I popped along to the Royal Academy’s Charles I, King and Collector exhibition with an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, thinking we’d be in and out in an hour and have time for a lengthy catch-up over tea in the cafe. But no, almost two hours in, my friend had to leave and I staggered on alone, through great halls of tapestries and sculptures. Foolishly, I’d no idea that Charles I had such ambition as a collector. His idea was to forge a foundation for the Royal collection that was suitably imperial, imposing enough to reflect his divine right to rule – but in fact, his grandiose collection was soon to go under the auctioneer’s gavel, while his own head ended up on the block.
Walking round, and seeing the relentlessly repeated, quiveringly sensitive features of the King, with his long, questing proboscis and watery, poor-me eyes, I was forcibly reminded of another Charles, particularly as an unauthorised biography has just come out, full of self-pitying quotes, lots of posturing about art and architecture and a dangerous Marie-Antoinette-style indifference to his populace. Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I in Three Positions is a marvellous exposition of a flawed character, particularly when viewed, as we inescapably must see it today, with 20:20 hindsight.
There are some fantastic gems in this exhibition, and I’m planning to go back and see them again. There are also some clunkers, including the roomful of tapestries and another filled with towering Mantegnas, which, as a friend pointed out, are on free display year round at Hampton Court and I certainly wouldn’t waste ten minutes on them there. Though we must marvel at their age and their scale, I’m afraid there is something terrifically dull these days about faded tapestry and frescos. In years to come, the gallery-goers of the future will no doubt sweep past Cornelia Parker’s shed and Damien Hirst’s shark with similar scorn.
I hope our current Royals have had a chance to see this show. Well, the Queen certainly has, lots of the works are from her own collection. If they’ve taught her anything, it’s not to get her portrait painted every other day with a massive horse, huge pillar, her entire family or yards and yards of taffeta. Let’s hope her successors are as clever and as careful.