Last week, on a cold and snowy morning, I went up to Buckingham Palace to visit an exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery. It was a brisk walk across Green Park (I hadn’t seen London in the snow for years) and I pitied the poor little green parakeets that live there. London isn’t exactly prime parakeet climate at the best of times and I imagine they are shivering at the moment.
There was a big crowd at Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard, but we were heading around the side to the gallery entrance to see “Charles II: Art and Power.” This was a companion exhibition to the one I had seen a couple of weeks earlier at the Royal Academy which focussed on King Charles I.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which monarchs have used art, architecture and other visual media to re-inforce a particular message, whether it was Elizabeth I with her rather creepy (in my opinion) gown covered in eyes, or the portrait of Charles II that I saw this week where he lounges on the throne, regalia in hand, looking both manly and authoritative at the same time, saying: “The Stuarts are back.”
But first to Charles’ father, the ill-fated Charles I. I do have a soft spot for the Stuart dynasty despite the fondness some of them had for the divine right of kings. The Charles I exhibition focussed very much on the establishment of the dynasty and how at first it was Henry, Prince of Wales, who was the great future hope of the Stuarts before his untimely death at the age of 18. There were also some gorgeous family portraits featuring my personal heroine Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, Charles I’s sister.
During the years of his reign Charles I amassed an extraordinarily fine collection of art works that fostered a visual culture in England on a scale that hadn’t been seen before. Sadly, after his execution, his collection was sold off and scattered across the UK and Europe in an event called “The Commonwealth Sale” organised to pay off debts and raise finance for Cromwell’s New Model Army. (Some of the artworks were also given as gifts: The royal plumber was given a painting called “The Flood” and the royal draper was given some tapestries). Although Charles II subsequently tried to recover as many works as possible, he was unable to reclaim it all. This exhibition was the first occasion on which some of these paintings had been in the same room since the 17th century, which I found fairly mind-blowing.
As we know, Charles I was short (five foot three) and had suffered from rickets as a child, and the most famous portraits of him are the imposing ones that show him on horseback, dressed in fine silks and looking every inch the king. However my favourite one was a much younger, more natural looking picture in which Charles looks rather handsome and rather endearing.
The Charles II exhibition started where the Charles I finished, with the execution of the king in 1649 and his son’s exile. During that period the Royalists kept their cause alive partly through the print media, by circulating pictures of the young prince as a king-in-exile, clad in armour and surrounded by symbols of royalty. I particularly liked an image of him with all the symbolism of a phoenix rising from the ashes, the rising sun, and the bright star overhead which was reported to have been seen in the heavens at the time of his birth. A similar picture of Charles at the age of 19 was included in the exhibition as part of a courtship gift he gave to Princess Sophia, the daughter of the Winter Queen, with whom a marriage had been discussed. There was also a beautiful little miniature of her in the exhibition.
Once Charles had been restored to the throne in 1660 there was a great deal of emphasis on legitimacy and power through his portraits, his architecture and the richness of the bling with which he surrounded himself! Whether it was with silver mirrors or gold salt pots, he certainly managed to make a statement. In one of the galleries there were pictures of Charles and his brother James in all their finery, surrounded by various ladies of the court, wives and mistresses. There was a definite fashionable “look” amongst Charles’ mistresses! Louise de Keroualle looked very pretty, I thought, and I loved the rich colours of her portrait.
Two other interesting exhibits I especially liked were a painting of Hampton Court Palace, which Charles renovated after his Restoration and which I thought was lovely. He had a big plan to rebuild the royal palaces as part of his re-establishment of the royal power but he ran out of money and only Windsor Palace was completed! Also there was a rather nice plate of the famous oak tree at Boscobel House where Charles hid from the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester. We visited Boscobel a few years ago and sadly the oak tree was no more because over the years so many tourists had taken twigs as souvenirs. HOwever, his "great escape" was much celebrated in ceramics and medals and the oak tree became something of a heroic monument.
The other painting that really caught my eye was quite different. It was a picture of a servant, which was in itself very unusual. Bridget Holmes was what was known as a “necessary woman” responsible for cleaning and preparing the royal bedchamber. She served Charles I, Charles II, James II and William III before dying at the grand old age of 100 and she was buried in Westminster Abbey.
We left Buckingham Palace having had a wonderful experience and with a cuddly corgi from the royal shop under our arms! It would be impossible to choose a favourite between the two exhibitions; they complemented each other and told a fascinating story of two Stuart kings and the way in which they used their art to enhance their power and prestige, but they also gave a different slant on well known history and told the human tale of two men, one of whom lost his throne and his life, the other who came back to claim his patrimony.