The King’s Pictures is a beautifully produced publication of the first Mellon lectures given in London in 1994 by Francis Haskell. Haskell died six years later, and this volume is as much an act of piety to honor a distinguished academic as it is a vehicle to transmit art historical findings. Indeed, it is a fitting memorial to a scholar not concerned with connoisseurship but with the historical and cultural contexts in which art was commissioned and collected and, in this case, sold.
The academic apparatus underpinning the texts, provided by the editor, Karen Serres, is worthy of the standard that Oxford’s Professor of Art History would have set himself. As important, she has managed to preserve something of the freshness and vivacity with which Haskell beguiled his audience and held its attention. Lectures are performances, and the well illustrated chapters, each the record of an hour-long address with slides, are an easy, informative and stimulating read.
The book’s full title conveys its ambitious scope; Haskell tells the story not only of King Charles I’s collection of paintings but also those of three of his aristocratic courtiers – the Earl of Arundel and the Dukes of Buckingham and Hamilton – against the much studied backdrop of Buckingham’s ascendency, Personal Rule, Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration all over the course of some forty years. The lecture form imposed a synoptic treatment of a subject which maybe proved to be not so rich in potential as might have been hoped. The author looks beneath the glittering surfaces of an amazing accumulation of masterpieces and the ruffled confusion of their dispersal to ask why so little contemporary comment was engendered. And he has had to admit to being frustrated by a wall of indifference on the part of a highly literate public. We realize that a fascination with the fine arts was then the preoccupation of a small minority in England, a state of affairs different from Italy and the Low Countries.
Haskell is a skilled guide to the personalities involved – the factotums – and the collectors themselves – all four, in the case of this book, very different. Other than their determined pursuit of works of art, he can only detect one other shared characteristic, namely ignominious failure on the battlefield. Although let it be said in favor of Arundel that while he gloried in the feudal office of Earl Marshal, when it came to the first Bishops’ War of 1639 (his only whiff of what was no more than a skirmish), his role was chiefly ceremonial.
The survey of the paintings involved is also assured, though marked by a plethora of adjectives – attractive, ravishing, magnificent etc. – acceptable when heard as the image appears on the screen, but tending to the bombastic on the page. Haskell suggests that the popularity of paintings by the Bassano’s, of which Arundel, Buckingham and Charles I owned multiple examples, points to a “specific individual English taste in Italian painting.” It was in fact a Bassano painting, in need of conservation, that caused early unpleasantness in the relations between the court and Rubens, though Karen Serres (in her Introduction) has surely misinterpreted surviving written exchanges to assert that Rubens earned a rebuke from the king over problems that arose round it. Rubens in fact early reported favorably on Charles’s love of painting as he had earlier praised Arundel as an “évangeliste pour le monde de l’art.”
Arundel’s noble aspiration concerning his collections are not dwelt on; rather emphasis is placed on the rivalry between the collectors. But in this respect it is surely unworthy to impute irritation on Arundel’s part at his failure to secure the Ecce Homo by Titian (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) against Buckingham as a reason for his visit to Buckingham’s assassin on the eve of his execution. In charting contemporary attitudes towards works of art, the correspondence concerning a suitable papal gift to Queen Henrietta Maria is analyzed. It was not so much the high minded Queen who was disturbed by the proposed painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, but (the bachelor) Cardinal Barberini who mistook the puritan criticism of the Crown as disparaging lascivious near nakedness rather than – as was more the case – idolatry. For Haskell “the survival of the untouched Whitehall ceiling remains one of the most amazing … episodes of these times [following the execution of the King].” But there was nothing idolatrous in Rubens’s allegorical tribute to King James I, the father of the executed king, and his reign. Certainly Cromwell would have had no objection to James’s regal union of England and Scotland, whose personifications as devised by Rubens are not shown effecting the birth of the United Kingdom – a term that was only coined in 1801– but probably supporting the Prince of Great Britain, the courtesy title by which King James’s grandson, the future Charles II, was known.
Haskell well demonstrates the ambiguity of attitudes towards the impetus of making collections following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. The Earl of Northumberland, a moderate supporter of Parliament in the Civil War, rented the residence of the deceased Duke of Buckingham and successfully prevented the sale of its contents. He was to become the leading collector of the Interregnum. Neither so rich nor ambitious, was another collector but of more overt royalist sympathies, Sir Justinian Isham; he was left unimpeded to decorate the entrance hall of his Northamptonshire house with copies of two of Van Dyck’s portraits of the dead king, the Roi à la Ciasse and the equestrian portrait with M. de Saint-Antoine.
Particularly well told are the melancholy dispersals during and after the Civil War of the collections that had briefly made London a center for the display of old masters which the well-traveled Rubens had marvelled at. Arundel, already abroad before the outbreak of hostilities, gave financial support to the King, but his collection was in the hands of his wife in the Netherlands and its disposal took place over several decades until the final auction in Amsterdam in 1684. The Buckingham collection was eventually allowed to leave London; the second duke, soon declared a traitor by Parliament, sold it off in Antwerp in 1649/50. More complicated was the fate of Hamilton’s collection entrusted to the care of his brother-in-law, a Parliamentarian; the means by which it came into the possession of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Spanish Netherlands, however still remain a mystery – to Haskell’s despair. As he says: “I hoped against hope that I would be able to clear up the mystery … It seems impossible to me that archival research, will not, one day” reveal how the transaction took place. Such are the frustrations of the researcher into provenance!
Need of money was the decisive factor in these sales, and it was money, as much as ideology, that also determined the sale of the late King’s goods, in which another factor was the fear of theft from the royal palaces. The sale was unprecedented and initially undertaken to finance the Parliamentarian navy and to satisfy Charles’s numerous, indebted, household servants responsible for the running of his erstwhile court, like the “plumber … silkman …cutler and … linen-draper.” A second list of creditors was then drawn up, and Haskell shows how other ex-servants of the king like, for instance, Edmund Harrison, embroiderer to Charles I and prior to that to his father and later his son, headed syndicates of creditors and handled the sale of masterpieces such as Rubens’s Peace and War ( National Gallery). But the men who made the best returns were those with ready money, army officers like Colonels Hutchinson, Webb and Wetton, who were to profit from the well-documented competition between the Spanish and French ambassadors.
The sale was a complicated affair, brought to an end in 1651, and it still perhaps requires a full detailed analysis, following the good account given by Jerry Brotton in 2006. Francis Haskell had already pointed the way a dozen years earlier. He also illumined with both elegance and scholarship this whole episode in British cultural history. It was of comparatively short duration and of little or no influence on future developments, but it was extraordinary none-the-less.