MPs as art collectors in the 1650s

As the Royal Academy’s Charles I: King and Collector exhibition comes to a close, Andrew Barclay, Senior Research Fellow with the Commons 1640-1660 Section, considers how a number of the king’s paintings passed into the collections formed by MPs of the period…

Charles I King and Collector
The Royal Academy Charles I: King and Collector exhibition

The Royal Academy’s Charles I exhibition deliberately ignores the fate of the king’s art collection after his execution in 1649. Yet the story of its dispersal is equally interesting. The sale of many of the paintings by the Rump Parliament has usually been seen as the ultimate example of political philistinism, ushering in a decade of puritanical repression and hostility to the visual arts. The reality however was a bit more complicated. For one thing, the court of the Cromwells was more courtly than one might suppose. The sale of the king’s collection also had the unintended effect of making foreign paintings more widely available in Britain than ever before. This arguably did as much as Charles I’s example to create a market for such art. The men who sat in Parliament during that decade were well placed to take advantage of this opportunity. It was not just that they tended to be wealthy and well connected. It was also that some of them were new men keen to demonstrate their rising social status. Several therefore began buying art.

Johannes Froben - Holbein
Johannes Froben, Hans Holbein – thanks to the Royal Collection for use of this image

There were three ways in which individuals could acquire paintings unloaded in the Commonwealth sale. The first was by buying items directly from the trustees supervising the sale. Several MPs, such as John Disbrowe, William Goffe, Harbert Morley, John Okey, Valentine Wauton and Christopher Whichcote, purchased various royal goods in this way. Having first taken out a lease on Oatlands Palace, Sir Gregory Norton went on to buy some of its contents. But the only MP who bought paintings was the Regicide and former soldier, John Hutchinson. As his wife, Lucy Hutchinson, later put it, he ‘became a great virtuoso and patron of ingenuity’. His numerous purchases included Holbein’s Johannes Froben and Titian’s Conjugal Allegory (Louvre), both of which are among the loans to the Royal Academy exhibition. Hutchinson was primarily collecting for himself and some of these paintings were removed to his country house at Owthorpe in Nottinghamshire. But he was willing to speculate and he sold his most expensive painting, Titian’s Jupiter and Antiope (the ‘Venus del Pardo’, now in the Louvre), for a substantial profit.

But the trustees soon found that they could not sell everything. It had been intended from the outset that the money raised from the sale would be used to pay the arrears of former royal servants. So it was now decided to dispose of the remaining goods by dividing them between those servants. Groups of these creditors were therefore forced to accept paintings and other items. But only a few former or future MPs were affected. Norton acquired further items in this way, while the former equerry, Sir John Gill , and the former royal fishmonger, Thomas French, were also on the list of creditors. But it did not necessarily follow that they personally received any actual paintings. Most of the syndicates of creditors sold the goods collectively and then divided the money raised between themselves.

2nd Duke of Buckingham and Lord Francis Villiers.jpg
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Lord Francis Villiers, Sir Anthony van Dyck – with thanks to the Royal Collection for use of this image

The third way MPs could obtain paintings was on the secondary market. Purchasers or creditors could sell on goods they had acquired to other collectors. The best documented collector of the decade, Philip Sidney, Viscount Lisle (later 3rd earl of Leicester), preferred this method. Many of his purchases of royal paintings were thus made via a middleman. Other MPs, such as Chaloner Chute (Speaker in the 1659 Parliament), Thomas Povey, Bulstrode Whitelocke and Sir John Wittewronge, were said to have owned (and later returned) former royal paintings and so presumably had bought them in this way. In Wittewronge’s case, this involvement in the art business was not new. In 1644, in extremely questionable circumstances, he had seized what had been Van Dyck’s art collection. He did so because he claimed that Sir Richard Pryse, who had married the artist’s widow and who was himself a future MP, owed him money. Wittewronge had then sold most of those paintings to the 10th earl of Northumberland. He had also previously employed Humphrey Jones (brother of the Merioneth MP, John Jones), who served as the joint treasurer for the sale of the king’s goods. As for Povey, he seems to have known something about art, because he was able to impress Pepys in 1662 with his talk of ‘his house, pictures and horses’. Tanfield Vachell, who had sat in the Long Parliament, may also have owned some of Charles I’s paintings, including Van Dyck’s portrait of the two sons of the 1st duke of Buckingham (also in the exhibition), as it was probably his heir who was reported as possessing them in 1660. Vachell is known to have collected paintings, prints, medals and ivories.

A Sybil, Palma Vecchio – with thanks to the Royal Collection for permission to use this image

Finally, there are some MPs for whom there are only tantalising hints of their interest in art. One such case is that of Edward Montagu, later 1st earl of Sandwich. As master of the great wardrobe to Charles II, he would play a central role in the efforts to recover the late king’s collection after 1660. He is also known to have used his mission as ambassador to Madrid in 1666 to attempt without success to persuade the Spanish government to return those of Charles I’s paintings which had been bought by Philip IV. At some point during the 1660s Sandwich presented a painting of a sibyl by Palma Vecchio to Charles II. They is no obvious reason why he could not have bought this painting during the 1650s, when he had been a prominent and fashionable figure at the Cromwellian court. That painting is currently on display in the Charles II: Art and Power exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London.


Further reading:

  • Hilary Maddicott, ‘A collection of the Interregnum period: Philip, Viscount Lisle, and his purchases from the “late king’s goods”, 1649-60’, Journal of the History of Collections, xi (1999)
  • Jerry Brotton, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection (2006)
  • Andrew Barclay, ‘Recovering Charles I’s art collection: some implications of the 1660 Act of Indemnity and Oblivion, Historical Research lxxxviii (2015)

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