Charles II: Art & Power The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 8 December - 13 May 2018

Silver Side Table c. 1670 (Royal Collection Trust, (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017

On 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday, Charles II made his triumphant return to London and to the thrones of England and Ireland, ending more than a decade of Republican rule. Over the next 25 years, the arts would play a vital role in reinforcing Charles’s legitimacy and authority as a ruler and in creating a royal court that could re-take its place on the European stage, themes which will be explored in Charles II: Art & Power, at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 

After 14 years in exile, Charles II was keenly aware of the importance of princely tradition and magnificent display in enforcing his right to the throne and his position as Head of the Church. He ordered new royal regalia and crown jewels to replace those sold off or melted down by the Parliamentarians, and his coronation on 23 April 1661 was the most extravagant since that of Elizabeth I. The dazzling display of new altar plate in Westminster Abbey included the silver-gilt dish by Henry Greenway, nearly a metre in diameter, and a solid-gold chalice and gold paten. 

One of the first acts of Charles's reign was the recovery of his father's art collection. Although the royal residences had survived the Civil War largely undisturbed, the Commonwealth government had sold off much of their contents, auctioning everything from tapestries valued at £2,000 to blankets worth 6 shillings. In May 1660 Parliament commanded that all persons holding goods formerly belonging to Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria or the new king were to return them with immediate effect. This order was later made legally binding through the Act of Indemnity andOblivion, passed in August of that year. Among the works recovered were Orazio Gentileschi's A Sibyl, c.1635–8, and A Bearded Old Man with a Shell, c.1606, by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, which had been purchased at auction by the artist Sir Peter Lely. 

While still in exile in the Netherlands and just days before signing the Declaration of Breda - 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, who had sold works to his father in the 1630s. Among these were Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1565–67, The Four Last Things, 1565, by Maarten van Heemskerck, and Georges de la Tour's Saint Jerome, c.1621–23. In the same year the King was presented with an extraordinary gift of paintings, sculpture and furniture by the States of Holland and West Friesland, designed to strengthen the alliance between the two countries and to discourage Charles II from entering into a treaty with his cousin Louis XIV, the Dutch Republic's bitter enemy. With the 'Dutch Gift' came Lorenzo Lotto's Andrea Odoni, 1527, Paolo Veronese's The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, c.1562–69, Giulio Romano's Margherita Paleologo, c.1531, and Madonna and Child in a Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, c.1535–40 by Titian. Within a few years England and Holland were at war.

Having grown up surrounded by his father’s art collection, Charles II knew that paintings were not just for pleasure and decoration, but also served as expressions of power. Only three weeks after his return to England, he appointed the portraitist Sir Peter Lely as official 'Limner and Picture Drawer'. Lely was seen as the natural successor to Van Dyck, the first holder of the post established by Charles I. The miniaturist Samuel Cooper, who created the profile of the King for the new coinage, became 'Picture Maker' in 1672. Around 1674 the Italian artist Antonio Verrio, who had probably assisted the artist Charles Le Brun at Versailles, presented the King with his large canvas, The Sea Triumph of Charles II. 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. 

A very significant collection of Renaissance drawings entered the Royal Collection during Charles II's reign. Charles I had little apparent interest in drawings, and 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. The two great groups of drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger and Leonardo da Vinci that formed the core of Charles II’s collection came from the collection of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, the first significant collector of drawings in England. They were probably presented to Charles by Arundel's grandson in thanks for the restitution of the lands and titles of the Dukes of Norfolk after the Restoration. 

Charles II's new court style was heavily influenced by the luxurious French fashions he had seen at the court of Louis XIV at the beginning of his exile. His royal apartments at Whitehall Palace were filled with elaborate decorative arts, including tapestries woven in Parisian workshops and silver furniture in the French taste. The royal palaces were the setting for lavish masques and balls attended by actors, scientists, poets, writers and beautiful women, several of whom were painted by Sir Peter Lely in a series of three-quarter-length portraits. The 'Windsor Beauties', as they later became known, include Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Grammont, Mary Bagot, Countess of Falmouth and Dorset, and Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, who was the King's mistress. 

The traditional view of Charles II is as the Merrie Monarch, a lover of women, pleasure and parties. He enjoyed horse racing, yachting and the theatre, but his patronage of these popular pastimes was also a calculated way to gain the support of the country. By contrast, science was a source of intellectual fascination for him, a tool for improving his navy and military, and a way of identifying himself with other powerful European princely patrons, such as the Medici Grand-Dukes of Tuscany. In 1660, he founded the Royal Society, which included such great scientific minds as Isaac Newton and the astronomers Flamsteed and Halley, who worked from the newly established Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Robert Thacker's etching Prospectus Intra Cameram Stellatam, 1676, shows astronomers at work, watched over by their royal patrons, Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York.