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The myth goes that British monarchs and art don’t mix. The bills run up by Charles I, who bought more than 1,500 paintings, contributed to him losing his head. On the other hand, Queen Victoria’s fondness for having her pets painted by Landseer rarely troubled the privy purse, and Queen Elizabeth II, it is said, was pleased to buy reasonably priced pictures if they had horses in them.
By this reckoning, the omens are not good for our new king. Charles loves art, and isn’t afraid to pay for it. He has strong opinions on how it should be made and displayed. In 2005 he founded the reactionary-sounding School of Traditional Arts, and there was the “monstrous carbuncle” affair over a competition design for an intended new wing at the National Gallery in 1984. And he’s an artist himself—prints of his watercolours are sold in the Buckingham Palace shop.
But my prediction is that Charles III will end the myth for good. Here, at the risk of sounding like an obsequious Tudor courtier, I admit a bias; I’m a big fan. I think he single-handedly saved the National Gallery from itself, of which it seems to have a recurring need. I even like his watercolours. I can’t paint, but if I could, I’d paint like the king: landscapes with nobody in them. In fact, I think we can safely say Charles will be the most accomplished artist yet to take the throne. Though I concede the bar is low.
Coronations are a good moment to assess a reign’s artistic direction of travel. Cecil Beaton’s technicolour photograph of the late Queen in her coronation robes comes to mind more easily than the footage of the event itself.
Charles I, the connoisseur
Charles III’s two namesake predecessors offer examples of good and bad artistic practice. Curiously, Charles I did not commission a coronation portrait for wide distribution. Of his passion for art there could be no doubt—even as Prince of Wales he was a good enough connoisseur to rumble Rubens, who in 1621 tried to palm him off with a studio work (of a lion hunt) instead of an autograph one. A chastened Rubens sent a self-portrait by return, and later hailed Charles as the “most enthusiastic amateur of painting in the world”. Instead, the best-known image from Charles I’s coronation is an unfortunately prophetic medal made by Nicholas Briot. It shows the king’s head in profile on one side, and on the other an arm descending from heaven with a sword.
The lack of an established portrait for Charles I’s coronation may be due to the absence of a competent enough painter. Later, the king enjoyed the services of Van Dyck, lured from Europe because of his portrait abilities (and the fact he could paint like Titian, Charles I’s favourite artist). At the beginning of his reign, however, there was Daniel Mytens, a solid and worthy painter who tended to make the king look underwhelming.
Having seen the latest portraits of Charles III, I doubt he’s in danger of falling into a Van Dyckian fantasy
Belatedly, Van Dyck transformed Charles I’s image. Hardly more than 5ft tall, he assumed an authoritative swagger through Van Dyck’s eyes, and superhuman strength. In his equestrian portrait (now in the National Gallery), we see a king effortlessly in command of a fighting horse—a metaphor for the nation—holding the reins with one hand. It must have made sense in Charles’s head, but it didn’t fool anyone else. That’s the danger when kings get hold of great artists—reality and fantasy are easily merged, and after a while they can’t tell the difference.
At least Charles’s invitation to Van Dyck transformed British art forever. Van Dyck brought life and movement to our portraiture where previously artists and patrons aspired to a Holbein-like presentation of detail and formality, only without Holbein’s magical skills. Perhaps if Charles had been painted only by Mytens he might never have allowed himself to dream of the divine right of kings.
That said, having seen the latest portraits of Charles III, I doubt he’s in danger of falling into a Van Dyckian fantasy. In any case, our modern, image-driven world is too alive to attempts to flatter the new king in paint. We all know he has a good face for stamps.
Charles II, a better model
Charles II is a better model. He certainly took art seriously. On arriving in London after his Restoration in 1660 he sat for the best portraitist available, Samuel Cooper, for a profile for the new coinage. Yet he never let the fantasy take over. It probably helped that Cooper was a miniaturist.
Charles II could not look more magnificent, but the Leslie Phillips smile betrays a king who doesn’t take himself too seriously
My recommended ideal is Charles II’s state portrait by John Michael Wright, an underrated great of British art. The king is shown crowned and enthroned, wreathed in velvet and silk. He could not look more magnificent. But the satin tights and Leslie Phillips smile betray a king who doesn’t take himself too seriously. We know Charles II liked a good time, and we can see that in the art of his reign too. His court artist, Peter Lely, continued the Van Dyckian tradition, just with fewer clothes. Charles II’s reign is the first time humour creeps into court art. One of the best and most scandalous examples is the portrait of his famously unchaste mistress Barbara Villiers as the Virgin Mary by Lely (in the National Portrait Gallery). The child she cradles is one of Charles’s illegitimate sons, painted to look like a miniature version of the king himself.
There’s a debate as to what extent a monarch, as one individual, can shape the direction of a nation’s art. With Charles II we can see that he did indeed make a difference. He continued to employ in Cooper and Lely the two artists who diligently and austerely served Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, “warts and all”, and what a change we see in their art after 1660. New reigns reset the artistic tenor of a nation.
Silent and uncontroversial: the new model monarch
These days, however, it’s not easy to see how much impact Charles III will be allowed to have. As Elizabeth II showed, silent and uncontroversial is the new model for monarchs. That’s a problem for an artistic patron: you need to be able to express an opinion. Even if Charles is presented with the most shockingly bad coronation portrait, dare he say anything about it?
In many ways, Charles III’s legacy in the arts is already set, thanks to institutions like the Royal Drawing School. But I hope he goes all in on an exciting coronation portrait. If he gets it right, it could steer a new direction for British art. If not, his coronation portrait might be the last.