Charles I as art collector

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I, before 1635, oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm (Royal Collection Trust, London)

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I, before 1635, oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm (Royal Collection Trust, London)

The patron Charles I and his circle

Whatever his character failings and political misdeeds as monarch might have been, King Charles I was undoubtedly a refined individual and a great collector and connoisseur of art. The Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens famously called him: “The greatest lover of paintings among the princes in the world.” He was the connoisseur-king who amassed the largest collection of art of any British monarch in history (around 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures of the very highest quality), replete with stellar renaissance names such as Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgione, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Holbein, and Dürer, as well as two outstanding contemporary artists, Rubens and van Dyck.

Charles’s interests and tastes were shaped from an early age by his family. He was the son of the scholar-king James VI and I and his cultured Danish wife, Queen Anne, who was an important patron of art, architecture, and music, and the brother of Henry, prince of Wales (a true renaissance prince if ever there was one, a major collector of mannerist paintings of northern Italian and Netherlandish artists, who died of typhoid fever at the young age of 18, much to Charles’s heartache).

Peter Paul Rubens, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, 1620s, oil on canvas, 60.9 x 47.3 cm (Glasgow Museums, Pollok House)

Peter Paul Rubens, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, 1620s, oil on canvas, 60.9 x 47.3 cm (Glasgow Museums, Pollok House)

There was also the tutelage of the dashing and dangerous George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, James VI and I’s favorite (and most likely lover), a savvy collector of art who favored Italian painters, most especially the Venetian artist Titian. He owned, for example, Titian’s stunning Ecce Homo (‘behold the man’), which shows Christ bloodied and bowed, wearing a crown of thorns, being led out of the Praetorium (“judgment hall” or “governor’s house’”) by Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, to the shouting crowd. Buckingham became Charles’s inseparable companion and mentor until the duke’s untimely death at the point of an assassin’s dagger in 1628.

Titian, Ecce homo, 1543, oil on canvas, 242cm x 361 cm (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

Titian, Ecce Homo, 1543, oil on canvas, 242 cm x 361 cm (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

In stark contrast to Buckingham, there was the figure of the austere and high-minded Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel, who did much to foster Charles’s enthusiasm for and taste in Italian art, though at a distance. An admirer of continental European cultures, Arundel was one of the richest aristocrats in England; some 600 paintings, including 37 works by Titian, were accounted for at the earl’s death.

And, finally, there was James, 3rd marquess, later 1st duke of Hamilton, who served as the Master of the Horse and Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the king, both distinguished and powerful offices of the sovereign’s household, which brought him into regular and close contact with Charles. In avaricious competition with Buckingham and Arundel, Hamilton amassed a huge collection of Italian renaissance art which included works by Raphael and Correggio and the celebrated Venetian artists Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, and, yet again, betraying the Caroline English court’s predilection, over 36 works by Titian, who was also an artist beloved of the court of Habsburg Spain.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), c. 1638, oil on canvas, 71.7 x 56.3 cm. Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle, Queen’s Drawing Room. RCIN 400159.

Anthony van Dyck, Queen Henrietta Maria, c. 1638, oil on canvas, 71.7 x 56.3 cm (Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle, Queen’s Drawing Room)

Queen Henrietta Maria

Although she has often been neglected as an important cultural influence at the Caroline court, Charles I’s wife, the French Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, who was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV and Marie de Medici, whom Charles married in 1625, shared and encouraged Charles’s collecting palette, particularly after the death of Buckingham, at which point she became the king’s chief emotional counsellor. By the 1630s, she had blossomed into a notable patron of the arts in her own right, of the visual arts and the dramatic arts, luxury goods and devotional objects, buildings and interior designs. The couple remained steadfast in their love for one another until Charles’s execution in 1649. In her dowager years back in France in the late 1660s, she spent much of her time at her country retreat of Chȃteau de Colombes, seven miles north-west of Paris, which was decorated with numerous family portraits, “moderne” masters, such as paintings by Anthony van Dyck, Guido Reni, and Orazio Gentileschi, and many examples of Italian renaissance art, including works attributed to Titian, Tintoretto, and Correggio, which demonstrates her abiding affinity with her husband’s collecting tastes.

Titian, Jupiter and Antiope (The Pardo Venus), 1535-40, reworked c. 1560, oil on canvas, 196 x 385 cm (Musée du Louvre)

Titian, Jupiter and Antiope (The Pardo Venus), 1535–40, reworked c. 1560, oil on canvas, 196 x 385 cm (Musée du Louvre)

A stay at the Spanish Habsburg court

By far the most important single experience in developing Charles’s artistic appetite when still prince of Wales, was the six-month stay, in 1623, alongside his confidant, Buckingham, at the court of the Spanish Habsburg king, Philip IV, in Madrid, a court renowned for its rigid formality and complicated protocols, as well as for housing the greatest collection of paintings in Europe. This took place at the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant states in central Europe.

Charles and Buckingham traveled incognito—in wigs and false beards—as “Jack and Tom Smith” and caused something of a stir at the court. The visit was intended to negotiate for the hand of the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna (sister of Philip IV) to help cement peace between the Catholics and Protestants. In the end, it came to nothing, much to the relief of the Protestant Parliament and people in England who had feared a marriage between their Protestant prince and a Catholic princess, who was, after all, progeny of their traditional enemy Spain.

Paolo Veronese, Mars, Venus and Cupid, c. 1580, oil on canvas, 165.20 x 126.50 cm (National Gallery of Scotland)

Paolo Veronese, Mars, Venus, and Cupid, c. 1580, oil on canvas, 165.20 x 126.50 cm (National Gallery of Scotland)

Instead, here, Charles feasted his hungry eyes on many works by European masters, including Titian (who had been court painter to the imperial Habsburg court in the sixteenth century), Correggio, Hieronymus Bosch, and Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV. Charles was nothing short of over-awed by what he saw and left the court gifted with two splendid paintings by Venetian artists. One was by Titian, the so-called Pardo Venus (Titian’s largest mythological painting) in which Jupiter, father of the gods, disguised as a satyr, moves towards Antiope, who is in the form of nymph, to impregnate her, after which she gives birth to twins, Amphion and Zethus (a story told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The other was Veronese’s sensual masterpiece Mars, Venus, and Cupid, in which Venus rests on the knee of Mars, god of war, with Cupid and a lapdog playing at her side.

Andrea Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar: 9. Caesar on his Chariot, c.1484-92, tempera on canvas, 270.4 x 280.7 x 4 cm (Royal Collection Trust, Hampton Court Palace, London)

Andrea Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar: 9. Caesar on his Chariot, c.1484–92, tempera on canvas, 270.4 x 280.7 x 4 cm (Royal Collection Trust, Hampton Court Palace, London)

The Gonzaga collection/Art deal of the century 

The consequence of the visit was that Charles set his heart on a comparable collection of art for his own court when king. His wish was granted between 1627 and 1628, when the renowned and lavish collection of the Gonzaga dukes of Mantua came up for sale. Charles purchased the bulk of it a colossal cost (it took him two years to pay what he owed). The jewels in the crown of the collection were without question Titian’s eleven half-length portraits of Roman emperors (1536–40; destroyed by fire in 1734), which were inspired by the Roman historian Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, and the nine canvases of Italian renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which celebrated the victories of Julius Caesar and have resided in Hampton Court Palace for nearly 400 years. One cannot underestimate the impact of this collection on Caroline court culture—it was nothing less than transformative.

An incomparable legacy

Ultimately, much of the king’s entire collection, acquired through inheritance, patronage and collecting, which comprised ancient and modern works of art, old and new masters, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, drawings, prints, bronzes, medals, cameos, jewels, furnishings, and so on, was sold by the Commonwealth (the republican government led by Oliver Cromwell), after Charles’s execution in 1649. A number of works of art were recovered after the restoration of his son, Charles II, to the throne, in 1660. Many, however, remain dispersed across museums and collections in Europe, most notably the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, and the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Nevertheless, Charles I, formed by his family, circle of male supporters, his consort, and his adventures at the Spanish Habsburg court, was pivotal in bequeathing an incomparable legacy to the history of the visual and decorative arts in Great Britain. For this, we should be thankful.

Additional resources:

Read more about Anthony van Dyck’s life at the National Gallery of Art

The Lost Collection of Charles I from the Royal Collection Trust

Christina M. Anderson, The Flemish Merchant of Venice: Daniel Nijs and the Sale of the Gonzaga Art Collection (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015).

Susan. J. Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004).

Jerry Brotton, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection (London: Macmillan, 2006).

Christopher Brown, Van Dyck (Oxford: Phaidon, 1982).

Christopher Brown and Hans Vlieghe, Van Dyck 1599-1641 (London: Royal Academy Publications; Antwerp: Antwerpen Open, 1999).

Jonathan Brown and John Elliott (eds.), The Sale of the Century: Artistic Relations between Spain and Great Britain, 1604-1655 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Museo Nacional del Prado, 2002).

David Cressy, Charles I and the People of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Richard Cust, Charles I: A Political Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

Erin Griffey (ed.), Henrietta Maria: Piety, Politics and Patronage. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

Erin Griffey, On Display: Henrietta Maria and the Materials of Magnificence at the Stuart Court (New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for the Studies in British Art, 2016).

Francis Haskell, The King’s Pictures: The Formation and Dispersal of the Collections of Charles I and his Courtiers, edited and with an introduction by Karren Serres (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).

Karen Hearn (ed), Van Dyck and Britain (London: Tate Britain, 2009).

Mark Kishlansky, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life (Penguin Monarchs) (London: Penguin, 2014).

Mark A. Kishlansky and John Morrill, “Charles I (1600–1649),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn.

Leanda de Lisle, White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr (London: Chatto & Windus, 2018).

Arthur MacGregor (ed.), The Late King’s Goods: Collections, Possessions and Patronage of Charles I in Light of the Commonwealth Sale Inventories (London and Oxford: Alistair McAlpine in association with Oxford University Press, 1989).

Oliver Millar, The Age of Charles I: Painting in England 1620-1649 (London: Tate, 1972).

Oliver Millar, Van Dyck in England (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1982).

Alexander Samson (ed.), The Spanish Match: Prince Charles’ Journey to Madrid, 1623 (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006).

Kevin Sharpe, Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).

Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles l (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992).

Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Per Rumberg (eds.) Charles I: King and Collector (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2018).

Roy C. Strong, Van Dyck: Charles I on Horseback (London: Viking Press, 1972).

Jeremy Wood, “Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn.

Cite this page as: Michael John Partington, "Charles I as art collector," in Smarthistory, June 3, 2020, accessed June 25, 2024,