In David Copperfield, Mr. Dick has been trying to write a petition to “the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other” for more than a decade, but is perpetually distracted by thoughts of King Charles’s head. “Because, if it was so long ago,” he asks David, “how could the people about him have made that mistake of putting some of the trouble out of his head, after it was taken off, into mine?”

Mr. Dick’s obsession is the legacy of a fever, and an intrusion from the authorial mind and English history. “Mr. Dick” is Mr. Dickens, Charles the thrusting author whose imagination wants to have its head, but who struggles to control the story. “Mr. Dick” is also Richard Cromwell, son of the “Lord Somebody or other” Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector who decapitated Charles I in 1649. When his father died in 1658, Richard Cromwell spurned the chance to inherit the dictatorship. Instead of praising him as a Cincinnatus, the Royalists mocked him as “Queen Dick.”

The American revolutionaries replayed the English Civil War’s drama; like George III, Charles I was heavy on taxation to fund the military, but light on representation. The regicidal drama still captivated the Victorians as they tiptoed towards democracy. In 1840, Carlyle praised Cromwell as an “inarticulate Prophet,” a modern Moses. Four years later, Dickens involuntarily admitted that Charles I, his disembodied head tucked under his spectral arm, was Banquo’s ghost at the feast of Whig history.

Apart from the Irish, who remember Cromwell as a génocidaire, and the English, who remember him as a Scrooge who canceled Christmas, who now thinks of Cromwell? In amnesia and affluence, we have forgotten about him. Cromwell’s kingdom of the saints is reduced to an Interregnum, and the evidence of rupture confirms the narrative of legal continuity. This, the paradox that unhinges Mr. Dick, is the hinge of two current exhibitions in London. Like English monarchy, they combine into a superb pageant with a disturbing break in the middle.

In the long gallery of the kings and queens of England, Charles I ranks with the very worst of the dribblers and mouth-breathers. He was a tyrant, and politically dim. His arrogation of divine right insulted Parliament, but his abrogation of power failed to stifle the popular reaction. He did, however, have excellent taste. Today, two collections form the core of the Royal Collection (prop., Liz Windsor). One belonged to the Titian-loving and congenitally foolish Charles I, the other to the Canaletto-loving and congenitally mad George III. Long before Napoleon and Hitler, the English monarchy proved that nobody with an eye for art should be allowed anywhere near the controls of government.

Titian, The Allcution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops, 1540–41, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Ascending to the throne in 1625, Charles built one of the best art collections in Europe. Between 1627 and 1630, he bought the collection of the Gonzagas of Mantua. In 1632, he engaged Anthony van Dyck as the “principalle Painter in Ordenarie to their Majesties.” He created palace workshops, including the foundry that cast England’s first life-size bronze, and a tapestry workshop for which he bought seven of Raphael’s cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles. Horace Walpole later recorded that Charles showed “singular skill in limning.” The last major artwork he saw on his walk to the scaffold was Rubens’s apotheosis of the Stuart dynasty (1636), commissioned by Charles for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Most of the King’s collection survived the war. After Charles’s execution in 1649, Cromwell’s government melted down his crown and sold off his possessions in the Commonwealth Sale. Within months, 375 of the more than 1,500 pictures had been sold. Short of money, Parliament paid off Charles’s creditors with cash and goods. The royal plumber, John Embry, was given £400 in cash and £500 in goods. One of his choices was St. Margaret Triumphing over the Devil from Titian’s workshop, price £100. As it is impossible to eat a painting, St. Margaret and many other works created an instant secondary market. After the Restoration of 1660, Charles II ordered his subjects to return his father’s property. Not all of them did. Many major paintings were out of reach, sold to the courts of Madrid and Paris, where they now form parts of the collections of the Prado and the Louvre.

“Charles I: King and Collector” reunites 140 major works for the first time since the Cromwellian unpleasantness.1 The exhibition crystallizes an image of a Baroque court. It may be only a partial proof of Charles’s taste—he was mentored by older collectors like the Earl of Arundel, left the shopping to experts like Nicholas Lanier, his well-traveled court musician, and seems to have had no interest in drawings—but its richness and variety still stagger. There is a superfluity of Mantegna, Titian, Dürer, Correggio, and lush acres of Rubens and Van Dyck. There are unfamiliar surprises like Orazio Gentileschi’s Head of a Woman (ca. 1630–35), from a private collection, and instructive reunifications, like the Louvre’s tapestries, copied from Raphael’s cartoons.

Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, ca. 1484–92, Tempera on canvas, Royal Collection Trust.

Visiting Madrid in 1623 for a marriage negotiation that came to naught, Charles had seen how Titian had glorified Charles V and Philip II. He wanted to endow the Stuarts, a Scottish dynasty uncertain of its position on the English throne, with the grandeur and solidity of the Habsburgs. Fortunately, Rubens and Van Dyck were available. Rubens had studied Titian closely at Venice in 1600, in 1603 when he had carried paintings to Madrid for Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga, and after 1608 when he had become Vincenzo’s court painter and agent. In 1629, Rubens came to London as an emissary in Anglo-Spanish peace negotiations. Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629–30), his gift to Charles, was an audition in the Venetian mood. Rubens’s Mars, fondling the fruits of Peace, looks like a near relative of the satyr who lifts the robe of the sleeping Antiope in the Pardo Venus, Titian’s Jupiter and Antiope (1551). Traveling in Italy in 1621, Van Dyck had studied Titian’s formal aspects; more than a quarter of the drawings in Van Dyck’s Italian Sketchbook are copies of Titian. When Van Dyck came to London in 1632 as Charles’s new court painter, he saw again at least two Titians that he had studied at Venice, Jacopo Pesaro Being Presented by Pope Alexander VI to St. Peter (ca. 1506–11), now in Antwerp, and Venus and Music (ca. 1550), now in the Prado.

Van Dyck’s first work for Charles was the group portrait known as The Greate Peece (1632), in which Charles I and his French wife Henrietta Maria sit with their eldest two children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary, at their knees. The execution shows how Van Dyck wove together local and international precedent to create the image of power. A preparatory oil sketch suggests the scale and purpose of Holbein’s lost Whitehall Mural (1536–37), depicting Henry VIII with Jane Seymour and his parents. But the development exposes Van Dyck’s obsession with Titian. In the oil sketch, Charles I’s pose suggests Titian’s portrait of Pope Paul III, which Van Dyck had seen at the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. Van Dyck would also have seen Titian’s unfinished portrait of Paul III bowed with age. He imports the trappings of that portrait—the curtain, throne, and table—but modifies Charles’s posture in the final composition. The scale and the organization of space in The Greate Peece, meanwhile, draw on Titian’s altarpieces. The monumental column that pushes up towards the source of divine right in The Greate Peece is a tribute to the monumental column that connects the Virgin and Child to their heavenly father in Titian’s Pesaro Madonna (ca. 1519–26), in the Frari at Venice.

The Greate Peece is part of the Van Dyck quartet at the center of “Charles I: King and Collector.” Normally, it is possible to see three of them in the same afternoon, if not in the same space. The Greate Peece and Charles I on Horseback with M. De St. Antoine (1633) belong to the Royal Collection, and Charles I on Horseback (1637–38) to the National Gallery. But Charles I in the Hunting Field (ca. 1636), lent by the Louvre, has not been in London since the Commonwealth Sale.

In the first three portraits, Charles, sporting his habitually supercilious expression, is enhanced by architectural scale. In Charles I on Horseback with M. De St. Antoine, he surges through an arch as though absorbing imperial horse power. In Charles I on Horseback, the lighting and the attitude of the horse and rider reverse the imagery of Titian’s Charles V on Horseback (1548): the Habsburg is a man of war, red and armored as the storm rolls in, while the Stuart is a man of peace, cool against a pale summer sky. In Charles I in the Hunting Field, however, Van Dyck depicts the king dismounted. As his servants work, Charles stands hand on hip, foolish and foppish, naked in his finery, looking more prey than hunter.

Anthny van Dyck, Cupid and Psyche, 1540–41, Oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust.

“We have explored the temple of royalty,” Samuel Adams said in 1776, “and found that the idol we have bowed down to has eyes which see not, ears that hear not our prayers, and a heart like the nether millstone.” In his final portrait, The Triple Portrait (1635–36), Charles I appears to be wearing his nether millstone at his waist. Shrunken inside a baggy black doublet, he still thinks God is on his side. But God, for the moment at least, was on the side of what Adams called “political Protestantism.” Cromwell wrecked Charles’s collection, but his rule was not a disaster for the arts. He banned Morris dancing. His orders to Peter Lely, to paint his “ruffness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me,” have the grandeur of honesty. Milton and Marvell prospered under Cromwell, and Davenant contrived the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes (1656). After Cromwell’s death, it seemed sensible to put King Charles’s head back on the shoulders of his son, Charles II. Perhaps the rule of the saints had not been enforced strictly enough.

The restoration of the royal image is the subject of another excellent show, “Charles II: Art & Power,” at the Queen’s Gallery.2 One of the first depictions of Charles II as king, produced in Paris as he prepared to return from exile, was copied from Elias Kusel’s Commonwealth-era engraving of Oliver Cromwell. Same horse and rider; different head. Same artist and style, too, once Charles got back to London. Peter Lely, recovering adroitly from the dour Interregnum, dropped “ruffness” for painterly anecdote in the rich vein of Van Dyck.

Continuity was all, and Charles II knew how to keep it light. “Better than a play!,” he said after hearing a parliamentary debate. The highlight of this exhibition is the “Windsor Beauties,” Lely’s eleven portraits of the women of the Restoration court, inspired equally by the “beauties” that Van Dyck had painted for the Earl of Northumberland between 1632 and 1641, and by the relentless bed-hopping that so endeared Charles II to his subjects. Lely’s beauties are a visual and metaphorical hangover—the sleepy eyes and double scoops of décolletage suggest that the Civil War and the dictatorship were just a dream.

Meanwhile, Cromwell’s head was exhumed and left to rot on a spike outside Parliament. It turned out that Oliver’s head, not King Charles’s, was the unquiet ghost of Stuart England. Charles II had the discretion to die a Catholic. James II, learning nothing, tried to live as a Catholic and lost the throne. A Protestant succession and a limited monarchy, compounded by wars with France, turned English taste away from the Baroque, with its Catholic and absolutist associations, and towards pastoral Classicism.

As with monarchy, the continuity describes the breach. Sir Godfrey Kneller, who succeeded Lely as Charles II’s court painter and painted the “beauties” of William III’s court, founded the first English academy in 1711—the first of several precursors to the Royal Academy, founded in 1769 under George III. As the Georgians searched for a national tradition, the engraver George Vertue identified the origin of an English academy in what he called Charles I’s “Academia Musaeum.”

1 “Charles I: King and Collector” opened at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, on January 27 and remains on view through April 15, 2018.

2 “Charles II: Art & Power” opened at the Queen’s Gallery, London, on December 8, 2017 and remains on view through May 13, 2018.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 51
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