I’ve recently finished a book about the sale of Charles I’s quite substantial art collection, and Charles II’s attempts to reconstitute it to form what is now the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, the book was written some years before the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy although the revised afterword did allude to the prospect of some of the paintings coming together for the first time since the mid-1600s. However, the book opens with a discussion of this painting, which apparently (according to Art UK) is in Cornwall (although there are other versions in Apsley House and the Manchester Art Gallery); but I have a rather different thesis than the author.
I’m fairly convinced that this image is partly responsible for the English Civil War. A bold statement, and I know full well that there were many other causes of the war, but I think this painting was instrumental. Here’s why.
Charles Stuart was never meant to be king. He had an older brother, Henry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 15. Henry was, like his Tudor namesake, very much a sportsman and soldier, fit and able and keen on a variety of gentlemanly pursuits. He was also a keen art collector, and after his death his art collection was divided between his parents (James I and Anne of Denmark) and his younger brother, who had been considered by the family weak, feeble and not expected to survive for long. Indeed, it took James I five years after Henry’s death to have Charles proclaimed Prince of Wales, because nobody thought he would live long enough to succeed his father.
So already this painting feeds a lie; Van Dyck wishes to give the impression that Charles was militarily capable, authoritative and a bringer of peace throughout his kingdom. Contemporary evidence demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth. Charles, reliant on advisors who wanted nothing more than to advance their own causes, was indecisive, frequently deceitful and genuinely believed that, as King, he could do no wrong. He was above human law in all respects, right down to paying his debts. He never talked about money, as it was vulgar, and when chased for payment of his growing art collection, was affronted that these artworks were not gifts to His Majesty.
In creating this image of his monarch, I do feel that Van Dyck was pandering to Charles’ vanity and in so doing, promoted the image of Charles that he very quickly came to believe. It was unfortunate, then, that it proved so costly; in treating Parliament as a vassal and in believing he was above the law of man Charles lost everything. This begs the question of whether a more realistic portrait would have changed anything; I believe that it would have deprived Western Art of a master of baroque portraiture, but it might have given the King a much-needed reality check. We shall never know.