King Charles I is often best known for wearing two shirts to his execution, lest the crowd mistake his shivering for fear. But he was also a passionate and knowledgeable collector of art, assembling one of the finest collections ever seen. Dispersed by parliament after his death, the masterpieces were scattered all over the world. But a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at The Royal Academy brings them together again for the first time since 1649, firmly reinstating Charles’ reputation as one of the most acclaimed art collectors ever.

Reunited after 350 years


The exhibition, which runs until 15 April, is a stunning start to the commemorations to mark the 250th anniversary of The Royal Academy. It is also a fitting tribute to the most significant collector of art of any British monarch, Charles’ collection totalling 1,500 paintings, 500 sculptures and tapestries, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, including established masterpieces and contemporary commissions.

Scattered across the globe after his execution, it is testimony to Charles’ significance as a collector that many of the works have been loaned for the exhibition by some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, including two Titians and Van Dyck’s most celebrated portrait of Charles I from The Louvre in Paris and five works from the Museo del Prado in Madrid. In all, the exhibition comprises around 90 works, including four Mortlake tapestries of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles, one of the many works given as diplomatic gifts by Cromwell, which are normally stored in the Mobilier National in Paris.

Although some of Charles I’s collection was reassembled by his son Charles II during The Restoration, many of the works have never been brought back to Britain since his father’s death, including the Van Dyck portrait. However, some are being loaned by the Royal Collection and five from the National gallery in London, including two portraits of Charles I on horseback, which have never been hung together before.

Learning from the Charles I exhibition

Charles was first inspired by art when he attended the court in Madrid in 1623; although he did not return with his planned bride (the match was opposed by Protestants back home), he did bring home paintings by Titian and Veronese – and a burning desire to amass a great art collection of his own.

He spent the first two decades of his reign – and a fortune – assembling a collection to rival that of the Spanish court. One of his favourite genres was the Italian renaissance, especially Titian. But he also scored a major coup in persuading Rubens and Van Dyck, two of Europe’s most famous contemporary painters, to come to Britain, with Van Dyck becoming Charles’ court painter. Early in his acquisition, Charles also purchased the entire collection of the Duke of Mantua when the nobleman fell on hard times.

Charles I’s collection displays the possibility of combining past masters with contemporary works, and the role of the commissioner as the vital patron of artists. His purchase of the Mantuan collection shows the value of keeping your ear to the ground to enable you to pick up a bargain!

But, most tellingly, it reminds us how much personal ambition can be revealed by a collection; the masterpieces Charles amassed were a visual manifestation of his belief in the divine right of a king to rule. It is no coincidence that Cromwell systematically dispersed the collection after his death.

Charles I: King and Collector at the RA 27 January-15 April

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