How Charles II Used Art to Bolster Britain’s Struggling Monarchy

A new exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery in London features more than 200 items from the collection of the “Merry Monarch”

John Michael Wright's portrait of King Charles II, in the Royal Collection Public Domain

In 1660, after spending more than a decade in foreign exile, Charles II was called back to the British throne. His father, Charles I, had been executed, ushering in a short period of Republican rule, and it fell upon Charles II to cement the position of the re-installed monarchy. One way that the new king displayed his power was by amassing an impressive collection of luxurious artworks, many of which are now on display at an exhibition in London.

As Donald Lee reports for the Art Newspaper, “Charles II: Art & Power” launched this month at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. The exhibit boasts more than 200 paintings, drawings, books and furnishings that highlight Charles II’s efforts to transform his court into a hub of artistic patronage and emphasize his status as the rightful king of England and Scotland.

Some of the pieces on display are flagrantly propagandistic. There is Charles’ towering portrait by John Michael Wright, which depicts the king sitting beneath a canopy embroidered with the royal arms, dressed in resplendent scarlet robes and clutching the sceptre made for his coronation—“an enduring image of monarchy restored,” the Royal Collection Trust puts it.

Also on view is Antonio Verrio’s “The Sea Triumph of Charles II,” an ornate painting believed to have been inspired by the 1674 Treaty of Westminster, which brought an end to the Third Anglo-Dutch War. In the portrait, Verrio depicts Charles II in classical armor, being driven through the waters by the god Neptune, with Minerva and Venus looking down from on high.

According to Laura Cumming of the Guardian, the exhibit also includes a number of “propaganda prints” that depict Charles II in glorified scenarios: taming stallions, distributing money to the poor, even healing the ill.

In the days of Charles II, art was not only a means of self-promotion but also a diplomatic tool. On display at the Queen’s Gallery are a number of paintings, including works by two Renaissance masters, Titian and Veronese, gifted to Charles II by the states of Holland and West Friesland. The generous gifts were intended to solidify the states’ alliance with Britain, according to Lee of the Art Newspaper.  After Charles restored the lands and titles of Thomas Howard, the 16th Earl of Arundel, he gave the king an impressive collection of drawings by the likes of da Vinci, Raphael and both Hans Holbeins. These too can be seen at the Queen’s Gallery.

The art collection of Charles II is also indebted to the pieces that once belonged to his father. Charles I was an avid supporter of the arts and accumulated a magnificent collection of paintings and classical sculpture. These items were dispersed upon his execution, but Charles II was able to recover some of them through the 1660 Act of Indemnity and Oblivion. Orazio Gentileschi’s “A Sibyl,” for instance, was one such piece, presumed to be painted for Charles I, which was returned to his son around 25 years later.

While Charles II was given the daunting task of re-establishing the British monarchy in a complex political climate, as the luxurious tapestries and furniture on display at the Queen’s Gallery—not to mention the opulent portrait of Charles' mistress Barbara Villiers—testify, it wasn’t all business for Restoration king. Rather, a peek into his indulgent lifestyle offers insight into the king’s enduring nickname: “The Merry Monarch.”

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