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First ever exhibition in Scotland dedicated to Charles II's art collection goes on display

Release date: Thursday, 22 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 will go on display in a new exhibition opening at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse tomorrow (Friday, 23 November).  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.  In May 1660 Parliament commanded that all persons holding goods formerly belonging to Charles I were to return them with immediate effect.  Among the works recovered were Orazio Gentileschi’s A Sybil, c.1635–38, and Domenico Fetti’s David with the Head of Goliath, c.1620.

Charles 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.  Among these were 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, both of which will be on display in Scotland for the first time.

Also on display for the first time in Scotland will be Antonio Verrio’s ambitious painting The Sea Triumph of Charles II, which the Italian artist presented to the King around 1674 in an attempt to win his favour.  Verrio was subsequently commissioned to decorate the newly built State Apartments at Windsor Castle, and in 1684 was appointed ‘Chief and First Painter’ to the King.  He was one of a number of artists given official positions at Charles II’s court, including Peter Lely, appointed painter to the King in 1660, and the miniaturist Samuel Cooper, who created the profile of the King for the new coinage and was made ‘Picture Maker’ in 1672.

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’.  These include portraits of the King’s mistress, Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland.  Lely also painted Queen Catherine of Braganza, consort of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the royal residence in Scotland, had been badly damaged by fire in 1650 when it was occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s forces.  Following the Restoration, the Scottish Privy Council agreed to fund a major renovation project, with the aim of emphasising Edinburgh’s royal and governmental role.  Although the King never stayed at the Palace, he took an interest in the works, which were overseen by the Duke of Lauderdale, the Secretary of State for Scotland.  The Palace as it exists today is largely the result of this rebuilding programme, from the south-west tower added to give symmetry to the front façade, to the processional sequence of rooms modelled on the European courts, and the renowned plasterwork ceilings.

To coincide with the exhibition in The Queen’s Gallery, visitors to the Palace 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 Edinburgh-trained artist painted the King 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.

A selection of images is available from  For further information and photographs, please contact the Royal Collection Trust Press Office, +44 (0)20 7839 1377, [email protected].

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