Art’s a matter of taste, and Charles I (1600-1649) knew his Tiziano from his Shitziano. Before he had his head lopped off, the monarch and his wife Henrietta Maria had been avid art buyers and assembled a collection of renaissance paintings to rival any out there – we’re talking Titian, Holbein, Tintoretto, you know, the big guns. The collection got split apart after his death, but this show brings some of it back together, nabbing incredible loans from the Prado and the Louvre.
It starts like every bad sex dream you’ve ever had, with a room of ultra-serious posh white men staring at you and refusing to break eye contact. It’s a striking way to introduce what this show is all about: political power, art patronage and the decline of both. The faces staring back at you here are Charles I himself, alongside his political cronies and the artists he commissioned, including court painter Anthony van Dyck.
From there, you’re plunged into a world of Charles’s taste – there’s a Titian vision of the Holy Roman Empire’s Charles V with a dog (and a serious codpiece), an allegorical depiction of war and peace by Rubens and then a breathtaking room filled with Andrea Mantegna’s staggering, nine-part ‘Triumphs of Caesar’, flanked by ancient busts of Roman generals. Ostentatious, over-the-top, and brilliant.
There are more treats in store. There’s a whole wall of perfect little Holbein portraits, a handful of ludicrously sensual Orazio Gentileschi paintings, a brutally dark Rembrandt painting of his mother and more gorgeous Renaissance work than you could hope for.
The rooms of royal portraiture are a little stomach turning though. One image shows an infant Charles II standing over a severed head in front of a battle scene. Another shows the queen with her dwarf servant: the wall text describes her as having ‘a quiet vivaciousness and elegance’. She actually looks like a very rich corpse. The royals and their ugly inbred children are the worst bit of this.
But they prove a point. You come away from this show of monumental, imposing art more certain than ever that kings and leaders are pompous, dangerously arrogant, self-important shitbags. This is art as proof of riches, as testament to dominance and strength, as evidence of cultured intelligence. This is a mausoleum to power.
There’s also a lot of drama here, and a huge amount of brilliance. Charles I might have been a hirsute royal bellend, but he sure knew how to pick a painting.