The current exhibition at the Royal Academy ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ running until 15th April showcases the largest reunion of the masterpieces that belonged to King Charles I’s collection, which range from Renaissance and Baroque, portraits, monumental tapestries and miniatures.
Charles I was the second son of James VI of Scotland and he became the second Stuart King in 1625. His passion for art developed before he became the king. In 1623, Charles went to Madrid to court his former fiancée Maria Anna who was the daughter of King Phillip III of Spain. During his visit, Charles had the opportunity to see the magnificent art collection of the Spanish court.
Although the engagement was broken off by the English Protestants, it was during this time that the future king's passion for artwork started to grow. As a result, Charles I came back to Britain without a bride but numbers of impressive paintings by the Renaissance master painters!
Within twenty years, Charles I had acquired nearly 2000 pieces of artwork, from the Renaissance painters Titian, Mantegna, Holbein, Dürer to his favourite court artists Van Dyck and Rubens. The young king believed that artworks were an affirmation of his power, therefore, having the greatest art collection would prove that he is the rightful king.
Many of the portraits of Charles I from this exhibition portray the expression of authority. As a royalist, the king would dress in different outfits which were made up of luxurious fabric with precious jewels to show off his supremacy. Natural pearls, in particular, the scarcest gemstone, were the king’s favourite. His signature jewellery was an impressive teardrop-shaped pearl earring, he often wore it to display his wealth and power and this can be seen in almost every single one of his portraits by Van Dyck and Rubens. Natural pearls have long been revered for their iridescent orient and lustre. It was believed that an exceptional size pearl was antidote to the king’s lifetime concern – his short height.
In 1649, the king was executed due to his huge expenditure and his political beliefs. Commemorative jewels featuring Charles’s portrait, lockets of his hair or blood soaked cloth were immediately produced and worn as symbol of allegiance to the Royalist cause. These items were worn in secret and hidden as it would have been dangerous to show allegiance during the Civil War.
As a king Charles I might have been unfit, however, he was certainly the most extraordinary art collector in history. Start collecting your own set of antique and vintage jewels today – each unique with a story to tell!