Charles I remains one of the greatest art collectors England has ever known, amassing an impressive collection of around 1500 paintings by some of the major artists of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and a further 500 sculptures.
Following his execution in 1649, much of the collection was sold off at a fraction of its true worth in an attempt by the newly established Commonwealth to raise funds. A large number of works were bought back during the Restoration, but the whereabouts of many of them have been lost to history.
The legend of Charles’ magnificent collection has captured the imagination of art historians for centuries: but what made it so remarkable and what happened to it?
A passionate collector
Charles’ passion for art was said to stem from a trip to Spain in 1623: it was here he was first exposed to the pomp and majesty of the Spanish court, as well as the extensive collection of works by Titian the Habsburgs had amassed. On the same trip, he bought his first piece by Titian, Woman with a Fur Coat, and spent ruinously, despite the trip’s purpose – securing a marriage alliance between Charles and the Infanta of Spain – failing miserably.
Following his accession to the throne in 1625, Charles rapidly began purchasing a splendid new collection. The Dukes of Mantua sold much of their collection to Charles through an agent, and he rapidly began acquiring other works by Titian, da Vinci, Mantegna and Holbein, as well as investing in Northern European pieces too. This was a watershed moment in the history of English royal art collections: Charles far surpassed his predecessors and his exacting taste and style meant a piece of Europe’s vibrant visual culture was fostered in England for the first time.
Charles appointed Anthony van Dyck as the chief court painter, and commissioned portraits of himself and his family by Rubens and Velazquez. Many consider it somewhat poignant that one of the last things Charles would have seen before his execution was the ornate Rubens ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall which Charles commissioned and later had installed in the 1630s.
As king, it was difficult for Charles for travel and see paintings in the flesh before buying them. Instead, he began to rely increasingly on agents who scoured Europe’s collections and sales for him. He was said to not only be a feverish collector, but a fussy one too. He had specific tastes and wanted a broad collection: in his desire to acquire a da Vinci, he traded two valuable paintings by Holbein and Titian.
Whilst Charles’ new collection was certainly a symbol of royal power, glory and superior taste, it did not come cheap. Money for the purchases had to be raised somehow, and the cost far outstripped that which the royal coffers alone could afford. Firstly through Parliament, and later through a series of archaic taxes and levies during his personal rule, Charles ensured that a large part of the financial burden of his magnificent new collection fell on his subjects. Unsurprisingly, this did little to help his reputation amongst Parliament and his subjects.
In an unprecedented turn of events, Charles was executed in 1649 on grounds of treason and his goods and property were seized by the new government of the Commonwealth. After nearly a decade of civil war, the new government was in dire need of money. Helped by an inventory of Charles’ paintings compiled in the late 1630s, they assessed and remade an inventory of the late king’s collection and then held one of the most remarkable art sales in history.
Everything that could be sold from Charles’ art collection was. Some soldiers and former palace staff who had wages in arrears were permitted to take paintings which were of equivalent worth: one of the royal household’s former plumbers walked away with a 16th century masterpiece by Jacopo Bossano that is now in the Royal Collection.
Other, relatively ordinary people, snapped up pieces which are only just resurfacing after decades in private collections. Unusually, everyone and anyone was welcome to attend the sale and purchase pieces: it was distinctly competitive.
Many of Europe’s royal houses – horrified by events in England – were no less savvy, buying up assorted Titians and van Dycks for relatively low prices for their own collections. In the face of a bargain, the fact that their money was fuelling a new republican regime seemed to pale into insignificance.
Detailed bills of sale were made by Cromwell’s new regime, detailing the price each piece was sold for and who bought it. Artists like Rembrandt, who are universally known and sought after in the art world today, were virtual nobodies at this point, selling for pittance compared to the artistic giants of the day like Titian and Rubens, whose work was snapped up for much larger sums.
What happened next?
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the new king, Charles II, made attempts to buy back what he could of his father’s collection, but many had left England and entered other royal collections across Europe.
Extensive investigative work means that the identity and whereabouts of roughly one third of Charles’ collection has been determined, but that still leaves over 1,000 pieces which have effectively disappeared, either into private collections, destroyed, lost or repainted over the years or because they had descriptions which have made it nigh impossible to trace specific pieces.
The Royal Collection holds around 100 items today, with other scattered over the world’s major galleries and collections. The true splendour of the full collection will never be re-created, but it has achieved somewhat legendary status amongst historians and art historians in the modern world.
More importantly, Charles’ legacy continues to define British royal collections today: from the way in which he portrayed himself to the styles and variety he collected, Charles ensured his art collection was at the forefront of aesthetics and taste and set a standard which his successors have strived to achieve since.