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Charles II: Art & Power opens at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse

Release date: Friday, 23 November 2018

Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II ©

Highlights of the magnificent art collection assembled by Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 are on display in a new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse.  Exploring the rich world of Charles II’s court and the role of the arts in the re-establishment of the Stuart monarchy, Charles II: Art & Power includes more than 100 works of art from the Royal Collection, the majority of which are on display in Scotland for the first time.

On 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday, Charles II made his triumphant return to London, ending more than a decade of Republican rule following the execution of his father Charles I in 1649.  Over the 25 years that followed, the court of Charles II became the centre for the patronage of leading artists and the collecting of great works of art, which served to decorate the royal apartments, glorify the restored monarchy and reinforce the position of Charles II as the rightful King.

One of the first acts of Charles’s reign was the recovery of his father’s art collection, much of which had been sold off by the Commonwealth government. He also set out to build a new collection for himself.  While still in exile in the Netherlands and just days before signing the Declaration of Breda in 1660 – which set out the new terms of the monarch’s relationship with Parliament, the army and the Church – Charles had placed an order for a large group of paintings from the dealer William Frizell, including George de la Tour’s Saint Jerome, c.1621–23, and Marco d’Oggiono’s The Infant Christ and Saint John Embracing, c.1500–1530.

A major collection of Renaissance drawings also entered the Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign, including two great groups of drawings by Hans Holbein and Leonardo da Vinci.  Charles I had little interest in drawings, but his son’s taste for such works may have developed during his years in exile, when he would have encountered a number of notable collections, particularly in France.

Charles II’s new court style was heavily influenced by the luxurious French fashions he had seen at the court of his cousin Louis XIV at the start of his exile.  His royal apartments at Whitehall Palace were filled with elaborate decorative arts, including silver furniture in the French taste.  The royal palaces were the setting for lavish masques and balls attended by the prominent figures of the day.  Several of the celebrated women at the Restoration court were painted by Peter Lely in a series of portraits that came to be known as the ‘Windsor Beauties’.  

To coincide with the exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery, visitors to the Palace of Holyroodhouse will be able to see a newly installed, life-size portrait of Charles II in the Palace’s Throne Room, painted by John Michael Wright around 1671–6. The King is dressed in Parliament robes over the Order of the Garter costume, wearing the Crown of State and holding the new Orb and Sceptre made for his coronation.  Reminiscent of depictions of earlier English monarchs such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the painting clearly suggests the continuity of the royal line, and is a powerful and enduring image of monarchy restored.                         

Charles II: Art & Power is at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, 23 November 2018 – 2 June 2019. A combined ticket is available for The Queen’s Gallery and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

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