Anthony van Dyck, “Charles I in Three Positions” (1635-36) oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm; RCIN 404420 (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018)

LONDON — Since its announcement, the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector was destined to be the old master show of the decade, if not of living memory. During his reign of England (1625–49) Charles I acquired one of the most exceptional fine and applied art collections ever gathered, spending unprecedented amounts to secure the finest treasures available in Europe. Following his execution for treason in 1649 it was unceremoniously sold off, yard-sale style, by Oliver Cromwell. The show’s promise to reunite the pieces for the first time since their dispersal set anticipation in the art world soaring, if as much for its legendarily superlative quality — Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Holbein the Younger, Titian and Andrea Mantegna scream from the list — as for its art historical significance. Never has writing an exhibition review been so consistently threatened by the temptation to just list each and every beautiful piece as reason enough to visit; it is no exaggeration to suggest that every room could exist standalone as an exhibition.

Yet underpinning the show are two crucial pillars of curatorial strength: the diplomatic negotiation of securing the works, and their clear, focused arrangement throughout the gallery in a manner which allows the political events of the time to be told through the narrative of the collection’s history. In securing loans from lending institutions it is often the case that the asking gallery offers one of its own works as exchange; the Royal Academy in this respect is disadvantaged in having little to no permanent collection of its own. Fortunately, much comes from the Queen’s Gallery. Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, joins the RA’s Per Rumberg as curator. Yet one may speculate with some awe at the negotiations that must have happened to borrow the mighty Titian’s circa 1534 “The Supper at Emmaus” and Anthony Van Dyck’s circa 1636 “Charles I in the Hunting Field” from the Louvre, Paris, or Titian’s 1533 “Charles V with a Dog” from the Prado, Madrid.

Titian, “The Supper at Emmaus” (c. 1534) oil on canvas, 169 x 244 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris, Department of Paintings, inv. 746; (photo © RMN-Grand Palais [musée du Louvre] / Stéphane Maréchalle)

Similarly, the levels of insurance and logistical difficulty involved in the show’s assembly must have been mind-boggling. Remarkable is the presence of the colossal, and colossally fragile, Mortlake workshop tapestries of Raphael’s “Acts of the Apostles” (ca.1631–40) from Mobilier National, Paris, and the entire monumental sequence of Andrea Mantegna’s magnificent “The Triumph of Caesar” (ca.1484–92) which has surely never left its dedicated corridor display at Hampton Court Palace.

Andrea Mantegna, “The Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers” (c. 1485-1506) tempera on canvas, 269.5 x 280 cm RCIN 403961 (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018)

The layout itself is expansive yet uncluttered, taking single rooms to focus on key elements in the collection’s formation in conjunction with political developments. For a show of such scale, this allows absorption of the narrative at leisurely pace. Charles I came to power at a time when the presence of art, let alone its production, was relatively scarce: only a century before, the English Reformation under Henry VIII had instigated a mass cull of images and image-making. In 1623, Charles visited Madrid with the intention of marrying Infanta Maria Anna, sister of Philip IV of Spain. There he encountered the Habsburg collection, and, inspired, returned to England with numerous paintings including samples of Titian and Paolo Veronese. Collecting later escalated, represented here by whole rooms devoted to his Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings. The latter is stuffed with gorgeous Holbein portraits and a rare “Noli me tangere (Do not touch me)” (1526–28) and the Gonzaga collection accumulated by the Dukes of Mantua, of which the aforementioned Mantegna sequence here occupies the entirety of the largest room. Adjacent to the “Triumph of Caesar” are symmetrically arranged classical busts: a 2nd-century Marcus Aurelius that is an exercise in unmistakable Roman verisimilitude. Such arrangement, and in particular this studied placement of classic sculptures lends the whole exhibition the feel of a stately tended garden through which one might take a leisurely stroll.

Anthony van Dyck, “Charles I in the Hunting Field” (c. 1636) oil on canvas, 266 x 207 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Department of Paintings, inv. 1236 (photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Christian Jean)

In addition to acquiring existing European art, Charles further proceeded to yank England up to the cultural level of its continental neighbors by commissioning artists at home. The Mortlake workshop established in 1619 created the stunning tapestries after Raphael, which were among the most valuable of his possessions. Above all else however is the overarching influence of Anthony Van Dyck, who, having trained under Rubens, had enjoyed a successful career in Europe before being snapped up as court painter by Charles in 1632. The plethora of Van Dyck portraits which form the vast bulk of the show demonstrate his art historical significance in transforming portraiture in the seventeenth century. Far from simply emboldening the sitter and recording for the purpose of emphasising dynastic security, he imbued depictions of Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria — he of slight stature and impenetrably aloof character, she of famously protruding teeth — with warmth and humanity, even vulnerability. In his “Charles I in Three Positions” (1635–36), painted as a guide for a bust by Bernini (now lost), or the two enormous equestrian portraits, “Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine” (Royal Collection, 1632) and “Charles I on Horseback” (National Gallery, 1637–38), there is a palpable psychological dimension. The diminutive figure of Charles peers out at us with animation, even sincerity. Despite its enormously regal vast expanse of canvas surrounding the royal family sitting in “The Greate Peece” of 1632, one gains an impression of real, charming, familial affection between them.

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641 ), Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection 1952.5.39

Before this last painting is placed an open book. This is the “Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I, 1649,” a full inventory of Charles’s possessions compiled by Abraham Van der Doort, open here at the page on which “The Greate Peece” is listed. Its presence reminds us that both it and the paintings shown here, are all primary sources of history. Not only can art narrate events and stories as a secondary source of evidence, but art can also embody history itself as physical symptoms of events and developments. The collection sold and dispersed is effectively collateral damage from the political fallout of Charles’s deposition. Even the Gozaga collection was acquired as a monetary transaction from a financially struggling dynasty. The pieces assembled for the show are only 140 of the approximately 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures recorded. Although we appreciate them in a wider art historical context, it is very easy to comprehend how to contemporary viewers — his subjects and ordinary folk — they embodied excessive spending and self-aggrandisement, a contributing factor in his downfall.

A show on one of the greatest collections of art ever assembled could easily have lazily relied on a selection of “greatest hits” and a lack of exploration into historical context. But this exhibition is enabled by a triumphal excess of exquisite loans and measured, beautifully conceived curating. Put simply, it is an unmissable milestone.

Charles I: King and Collector continues at the Royal Academy (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through April 15.

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...