Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy of Arts and Charles II: Art and Power – Queen’s Gallery

The Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery are both playing host to seventeenth-century royalty-related exhibitions this year. I don’t know if they planned it this way or not, but they certainly made the most of it, offering a joint weekend ticket including tea and cake. I’ll admit the cake swung it for me.

Royal Academy of Art

The Royal Academy exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, was actually due to end on the day I visited, so it was very busy. This didn’t stop me from getting a good look at the works on display, however. Works are categorised by theme, with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance and Van Dyck and Reubens in England grouped in separate rooms, or else their former location: pictures that were hung in the Queen’s House can be found in one room, and those from the Whitehall Cabinet in another. The Mortlake Tapestries adorn one room, while images of Charles I in the hunting field hang in the Central Hall.

The exhibition consists of works that were accumulated by Charles I before and after he became king. He loved art and was a keen collector, but after his execution his collection was broken up and sold off (some of the catalogues can be seen here). This exhibition reunites these works after several centuries. Some didn’t have far to come, having got back into the Royal family’s hands after the Restoration, or else having been sold to wealthy collectors in the UK. Others, however, ended up in Europe or the US, and have been loaned for the purposes of this exhibition.

I must admit that in themselves, I didn’t fall in love with many of the works on display here (though I did enjoy seeing the full-length portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an image I recognised from A level History). However, I was impressed by the collection as a whole, and the way in which it reflects Charles’ impact on the art world.

Queen's Gallery

After my restoring cup of tea and piece of cake I walked through Green Park to the Queen’s Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power is currently being hosted until 15 May. This exhibition follows on from and complements the Charles I exhibition, focusing on Charles II and how he made use of art to convey his power. It began with a small display of items relating to the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Protectorate, and went on to focus on the art that he collected and that was produced during his reign. Some of this was originally part of his father’s collection and had been brought back; others were new acquisitions.

In terms of the historical interest, I think I preferred this exhibition, partly as it was much quieter and much easier to see the artworks. There were surprises too: for instance, I had no idea that the famous painting of Erasmus was once part of a pair, and the two paintings were attached together.

The most dramatic work in this exhibition is the huge portrait of Charles II (the one that adorns all the publicity material) that dominates the last room. In its display of power and authority it is reminiscent of the painting of Charles I on horseback displayed at the Royal Academy; knowing what happened to the first Charles, I wonder if the second Charles drew this comparison and wondered; or if he just didn’t care.

Regardless, these are a fascinating pair of exhibitions, well put together and worthwhile for their historical context as much as their artistic context.

Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars – V&A

I was at the V&A yesterday in order to buy advance tickets for the Bowie exhibition (my parents are coming down at the end of May and my dad in particular really wants to see it), and while I was there I thought I might as well visit the new exhibition Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars. I am very interested in history – I have a degree in the subject and actually studied the Tudors at A Level – and I am fascinated by anything to do with Russia, so this exhibition sounded ideal for me.

The background to the exhibition is that the Tudor era was when relations with Muscovy – now Russia – began to be established. The explorer Richard Chancellor reached Muscovy in 1553, while looking for the north east passage – his route took him over Norway and Sweden rather than via the Baltic – and this kick-started the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two powers. In 1556 the English Court House was founded in Moscow and from then until the end of the reign of Charles I, English ambassadors were a regular presence in the city. Relations soured during Oliver Cromwell’s rule – Russian powers were appalled that the English had executed their monarch (understandably, given what would happen in 1918!) – but were reinstated at the Restoration of Charles II.

The exhibition attempts to convey the nature of the treasures of the Tudor and Stuart courts via displays of armour (including an impressive suit worn by the portly Henry VIII), beautifully wrought jewels and miniatures, and impressive pictures. As soon as you enter you see a pair of magnificent stone leopards that once graced one of Henry VIII’s palaces – they reminded me of the two living leopards that attend Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Just beyond are four large animal heralds belonging to the Dacre family – Thomas, Lord Dacre, fought for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. Impressive as these riches all were, I did wonder what they had to do with the Russian Tsars (other than the fact that they were from the same time period) – I thought the exhibition title was slightly misleading. Maybe that was just me?

Eventually, I came to a selection of displays that did have a clear connection to Russia, including diplomatic gifts that have been kept in the Kremlin in Moscow for years. Interestingly, their presence in Russia ensured their survival during the English Civil War – had they remained in this country, they would almost certainly have been destroyed. Some beautiful silver was on display, and a small replica – alongside video footage – of a magnificent carriage given to the Tsar Boris Godunov (immortalised in Alexander Pushkin’s play). I also enjoyed looking at the manuscript records and sources, including a record that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed – possibly for the first time – on Twelfth Night 1601 in honour of the Russian ambassador Gregory Mikolin.

The exhibition didn’t take very long to go round, which in a way was a good thing as it meant there wasn’t too much to take in. Although I was disappointed that the connection of some of the displays to Russia was tenuous, I did enjoy it and I don’t regret going.

Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars is on until 14 July.

The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart – National Portrait Gallery

As the National Portrait Gallery is open late on Thursdays and Fridays, I sometimes like to walk down after work to have a wander around. On Friday night I decided to pay a visit – although I took the tube to Leicester Square, as it was pouring down.

My plan was to see the new exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart. As someone with a strong interest in history, and who has studied the period immediately preceding the Stuart accession (the Elizabethan era), I was very excited about this.

Henry (1594-1612) was the elder son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Elizabeth had reigned for so long that the last time an entire family inhabited the royal household was beyond living memory. As the eldest, Henry was the heir to the throne and the hopes and dreams of the nation were invested in him: his princely nature, air of nobility, youth and exuberance promised a positive future.

The exhibition displays portraits of Henry, his royal parents and siblings, as well as those around him responsible for teaching, caring for or advising him. The pictures give some indication of the personality of the royal Prince, as well as the impression he and his advisers wished to convey. Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and  Isaac Oliver and full-size portraits by Robert Peake show Henry wearing armour, demonstrating the noble values of bravery and chivalry, or handsome, richly costumed and showcasing his extensive collections of jewels and other riches. Henry and his court helped to inspire a renaissance in the arts, and some of the items he collected are on display.

By modern standards I am not sure if Henry was the most likeable person. It was reported in the exhibition that when Henry received a gift of a number of brass statuettes, he was asked if he would like to give one of them – a horse, on display here – to his little brother Charles. Henry’s response was to say no: he wanted to keep them all for himself!

Perhaps it is unfair of me to condemn this attitude: the Prince of Wales, as he was created in 1610, had to bear the weight of a nation’s expectations and this was a lot to take for one so young. Some of the earlier portraits show the young boy dressed in lavish royal costumes that seem to swamp him. This is echoed in the two small suits of armour belonging to the Prince which are on display, worn by him during lavish court tournaments and masques.

Though clever, Henry apparently did not enjoy book-learning to the same extent as his younger brother. Some of his school books are displayed here, one of which in particular made me smile: one of his tutors wrote a couple of sentences below his own writing which are very disparaging towards Henry’s handwriting skills! However, the Prince possessed an extensive library and a number of works of art – many of which are now scattered all over the world in the hands of public galleries and private collectors – and he was interested in gardens, authorising a lavish project to redevelop the gardens of Richmond Palace, though he sadly died before the work could take place.

The final room of the exhibition explores Henry’s death and the reactions it provoked among his family, the nobility and the rest of the country. While helping to prepare for his sister Margaret’s wedding, Henry caught a fever (now thought to be typhoid fever) and, despite the best efforts of several doctors, died a few weeks later. His family and the nation were distraught: writers and composers registered their sorrow in poetry and music; printed books had pages with black borders and one of the dirges composed on his death is playing in the room. A portrait of Queen Anne, Henry’s mother, is displayed and shows her wearing black clothes for mourning: I found this interesting as I had thought the fashion for wearing black for mourning only came in with Queen Victoria.

At Henry’s funeral, weeping crowds lined the streets and the effigy on top of the hearse was reportedly so lifelike that it provoked fresh storms of grief. What remains of this effigy – namely the wooden torso and limbs, the wax head and hands having been stolen or rotted away years ago – is on display in this room, looking poignantly small in the plain glass case.

Charles Stuart was devastated by his brother’s death and treasured his memory all his life. During his reign as Charles I he commissioned an enlargement of a miniature of Henry which hung in his rooms at Whitehall, and is now on display here, the final portrait of a Prince who was never to fulfill his potential.

The exhibition got me thinking about how the course of history can change. What if Henry hadn’t died? He would have become King Henry IX, and the events which resulted in the English Civil War might never have happened – although, given Henry’s somewhat imperious personality, this is not certain. His life and death reminded me of another, very similar situation a hundred years before: the premature death of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII. Named for the legendary English king, hopes and expectations surrounded young Arthur as they would encircle Henry a century later, but Arthur’s premature death ended them, paving the way for his younger brother Henry to inherit the throne. In both cases, the death of the much loved and admired heir led to the accession of a ruler who would change the course of English history – albeit more successfully in Henry VIII’s case, at least for him.

I definitely recommend this exhibition to anyone with an interest in Stuart England, seventeenth-century art and the history of royalty in Britain. The curators have chosen their objects well and they are presented with thought and care. Unlike some exhibitions and galleries, which contain an overwhelming number of items, this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery takes the ‘less is more’ approach, meaning that you can examine each individual item in more detail, finding out more about it.