An enigmatic ruler, the Charles II: Art & Power exhibition at Buckingham Palace offers a fascinating exploration of the Restoration monarch and his relationship with art. Taking place just a few minutes’ away from The Rubens at the Palace, the pieces on display are part of Charles II’s staggering art collection. Here, Curator of Paintings, Louise Cooling, shares some insider insights.
How did the idea for the exhibition, Charles II: Art & Power come about?
“Charles II: Art & Power is the latest in a series of exhibitions organised by Royal Collection Trust to focus on the collecting habits of members of the British royal family. Royal Collection Trust had never curated an exhibition dedicated to Charles II's activities as a collector; the last major exhibition on this subject was The Age of Charles II, held at The Royal Academy of Arts in 1960, so it seemed that it was a good time to examine his activities in this area and assess his impact on the Royal Collection.”
Famously described as the “merry monarch,” what kind of ruler was Charles II?
“Charles II was certainly shaped by his experiences during the civil wars, the execution of his father and the years spent in exile. His primary goals as king seem to have been securing the authority of the restored monarchy, while achieving peace and stability in the country. As a man he was said to be witty, generous and accessible, and as a king, he had the common touch and understood the importance of retaining the popular appeal that had helped restore him to the throne."
What kind of role did the arts play during the reign of Charles II?
“The Restoration court must have been a burst of life and colour after years of the puritan Commonwealth regime. Charles II surrounded himself with beautiful women, actors, scientists, poets, writers and artists, and the court became a centre for artistic patronage. Although Charles is certainly best remembered as the 'Merrie Monarch', and undoubtedly spent time in the pursuit of pleasure, he also had an enthusiastic interest in science and technology; he was patron of the newly-established Royal Society and was recognised as an expert in naval matters. He was also an active supporter of the visual arts, an avid reader of literature and an important patron of the theatre. By restoring the magnificence of the royal palaces and collections, and by reviving the ceremonies and pastimes enjoyed by his royal predecessors, Charles II was using art as a means by which to emphasise the legitimacy of his rule and glorify the Stuart dynasty.”
What leading artists of the time were an important part of the king’s court?
“Charles II recognised the importance of establishing his court as a centre of artistic patronage and the need to appoint official artists. Within weeks of his return to England in May 1660, he invited to court two of the leading artists in Britain, portrait painter Peter Lely and miniaturist Samuel Cooper. Dutch-born Lely was sworn in as ‘Limner and Picture Drawer’ to the king only three weeks after Charles II's return, and in this role, Lely was responsible for creating the official likeness of the king. The miniaturist Samuel Cooper was the most celebrated British artist of the time. Shortly after his Restoration, Charles commissioned a profile portrait from Cooper which was used for the new coinage. Three years later, Cooper was appointed 'Limner' or ‘Picture Maker’ to the king and painted miniatures of many of the most prominent courtiers.
Other notable artists at the Restoration court included John Michael Wright, painter of the magnificent portrait of Charles II displayed in the exhibition; the celebrated father and son marine painters Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger, and the Flemish artist Jacob Huysmans. Charles II also employed important artists and craftsmen on the building and decoration works at several royal palaces.”
How did Charles II use his extensive art collection to his advantage?
“For Charles II, art was both something to be enjoyed and something that could be used for political ends. He had grown up surrounded by his father, Charles I's remarkable art collection, and subsequently spent 14 years in exile at some of the greatest courts in Europe, so Charles II was acutely aware of the importance of art as a visual symbol of magnificence. He understood that art could be used to project a powerful image of royalty and promote the legitimacy and authority of the restored monarchy.”
What, in your opinion, are the highlights of the exhibition?
“That's a difficult choice in such a rich and diverse exhibition! Abraham Blooteling's mezzotint of Charles II is one of my favourites. It marks the pinnacle of mezzotint production in the 17th century and showcases how effective mezzotint was in translating painterly techniques into printed form. There are so many beautiful painted portraits in the exhibition too, but I think my highlight would have to be that of Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont by Sir Peter Lely. It's one of the earliest of the Windsor Beauties and is exquisitely painted; I particularly like the contrast between the swathes of shimmering coral silk against the Countess's very pale skin. Lely’s portraits are so evocative of the sensuous and luxuriant atmosphere of the Restoration court”
Why is the exhibition of interest to visitors in 2018?
“Apart from being full of spectacular works of art including paintings, drawings, prints, books, tapestries, and furniture; Charles II: Art & Power is a fascinating insight into the world of Restoration court. Most of us have a pretty stereotypical view of the Restoration as the reign of the 'Merrie Monarch', but this exhibition shows that there was more to Charles II and demonstrates that he was central to re-establishing the monarchy as a popular and much-loved institution.”
After viewing the exhibition, return to The Rubens at the Palace for Royal Afternoon Tea in the Palace Lounge.All images © Royal Collection Trust: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.