Time for some culture, although I can’t help thinking of a quote I first came across when teaching Mussolini’s Italy to schoolchildren some 30 years ago: ‘when I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my gun,’ said, yes, Mussolini’s Minister of Culture. Seriously, though, this is a particularly good time to be a lover of all things seventeenth century. London currently has two superb art exhibitions with a linked theme, Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy, and Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, and last week, we went to see them both, the former in the morning, the latter in the afternoon. The former is definitely the main event – nothing less than a re-assembling in one building of a substantial part of the great art collection of King Charles I, sold and dispersed after the king’s execution in 1649. To prepare ourselves, we’d dutifully watched the BBC’s excellent documentary, which showed the great artworks being moved from the Louvre and elsewhere, accompanied by insightful commentary from such noted art critics as, umm, Tony Adams. (On the same principle, I look forward to the next Match of the Day carrying Tracey Emin’s views on Jose Mourinho’s deployment of holding midfielders.)
The Royal Academy exhibition contains an outstanding cross-section of Charles I’s taste. There’s the monumental – the nine panels of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar have a room to themselves, as do four vast Mortlake tapestries, brought over from France. There’s the intimate, including a substantial collection of miniatures. There’s plenty of Renaissance religious art, although sadly, I can’t look at a lot of this genre without being reminded of Allo Allo‘s running gag about ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’. There’s a substantial amount of Rubens. Above all, though, there are Van Dycks galore, and for me, they were easily worth the ticket cost on their own. Now, I have to declare a particular personal interest in Van Dyck, quite apart from rating him as a pretty decent dauber: he married Mary Ruthven, heiress of the notorious Earls of Gowrie who were the subject of my book Blood of Kings (now out of print, alas), and thanks to their only child Justina, born eight days before her father died, the Stepney baronets of my hometown of Llanelli, whose history I’ve been writing for many years, became the only legitimate descendants of the great artist. And what Van Dycks the exhibition has on display! There’s the famous portrait of Charles I in three positions; the so-called ‘Great Peece’, a truly vast work which turns the minute Charles and Henrietta Maria into giants; and the knockout centrepiece of the exhibition, three of the greatest Van Dycks of all (Charles I at the Hunt, Charles I with M de St Antoine and the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I) assembled in the same space and looking across at each other, something that would never have happened even when the artist was alive. These works were very familiar – for one thing, they’d all ended up at one time or another as the cover art for History textbooks when I was teaching the period to A-level students! But to see them at their full scale, and complimenting each other, was a sensational experience, allowing all sorts of comparisons to be made. For example, as Wendy, the ‘LadyQJ’ of my Twitter feed, remarked, it’s curious that the king actually looks more powerful and autocratic in what seems to be the most informal of the three settings, ‘Charles I at the Hunt’, than in the two vast equestrian portraits where he’s in full armour.
My personal favourite in the exhibition, though? This one – ‘The Children of Charles II’, partly because of the poignancy of the eventual fates of both several of the children and of their family as a whole during the turmoil that was soon to engulf them, partly because of that dog.
And so, after lunch, a stroll across Green Park in winter sunshine, skirting the crowds outside Buck House (royal standard flying, so HM in residence), and then into the Queen’s Gallery. This is a much smaller space than the Royal Academy, and the exhibition is much more modest in scale and ambition, with only a very few pieces of really great art from the Royal Collection on display. Paradoxically, though, it had rather more of direct interest to me, which can be summed up simply as ‘lots of naval stuff’. Moreover, unlike the RA, the Queen’s Gallery both permits photography and is much less crowded, so it’s possible to get really close to the pictures, take closeups of detail, etc etc. So here, in no particular order, are a few of my own photos of my personal highlights. But don’t take my word for it: if you’re at all able to get to That London, go yourselves!
The highlight for me, though, was Antonio Verrio’s staggering The Sea Triumph of Charles II, from the Royal Collection. I talk about this in my new non-fiction book Kings of the Sea:
Verrio…was also responsible for The Sea Triumph of Charles II, in which Charles, attired as a Roman emperor and attended by his fleet, is driven through the waters by Neptune and four sea horses. Victory presents the king with a plumed helmet, while Envy (the Dutch or French, perhaps?) is struck by lightning. A fleet of British warships lies at anchor, while Minerva and Juno look on approvingly. The whole is adorned with the legend ‘imperium oceano famam qui terminet astris’ (‘whose empire ocean, and whose fame the skies alone shall bound’). In short, The Sea Triumph was emphatically not a modest and understated piece of domestic art.
I’d seen the Sea Triumph before, in the Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum a couple of years ago, but the NMM didn’t allow photography. Three cheers, then, for the much more enlightened policy of Her Majesty and those responsible for her art collection, which means that I can leave you with what has to be pretty much the most utterly bonkers piece of naval art ever conceived! Enjoy.