The English weren’t as partial to the chopping of a royal head as the French were, but the story of this exhibition starts with the trial of Charles I, the ill-fated king whose head was to be severed from his body on the 30 January 1649. Fast forward to 1660 and enter his son, Charles II, to whom the Queen’s Gallery has dedicated its space until May 2018. Charles II: Art and Power is laden with gilt, glamour and girls. If kings had an Oscar ceremony, I can imagine Charles II would have worn Versace and happily floated down the ruby red carpet, with several lady friends in royal tow and flicking his curly (albeit wigged) mane of hair.
Charles II: Art and Power includes 220 paintings, drawings, books and works of art in the first exhibition from the Royal Collection to focus on Charles II. It’s a testament to a new age of supremacy, sensuality and art. The king and his women, his artists, poets, scientists and writers, his playhouses, balls, feasts and jewels were truly in restoration mode. Charles II, king of the bling, was showing off. Big time.
Charles I and the Commonwealth
January 1649: Charles I is convicted of treason and executed outside Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell and his Commonwealth republic take over. Charles’s son is forced into exile, and the royal loot is destroyed or sold off (the subject of an exhibition opening at the Royal Academy in January). By May 1660, the Commonwealth is ousted, and Charles II is invited to sit on the English throne.
Enter the ‘Merrie Monarch’
In May 1660, Charles II entered London. He promptly re-instated royal traditions such as public dining, the ritual of the Order of the Garter and the priciest coronation tag since Elizabeth I’s. In the king’s Restoration court, art and power went hand-in-hand. Royal ceremony was back in fashion: it was a new age of pomp and pageantry.
LEFT: Some of the gilt on show at the Queen’s Gallery includes the new ceremonial and ecclesiastical plate used for the king’s coronation . RIGHT: James VII’s wife, Mary of Modena wore this crown for her coronation. It contains 38 large diamonds, 532 smaller diamonds and 129 large pearls.
This exquisite fragment (LEFT) was taken from the ceiling decoration of St George’s Hall in Windsor Castle (RIGHT). The hall was destroyed in the fire of November 1992.
The new king furnished his palaces with a sizeable collection of paintings, purchasing new works as well as recovering much of his father’s art lost collection. The Misers was sold off during the Commonwealth and recovered during the Restoration. It was subsequently hung in Whitehall next to the State Bedchamber.
The Royal Ladies
I promised you some ladies, and here they are. Taking centre stage is Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s wife and to whom we have the ritual of drinking tea to thank. The ladies surrounding her are just a selection of Charles II’s mistresses and include Louise de Kéroualle, Charles II’s principal mistress until his death, and Elizabeth Hamilton, one of the greatest beauties of the Restoration.
Samuel Pepys referred to Nell Gwynn as a “mighty pretty creature” and Charles II concurred. She had two illegitimate sons with Charles II, and he is known to have had a further ten children with his other mistresses.
Charles II – Art & Power On until 13 May 2018. Tickets from £5.50 to £11 (under 5s go free).
If you’re bringing the kids, make sure you visit the Millar Room. Families can explore the exhibition in an interactive, multimedia space and take a photo on a replica of Charles II’s throne.
About the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA. Nearest tube: Victoria
Opening Times: Daily: 10.00 – 17.30 (from 22 July opens at 09.30)