Charles II: Art And Power
The Queen’s Gallery, London Until May 13
When Charles II returned from exile in 1660, 11 years after the beheading of his father, Charles I, his primary intention was simple: he wanted to restore the glamour, splendour and power of the monarchy.
This captivating exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, drawing on the royal collections, explores the opulence, excess and mystical allure of the Restoration court.
England was fed up with Puritan regulations, and Charles’s style proved instantly popular. The stunning theatre of his return – wonderfully recorded by Samuel Pepys, who was in one of the boats – was followed by the most extravagant coronation within memory.
Above: King Charles II by John Michael Wright (c 1676) Charles I’s primary intention was simple: he wanted to restore the glamour, splendour and power of the monarchy
The King was immensely tall, and he took care to make still more of an impression with sumptuous cloth, jewels and gold.
Rebuilding soon followed – the remodelling of Whitehall Palace and of Windsor Castle, including some magnificent frescoes. The collections of Charles I had been largely dispersed, and the new King set about reassembling what could be gathered, sometimes with some mild pressure.
One grumpy parliamentarian who had bought a lot of magnificent paintings at knock-down prices first pretended that he couldn’t possibly be expected to remember what he had bought where. Quite soon he discovered that he could remember, and the King graciously received a fine Lorenzo Lotto as a gift.
The collection began to regain its old magnificence – there are superb drawings from Michelangelo, Leonardo and Holbein here. And new talents began to make themselves felt.
The portraiture of the age is dazzling, with a new freedom and audacity; beautiful women in loose silks, and new ideas about what might make a picture. One wonderful, full-length portrait is of a 96-year-old servant, Bridget Holmes, by John Riley, painted with dignity and scale.
Over the whole thing is a very modern sense of how the image of the King might be used. For the first time in history there seems a continuum between paintings of actors in roles, like John Michael Wright’s triple portrait of John Lacy, portraits of famous beauties and celebrities, and paintings of royalty. Wright’s stupendous portrait of the King is meant as a statement of sheer theatrical power.
The King was more serious than people often think, and one of the joys of this exhibition is seeing his interest in new technologies. (The Royal Society was founded in the same year as the Restoration.)
Above: painting of the Venetian merchant Andrea Odoni (1527) by Lorenzo Lotto features in this captivating exhibition
Art, too, took a leap forward, with the revelation of the printing technique of mezzotint, the growth of the market in prints and engravings, and the opening up of English society to foreign influences – a Chinese dignitary in London has his portrait here.
There is, of course, the famous licentious side to Charles’s court, and his several mistresses make their presence felt here. On the whole, however, the story this absorbing exhibition tells is a very unusual one, in which a purposeful and intelligent monarch understood that, for once in English history, personal excess and unbridled splendour could be used for serious ends. He hardly needed to be forgiven, and afterwards, very different monarchs could only regard him with some envy.
It was Queen Victoria, surprisingly, who acquired that famous portrait of Charles, manspreading in an unforgivable way, for the Royal Collection. (In some ways Victoria was not very Victorian, if you see what I mean.)
This exhibition illustrates its story with some remarkable and beautiful objects and paintings. A show so very full of glitter seems to me just the thing for the festive season, too.
ALSO WORTH SEEING
Rembrandt: Lightening The Darkness
Norwich Castle Until Jan 7
BY ALASTAIR SMART
We revere some of art’s Old Masters for the way they sought – and often achieved – a perfect beauty, a magnificence worthy of the divine. Raphael is probably the best example. In stark contrast are the artists who kept things real, laying bare the many peccadilloes and imperfections of humankind – the Dutchman Rembrandt van Rijn chief among them.
Above: Rembrandt’s The Flight Into Egypt, 1654, which includes no heaven-sent angels guiding Mary, Joseph and Jesus (as most other interpretations do) – just a plodding donkey
A fine exhibition of 90 of his etchings, at Norwich Castle, transports us right back to the streets of 17th-century Amsterdam. A blind hurdy-gurdy player receives alms at the door of a burgher; a sow, with its trotters tied, awaits slaughter; an old man sports a broken nose after a fight.
In 1632’s The Rat Catcher, meanwhile, a seller of rat poison flaunts his wares at a potential customer’s door. He holds a pole, topped by a basket from which numerous rat carcasses dangle – intended to show how effective his product is. Given Amsterdam was struck by five plague epidemics in Rembrandt’s lifetime, poison-sellers had a crucial role.
What unites all these works is their subjects’ humanity. Whether he’s depicting local beggars or the Holy Family, Rembrandt makes his scenes recognisably down- to-earth. The Flight Into Egypt, for instance, includes no heaven-sent angels guiding Mary, Joseph and Jesus (as most other interpretations do) – just a plodding donkey.
This isn’t a show for colour-worshippers. Essentially it just consists of black marks on white paper. For Rembrandt, etchings were never afterthoughts, though. He saw prints as works of art in their own right, and his genius was to generate rich atmosphere from dots, dashes and hatchings.
Take Descent From The Cross, which depicts the removal of Christ’s body after the Crucifixion. Setting it at night-time gave proceedings an eerie pathos. As for the burst of torchlight at Jesus’s feet: like this whole exhibition, it’s utterly illuminating.