Having read Jonathon Jones’ review in the Guardian before visiting the Royal Academy’s exhibition, I was expecting my social justice hackles to rise. In fact, Jones’ complaint is not so much at the opulence of the royal court of Charles I and its portraits, as at the current injustice of so many of these paintings being in the ‘private’ collection of our current monarch. For what it’s worth I agree that the royal collection should be nationalised and shared with us all.
It is, however, the portraits of the king that I find the least interesting in the exhibition. Charles, if his portraits are anything to go by, was not an attractive man. His beard and moustache are horribly over-manicured and there is a smugness about his gaze that would have driven me to revolution had I been alive at the time. The hunting portraits take the smugness to their height and I was pleased,if surprised, to note that I couldn’t see any dogs in them.
It was dogs that gave me a way in to the paintings. There are so many of them. It was the small, black dog scampering away from Jesus, sat with Martha and Mary in their home (Hans Vredeman de Vries), that first caught my attention. Soon I was seeing dogs everywhere – there are two in that picture, the other with the servants, and even a cat, slinking up to the human beings.
Titian’s familiar and magnificent Supper at Emmaus has a dog (a King Charles spaniel?) under the table in a position familiar to any indulgent dog owner. There a huge dogs, almost the subject off the pictures themselves such as Titians Charles V with a dog. ‘The Greate Peece‘ of the royal family includes a large beast and Bassanon’s Adoration of the Shepherds has. a dog lurking in a corner. In his Journey of Jacob a boy sits comfortably with a dog in the foreground. I am sure there are some that I missed. My favourite is a leaping dog in Giovane’s The Triumph of David. The dog is chasing Goliath’s severed head as the crowd surge around him – just as a dog would.
It is this quality of attention, that I found so accessible in the exhibition. The dogs are as well painted and familiar in their poses as the people. The dogs led me to spend longer with the human faces. There are some beautiful faces. Gossaert’s Portrait of a Man Holding a Glove and Orazio Gentilesche’s, Head of a Woman ,are deeply tender. As is Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman with her pursed, pensive lips and shadowed face.
It is a pair of portraits that stole my heart though. Once, they were hinged together as a pair, having been commissioned as a gift for St Thomas More. That alone would have caught my attention. More than that though, these portraits are of two friends, Erasmus and Pieter Gillis, to whom More jointly dedicated his Utopia. In the background a continuous book shelf, complete with books, in each portraits joins the friends who are, if fact, separated. This diptych is a tribute to the great, life-giving gift of friendship. And these are mighty friends indeed, Erasmus has a wise and interested face and Gillis has lively, twinkling eyes. Guests worthy of any imaginary dinner party.
Two other pictures moved me considerably. One is another Gossaert, Adam and Eve. The caption in the gallery suggests that this intimate picture might have inspired Milton’s description of the primal couple in his fourth book of Paradise Lost. This is my favourite excerpt from Milton and I quoted it in an Assumption sermon last year:
Picture, if you will, the naked Eve, half leaning into the naked Adam in Eden, she …
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned
On our first father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his, under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty, and submissive charms,
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregn[nate]s the clouds
That shed Mayflowers; iv 495 – 501:
I love the eroticism of that passage. But I am less convinced of its use by Milton. The Gossaert portrays the couple after the Fall, Eve carries a bitten apple behind her back and Adam is licking his finger, tasting the forbidden fruit. I think Milton’s description is, importantly, of pre-Fall sexuality.
I have saved my favourite picture til last. It is of the Virgin and Child with the Infant John the Baptist. Charles, like all its previous owners thought Raphael had painted this. I like that misattribution in itself. I hope that he kept it in his bedroom not because of its painter, but because of the picture, which modern scholars think is by one of Raphael’s pupils. It makes me feel warmer to our martyr-king. In the picture John the Baptist holds out a cross for the child Jesus and Mary extends a constraining hand. It is a beautiful moment. More than that, though, for me, is the figure in the dark behind the others and almost hidden to one side. It is St Joseph, holding a lit candle. I have a great affection for Joseph, the hidden man of Nazareth, the foster-father. It is appropriate that he doesn’t even get a mention in the picture’s title. I have always though of him as the contemplative, living a life of prayer and dreams, sustained in the craft of his work. Content not to be noticed, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
One more picture. Lorenzo Costa’s Virgin and Child which is on the wall adjacent to the hidden Joseph. The face of the baby Jesus, his gaze at the viewer, is almost unbearably tender. The loving-kindness of our God, indeed.
Friendship, tenderness, the erotic charge of the first couple, and attentiveness to the familiarity of our animal friends. I had not expected this exhibition to be such a profound spiritual experience.
Charles I: King and Collector, at the Royal Academy