Art, power and money: the sale of Charles I’s art collection

On Tuesday of this week – 30th January – we observed the anniversary of the regicide, the execution of Charles I. This is not the only reason Charles I has been in the spotlight recently, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses the sale of the King’s art collection in light of the current exhibition Charles I: King and Collector

To mark its 250th anniversary, the Royal Academy has reunited the art collection amassed by Charles I from shortly before his accession to the throne in 1625.  As reflected in numerous reviews, the exhibition has triumphantly drawn attention to its many glories. Since its foremost works are drawn from foreign galleries, it also reminds us of the subsequent deliberate dispersal of the collection by the English state, and the consequent loss to native art-lovers over the intervening centuries of works by Holbein, Titian and others at the pinnacle of their powers.

The reconstruction is illuminating in more than one sense.  However, the 17th century context supplied in media accounts has hardly done justice to the complexities of the construction and destruction of Charles’s collection.  The sale was not, as so often assumed, primarily the responsibility of Oliver Cromwell during his protectorate (1653-1658), but of the English republic (1649-1653) and its political organ, the Rump Parliament.  For much of the crucial period following Charles’s execution (30 January 1649), Cromwell was absent from Westminster, fighting for the cause of the new commonwealth in Scotland and Ireland (and only through his victories there gaining the pre-eminence which later brought him to supreme power).  It was Parliament which set up a committee to review the possessions of the king and the royal family, both artefacts and buildings, which appointed men to draw up inventories, and which passed acts for the sale of what they had uncovered (4 July 1649, 14 March 1650).

The overriding motive, furthermore, was not puritan philistinism, even though some MPs, and doubtless more of the leading church ministers, found some of the images in question scandalous.  Nor was it simply outrage that, beginning at a time of economic depression in the 1620s, a king out of touch with his subjects had spent money he did not have on ostentatious consumption and then turned to unparliamentary taxation to underwrite policies they deplored.  The primary imperative was immediate and financial.  It was not just that money was needed to fund the state’s military and naval campaigns as it fought for its continuance and security – although that need was pressing and substantial.  It was also that Charles I had incurred enormous debts to fund his own war effort, and his creditors required payment.  Among them were some former members of the royal household, to be found among MPs on the relevant parliamentary committees – men like Sir Henry Mildmay, Cornelius Holland and Michael Oldisworth – who were owed pensions by the crown.  These men displayed religious commitment, but they were not aesthetic puritans. Oldisworth, for instance, was the right-hand man of Philip Herbert, 4th earl of Pembroke, former chamberlain of the royal household and himself an MP in the Rump, whose own advanced artistic tastes are still on permanent display at Wilton House in Wiltshire.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the process of sale was protracted, complicated, and prone to deviousness and corruption – a fact which complemented the equally questionable channels through which Charles I had made some of his acquisitions in the first place. Buyers were initially reluctant to be seen apparently profiting from the regicide that had outraged many across Europe.  Some, including most notably Oliver Cromwell himself, were dubious at the wisdom of dissipating the totality of a collection which underscored the power and dignity of the state.  Art and architecture did not die in 1650s England: the rich and influential continued to have themselves depicted in oils and to build themselves gracious homes.

VL

The 1640-1660 section at History of Parliament is currently working on the biographies of the MPs mentioned above, and of others concerned in the fate of royal property.  These have yet to be published, but in the meantime suggested background reading is:

  • O. Millar (ed.), The Inventories and Valuations of the King’s Goods 1649-1651 (1972)
  • Jerry Brotton, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection (2006)
  • The parliamentary process is revealed in the Journals of the House of Commons, volumes 6 and 7, available at British History Online

 

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