglo-Dutch conflict. It includes fine work from Titian, Paolo Veronese and Giulio Romano, as well as Lorenzo Lotto’s striking and unusual portrait of the Venetian collector Andrea Odoni (1527), who stands proud yet protective amid his classical sculptures and holds a golden cross to his heart as if to pre-empt accusations of paganism.

Paolo Veronese, The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, c1562–69. Oil on canvas, 148 x 199.5 cm. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The one area in which Charles easily exceeded his father was in the acquiring of drawings, a medium that the British monarchy had previously ignored. His reign was punctuated by a series of acquisitions from collectors such as Nicholas Lanier and the dealer William Gibson, although the details of such transferrals are sparse. Pieces such as Michelangelo’s delicate yet possessed The Head of the Virgin (c1540) were used by court painters as models to imitate. The greatest hoard of all was that of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who had amassed 80 Hans Holbein portraits, a set of 30 Parmigianino studies and a bound album of Leonardo da Vinci drawings. Away from all the silk and gilt, the pomp and presentment, these exquisite sketches quietly speak for themselves.

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