Charles 1 assembled the greatest collection of art ever seen in this country, including works by Raphael, Leonardo,Tintoretto, Titian, Correggio, Mantegna, Holbein and Bruegel.
Posted on Sat 01 July 2017
When he was executed in 1649, Cromwell’s republican government sold off more than 1500 works of art, dozens of priceless tapestries, and 500 sculptures, often through shady middlemen and for a pittance.
The great art collection was dispersed, and after the Restoration in 1660, Charles 2nd managed to reassemble perhaps three quarters of his father’s collection, forming the core of the Royal Collection today. But many of the best paintings never came back from the most famous European art galleries, like the Prado and the Louvre.
The sale of the king’s pictures was carried out by a military junta who effectively looted the royal palaces and sold the contents to unscrupulous buyers. The selling off was so corrupt and so nakedly political that there is a good case today for saying the entire sale was illegal and invalid. Items held in European galleries should, arguably, be returned to Britain for good.
Charles was a fanatical collector, his agents scouring Europe to pick up the jewels of Renaissance art, and intended to reflect the majesty of the king. This is why Cromwell’s regime was so keen to sell it. Like the Nazis stealing the art of Jewish collectors, many parliamentarians regarded the king’s collection as degenerate and evidence of Catholicism. Some Puritans said it was “sinful, idolatrous and abominable.” Some of the artworks were used to pay creditors and to re-equip the Commonwealth navy. A former royal plumber got “The Flood “by Bassano, and the royal draper got tapestries, curtains and a Van Dyke. Agents of Philip 2nd, Cardinal Mazarin and Archduke Leopold William got in on the fire sale, and dubious brokers made a fortune as this was the birth of the modern art market. A Parliamentarian, Colonel Hutchison, who had defended Nottingham Castle for Cromwell, paid £600 for Titian’s Venus (now in the Louvre) and sold it to Mazarin for £7000. Raphael’s “The Holy Family “was bought by a Spanish dealer for a snip at £1000 and now hangs in the Prado. A parliamentary inventory listed 1570 paintings for sale at a value of £37,000, a fraction of their full worth.
Charles and his family did not want to relinquish his great art collection, any more than he was willing to lose his head. Generous European galleries have allowed his paintings to travel to Exhibitions all over the globe but even more magnanimous would be an acknowledgment that many should return to Britain permanently.
OCA’s Cultural Correspondent: “Captain” Peter Vaughan