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Royal Yard Sale

Friday, December 1, 2006

Jerry Brotton.
The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection.
Macmillan. 436 Pages. £25 

P aintings have many functions, not the least important of which is to glorify their owner. Rulers have always known this, which is why they tend to turn into patrons of the arts, building vast palazzos and castles and filling them with pictures and statues, a fair proportion of which represent themselves. For such representations there are strict conventions. According to Giovanni Paulo Lomazzo's classic 1584 treatise, Trattato dell'arte della Pittura, Scoltura et Architettura, the king should be portrayed with “the necessary dignity and majesty”: He should be seen as wise and just, a great diplomat and a great warrior. To this should be added qualities like magnanimity, piety, and generosity. The ability to heal the sick doesn't hurt, either. Whether all this has anything to do with reality is irrelevant. This is not about the king as a person, but the king as an idea, an institution.

Just consider the way Charles i of England was immortalized in oil, bronze, and marble in his own art collection. At the far wall of the great gallery of St. James's Palace, flanked by seven Roman emperors, hung van Dyck's magnificent portrait, King Charles on Horseback with Monsieur de St. Antoine, the latter being the king's riding master. Van Dyck was an expert flatterer, and the portrait is a triumphant exercise in public relations. It is also a total lie. In real life, Charles was a puny, pasty-faced little fellow of five feet four with a stammer, a weak and stubborn man who fought expensive wars, ran up a huge debt, and topped it off by plunging his country into civil war. But in van Dyck's painting he is a veritable Hercules, the modern heir of the Roman emperors. Charles's spindly legs, so weak that in childhood he had had to wear iron boots to strengthen the muscles, are those of an athlete in van Dyck's version, in easy control of his giant steed. It is one of those paintings designed to make the viewer remove his miserable cap from his miserable head but quick. He is in the presence of Majesty. (Not surprisingly, when the sitters of van Dyck portraits were seen in real life, the experience could be disappointing. When Charles's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, visited the Hague in 1642 to raise money for the Royalist cause, her relatives there found the queen less than attractive: “Van Dyck's portraits had so accustomed me to thinking that all English women are beautiful, that I was amazed to find a small creature, with skinny arms and teeth like defense works,” remarked one. Catty.)

Charles i was an avid art collector who brought great works of the Italian renaissance to England. Ever since his execution monarchists have portrayed him as a martyr, a sensitive and noble soul, and have often described him as the “first connoisseur,” while the Puritans were behaving like . . . well, Puritans, engaging in a frenzy of mindless destruction and iconoclasm. In his superb new book, The Sale of the Late King's Goods, British historian Jerry Brotton takes as his point of departure van Dyck's masterpiece and examines the building of Charles's art collection and its subsequent dispersal, in the process making a piece of long-gone British history come marvelously alive.

In many ways the event, known as the sale of the century, was groundbreaking. Until then, according to Brotton, art had been the preserve of the king and a few noblemen; now, for a brief moment, some 700 great works of art became the property of the king's creditors and servants, ordinary mortals like goldsmiths, tailors, and plumbers. Moreover, for the first time in Britain a value was set on art, he notes, reducing it “from a visible emblem of Stuart wealth and power to a commodity like any other: to be valued, bought and sold for profit.” Thus we see the birth of the art market in Britain where, after the Restoration in 1660, auction houses were now dealing in paintings.

The sale also marked the birth of art appreciation. When you put a monetary value on art, questions like who painted it, how well it is painted, and its provenance — its ownership history — suddenly become important. You want value for money, and only originals will do, not copies, thank you. The emerging art market as rendered in the book is a world of con-men, mountebanks and forgers. In this regard, obviously, not much has changed.

R estored relations with Catholic Europe had made it possible for Englishmen to travel on the Continent once again, and Charles's older brother, the gifted and athletic Crown Prince Henry, was quick to take advantage of the new freedoms. Henry took a great interest in Venetian art, and he traveled to Italy with two prominent courtiers in tow. Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, and George Viliers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, saw their advantage, as courtiers do, in aping their master and establishing art collections of their own.

Unfortunately for England, Henry died at the age of 18, and Charles became Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. It was now Charles's turn to go abroad, and he went to Spain with Buckingham with the notion of marrying the Infanta Maria, the daughter of King Philip iii, thus forming a dynastic alliance between the two nations. This little scheme met with failure when the Spaniards demanded that he convert to Catholicism, something clearly not in the cards for a future head of the Anglican Church.

But the trip was not totally wasted. While hanging around Philip's castle, Escorial, with its more than 1,000 paintings, Charles developed a taste for fine art. For him this constituted the revelation that art can help boost a royal family's image. Compared to the Venetian splendors in Philip's collection — all the golden Titians and Veroneses — the stiff, prim portraits Charles was used to at home in England looked provincial and cold. Before the final breakdown of the marriage negotiations, he managed to wangle a few paintings from Philip, including a Titian, Portrait of Charles V with Hound, and to acquire others from local estate sales of deceased noblemen. Together these were to form the nucleus of his collection.

Charles had more luck in Italy, where the Master of the King's Music, Nicholas Lanier, went scouring for paintings on his behalf. Through Lanier's efforts, Charles was able to purchase the renaissance collection of the Gonzaga dynasty in Mantua, one of Italy's choicest collections, a great coup. The Gonzagas needed cash to finance the defense of their city-state, which meant that the art had to go.

Consisting of some 400 paintings and statues, among the collection's high points were Titian's Twelve Caesars, and nine huge canvases by Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar, all designed to reinforce the claim of the Gonzagas that they were latter-day incarnations of the old Romans. In addition, there were two Raphaels, one of which was his masterpiece, The Holy Family, and some extremely naughty erotic art by Corregio on the themes of virtue and vice. Charles paid 18,000 pounds for the lot. The city fathers in the Mantuan senate protested the sale and wanted to buy them back, but, according to Brotton, all Duke Vincenzo seemed to care about was using part of the dough to buy himself a female dwarf.

Some of the pictures, Lanier knew, would not benefit from prolonged sea travel, among them the Raphael and a couple of watercolors by Corregio, and these he put in his personal luggage. The remaining paintings he carefully crated. Unfortunately, the ship that carried them to England was also carrying a cargo of mercury. During a storm some of it spilled over and got in among the paintings, causing extensive damage in the form of black spots. An attempt to repair the damage in London was not very successful and these paintings were hidden away on a back staircase in Whitehall. The rest arrived safely, but the king did not forget the incident. Some years later, when he acquired another collection from abroad, he was careful to stipulate that “the ship wherein they come may have no quicksilver nor currants in her.”

The king could now pride himself on having acquired a real art collection, and the court's obsession with paintings and aesthetics was termed “the new religion” by Sir Isaac Wake, the English ambassador to Venice. But the importation of great numbers of paintings loaded with Catholic imagery had inherent risks. The Elizabethans had been fairly relaxed in their attitudes toward art. “Neither do we condemn the arts of painting and image making as wicked in themselves,” Brotton quotes the Elizabethan Book of Homilies as stating. Religious paintings were tolerated as long as they were in private collections and not in churches. This certainly did not represent a problem for the king and his sophisticated courtiers, who were perfectly capable of distinguishing between message and artistic merit. For them it was the latter that counted.

They did represent very much of a problem for Puritan zealots, however, who saw them as a threat to the Protestant Revolution. As it was, Charles's marriage to Henrietta Maria, daughter of Louis xiii of France — a devout Catholic who immediately built herself a private chapel — had already given rise to fears that Charles would lift restrictions on Roman Catholics, which was indeed what he had promised Louis in a secret marriage treaty. The rabid Puritan lawyer William Prynne raged against “the very art of making pictures and images as the occasion of Idolatry.” As prompt punishment for his outspokenness, Prynne's ears were cut off by the hangman.

C harles did not content himself only with buying other people's ready-made collections. He also commissioned works himself. Describing paintings as “lasting monuments remaining to posterity,” he got Peter Paul Rubens, the leading painter of his generation, to harness the baroque in the glorification of the British monarchy. No one, says Brotton, better understood the nexus between art and power than Rubens, who was as great a diplomat as a painter and as ambassador in London for the Spanish Netherlands worked on behalf of Archduchess Isabella to improve relations between Spain and Britain.

Rubens had painted Philip of Spain; now he painted Charles in Landscape of St George and the Dragon. As Brotton notes, Rubens's forte was to take classical themes and update them to his own times, and he did so here with Satan as the dragon creating religious strife in Europe and Henrietta Maria in the role of peacemaker between Catholics and Protestants. He also did an Allegory of Peace and War along the same lines.

Most important, Rubens was hired to paint the ceiling of the Great Banqueting House — which had been designed by Inigo Jones and which has been called the greatest baroque ceiling north of the Alps — showing the ascent of Charles's father, James i, into heaven. Rubens's comment when first  approached about the task eight years earlier was typical of the master: “I confess myself, by a natural instinct better fitted to execute works of the largest size rather than little curiosities.”

Rubens was knighted for his efforts, but he was getting on in years. Charles made the inspired decision to employ one of Rubens's pupils, Anthony van Dyck, whose portrait of Charles's agent, Nicholas Lanier, had greatly impressed the king. Accordingly, van Dyck was made Principal Painter in Ordinary to his majesty. Apart from the Charles on Horseback mentioned above, van Dyck also painted glamorous portraits of the silk-laden royal family and of the children with their huge mastiff, which was the size of a calf. And he painted the queen with her pet dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson — known as “Lord Minimus” — who had jumped out of a pie as a gift from Buckingham. Little people and big dogs were much in demand around the courts of Europe at that time.

Not to be left out is van Dyck's triple portrait of Charles, showing him from three different angles, which was used by the great Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini for a marble bust of the king. When the bust arrived, the king's reaction was that of any art lover who has just received his latest buy: “We had to open the case that very night, so great was the eagerness of the King and Queen,” notes a court official. Charles would also play games with his architect, Inigo Jones, removing the labels on the paintings and making Jones guess the name of the artist. In vivid detail we learn that Jones, “in order to study them better, threw off his coat, put on his eye glasses, took a candle and together with the King, began to study them closely.”

Charming though this may be, Brotton, a man of Roundhead tendencies, refuses to see Charles as the “first connoisseur” monarchists would have him. One court sycophant he quotes, writing in the 1670s, turns the late king into a master artist who was able to grab a brush and to “supply the defects in the workman, and suddenly draw those lines, give those airs and lights, which experience had not taught the painter.” This is clearly monarchist drivel. Brotton sees Charles as a keen collector with good advisers, but a person whose tastes closely followed the fashion of the day. The king also showed the occasional severe lapse, as in his fondness for sickly sweet erotic canvases.

As to Charles's art outlays, acquiring paintings when he needed money for his wars may not have been the most prudent of moves, but actually, notes Brotton, these art expenditures should be put in perspective. A van Dyck cost some 50 pounds. By way of comparison, Brotton points out that a fancy suit for appearing at court could easily set a nobleman back 500 pounds. And paintings were actually considered the cheap way of filling the wall space: It was the tapestries that were expensive, with paintings being a kind of “poor man's tapestries.” As he puts it, “although art was highly valued, it was still not very valuable at King Charles's court.” It was the court as a whole that was extravagant.

A s noted, art collecting constituted an admission ticket to the higher echelons of the court. Occasionally using the possession of an art collection as a criterion for the advancement of your courtiers may seem sensible if you want to be surrounded by men who share your hobby and on whom you can periodically lean to make them turn over their best pictures to you. But it is a recipe for disaster if you promote your fellow art lovers to hugely sensitive government posts, which is what Charles did when he made two of the country's leading collectors, Arundel and Hamilton, heads of his efforts to subjugate the Scottish rebels. Arundel became general of his invading force and Hamilton was his diplomatic negotiator. The result was predictable: Twice Charles was humiliated against the Scots.

Added to that were Charles's devious ways, his dissolving of Parliament and ruling for 11 years without it, his arbitrary taxes and his open Catholic sympathies, all of which had the effect of radicalizing his opponents. Having been forced to flee from London, Charles declared war on Parliament by raising his standard at Nottingham. The challenge ended with the defeat of the royalist cause, an accusation of high treason against Charles, and his execution by decapitation on January 29, 1649 at the Palace of Whitehall in front of the Banqueting House. The king's severed head was sewn back on again so he could be buried in one piece.

Revolutionaries are known to be a bit rough in their handling of art. One furious member of Parliament rushed into the Queen's chapel and promptly attacked with his halberd a huge Rubens canvas of Christ. Afterwards it ended up in the Thames. But according to Brotton, this kind of wanton destruction was not the norm. A more practical solution was devised. Instead of destroying the art, Parliament decided to put it up for sale. “The personal estate of the late King, Queen and Prince, shall be inventoried, appraised and sold; except such Parcels of them as shall be thought fit to be reserved for the use of the State.” All of it was taken to Somerset House, and the proceeds of the sale would go to sustain the country's war efforts.

In seeking to attach a monetary value to art, the revolutionaries were entering unfamiliar territory. Kings, of course, do not concern themselves overly with vulgar things like money, and hence there was no real guide in the court annals as to what the stuff was worth. When four merchants, suddenly made art appraisers by Parliament, entered the royal dwellings to take inventory of Charles's possessions, they tended to see the contents as little more than fabric and wood slathered in gold paint. According to Brotton, they proceeded to assess it all as they would products in their own professions — pricing everything by size, weight, and length. This approach might work with carpets and tapestries, but with paintings it clearly falls short.

They also lacked a flair for presentation. Somerset House, Brotton says, looked like “a gloomy warehouse,” and he quotes the Dutch diplomat Lodewijck Huygens on the sight that met him when he entered. “In the gallery above, we saw a very large number of beautiful paintings, but all so badly cared for and so dusty that it was a pitiable sight.” Actually, by the act of “putting a price tag on the monarchy” and by treating it as so much junk, Brotton notes, the merchant-appraisers were committing an act of symbolic revenge.

The sale commenced in October 1649. Things did not get off to a great start. By releasing enormous quantities of art all at once, they flooded the market. Some former royalists were naturally hesitant about the idea of buying their late king's possessions, while Puritans were not supposed to harbor such aesthetic desires. This did not prevent three enterprising colonels, acting on behalf of international buyers, from making excellent buys, snatching up some of the best pieces. Others just sat back and waited for prices to fall.

Something else had to be tried. It was decided that the collection would be used to settle the debts of the king among his neediest creditors, with two lists being made. The first list of 120 creditors was chiefly made up of the king's retainers and victims of the civil war, with a subsequent second list further spreading it among working people. John Embree, the king's plumber, an important man around any castle, was owed 903 pounds and landed a Tintoretto, a couple of Titians, a van Dyck and, most fittingly for a man of his profession, Jacopo Bassano's The Flood.

The list also included a poor widow, Elizabeth Hunt, whose soldier husband had perished in the civil war and who received a pair of andirons and six pictures including a circumcision scene, a head of St. John, and three baboons, pieces making for decidedly odd dinner conversation.

As Brotton demonstrates, in civil wars there is inevitably plenty of opportunism and side switching. Balthazar Gerbier, one of the king's art agents and eventually one of his creditors, lamented that instead of spending “on the sinews of war,” huge sums had been wasted “on old rotten pictures, on broken nosed Marble.” This was the same man who had earlier declared, “I wish I could only live a century, if they were sold, to be able to laugh at these facetious folk who say it is money cast away for baubles and shadows. I know they will be pictures still, when these ignorants will be lesser than shadows.” Among other things, he landed Titian's Charles V with Hound, which he promptly sold to the Spanish ambassador.

Just as Charles had exploited the misfortunes of fellow monarchs in acquiring his collection, so the great men of Europe had no compunction about exploiting his downfall. The Spanish ambassador, Alonso de Cardenas, received instructions to secure certain paintings for his king and got himself a crash course in art appreciation. He became very good at it, acting in a very discreet manner. In addition to Charles V with Hound, he secured 15 other Titians, Raphael's Holy Family — the finest piece in the collection, for which he paid 1,000 pounds, or half its estimate — and Correggio's Venus with Satyr and Cupid — thus, in Brotton's words, “combining piety and prurience.” He also landed nine choice tapestries designed by Raphael, and he even managed to arrange to have the whole cargo protected by a British man-of-war on its way to Spain, and “thence to Madrid on 18 mules,” as the Earl of Clarendon was later to huff.

The French were also in on the game, though the French ambassador, Antoine de Bordeaux-Neufville, was less sharp than his Spanish colleague. His client was Cardinal Mazarin, who was one of the great connoisseurs of the age. The Cardinal's wish-list included all the big Italian names, but others were mentioned as well: “I would also like to have portraits of van Dyck,” he said, “of which they have very many in England. I would like you to make haste in this.” But the ambassador, Mazarin warned, should “not allow himself to be deceived, for it is difficult to distinguish a copy from an original.” Despite these admonitions, Bordeaux-Neufville bought some dubious wares, and he did not acquire any tapestries, all of which left Mazarin less than pleased. But the French did manage to land the collection's only Leonardo: St. John the Baptist. What made it easier for these foreign vultures was that with the second list the sale degenerated into a lottery, further flooding the market. People needed cash, not paintings, which is why one probably shouldn't overstress the “art-to-the-common-people” theme.

The sale petered out when Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1653. Cromwell was no fool. He knew that his authority, too, could do with a little support from the arts. A decision was made to withdraw some of the artworks from the lists. Montegna's nine canvases, The Triumphs of Caesar, were removed from the lists and hung at Hampton Court, and Titian's Twelve Caesars were to toil for Cromwell as they had for Charles. But Cromwell was more of a tapestry man: To his practical mind, Charles's tapestries depicting biblical scenes offered more power for the pound. Cromwell officially declared the sale over in 1654.

Altogether the sale had brought in 26,500 pounds. To put this figure in perspective, Brotton mentions that on the resale of just two Titians, one of the enterprising colonels, John Hutchinson, made 7,600 pounds. And the proceeds were only a drop in the bucket as help toward financing the fleet.

One picture that had failed to sell abroad was van Dyck's great portrait, Charles I on Horseback. As an interesting example of the easy recycling of iconography, Brotton relates how an engraving was produced that in all details but one was a copy of van Dyck's work: Charles's head had been erased and Cromwell's put in its place. After Cromwell's death another headless version was produced, ready for the next ruler to assume his place — the seventeenth-century equivalent of those photo stalls at fairgrounds where you stick your head through a hole and you are suddenly Superman.

C romwell's son Richard was made of less stern stuff than his father and after a brief period as Lord Protector was forced into retirement by the army, whereupon Parliament decided to restore the monarchy. Charles ii was invited back after almost two decades in exile and at once set about getting back his father's art treasures. Things that had left the country were lost forever, but the rest was pursued with great tenacity. A declaration was issued ordering that “all persons that have any of the Kings Goods, Jewels, or Pictures, shall bring them to the Committee for the Kings Goods, &c. within seven days after the date.” Col. William Hawley proved extremely assiduous as the new king's repo man, and he offered no compensation. Plumber Embree lost his Flood, and Hawley and his gang took special pleasure in harassing Cromwell's widow. He was reined in only when his methods threatened to make the new regime unpopular.

Charles ii also set about acquiring and commissioning new works of art, but on an altogether more sensible scale than his father's. As Brotton notes, his collection “enhanced his reign, but did not define it.” Perhaps wisely, his tastes ran more to Dutch paintings than to the risky Italian Renaissance works with which his father been so besotted.

Altogether the royal collection lost fewer than 300 paintings in the sale, and this, in Brotton's opinion, does not constitute the cultural catastrophe monarchists have tried to portray it as. In his view, the fire of January 4, 1698 that swept though Whitehall was more serious, destroying, among other things, the Bernini bust of Charles i. What the sale did do was to establish paintings as the principal art form, easy to trade and to transport. As Brotton concludes: “In the end it was not monarchy, republicanism or religion that benefited from the sale of Charles i's goods; it was painting that triumphed.”