The Collector In Private: How Our Objects Tell Our Stories

Recently when ill with the flu, I found myself binge-watching HGTV, probably because I occasionally like to add insult to injury in my life. One of the programs featured a designer creating “artwork” for a finished home. While the end result was predictably awful, it actually told me more about the people who lived in the house than it did about the host. The homeowners ooh’ed and aah’ed over how much they loved the “artwork”, which they themselves did not acquire, and which was placed where someone other than themselves thought it should be placed.

For historians, the placement of a work of art in someone’s home can often reveal a great deal about the person who owned the object. This significance is often lost to us when a painting or sculpture is placed in a museum alongside other objects coming from various dates, eras, and owners. It’s a problem that I’ve often complained about in my writing over the years, when discussing sacred art that has been removed from the sacred spaces which it used to occupy. Yet it’s also true of pieces that were created or collected for private enjoyment.


One great example of this was King Charles I of England (1600-1649), shown above in a portrait by Gerard van Honthorst, whose personal art collection was partially reassembled last year for a show at the Royal Academy in London. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, and I daresay most of my non-English readers didn’t either. Nevertheless, a recent lecture I watched touches on some of the same subjects addressed in the show, and gives great insight into how one of the most famous art collectors of the 17th century used the work that he collected to define the most intimate aspects of his day-to-day life.

Simon Thurley is one of my favorite English historians, particularly when it comes to his lectures on art and architecture. Currently, he’s in the midst of a series of presentations on artistic and architectural patronage in England under succeeding dynasties, having begun with the Tudors and just recently having spoken about the Stuarts. Even if you’re already a student of English history, I can fairly reasonably guarantee you that a Thurley lecture will present you with new information and insights which will further illuminate your knowledge.

I knew before watching Dr. Thurley’s most recent lecture that Charles I was both a great patron and collector, having commissioned works from important artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck, and having amassed an art collection that, after his execution during the English Civil War, was scattered into some of the great princely collections of Europe. What I did not know was the fact that, until his death, only a very small group of people knew that he owned such a massive and important collection, which he displayed at the now-vanished Palace of Whitehall in London, the sweep of which is shown in the painting below from the Royal Collection. It’s hard to reconcile Charles’ level of privacy with the actions one might expect in an age when wealth was openly flaunted by many, and when Charles himself was someone who believed firmly in absolute monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings.


The bulk of Charles’ collection was displayed in the King’s private apartments, rather than in the public areas of the Palace. These were areas of the building to which only members of the royal family and the most intimate of courtiers were granted access. Thus, unlike many of his contemporaries who built enormous galleries to publicly showcase their art, and thereby broadcast their taste, wealth, and power to any and all visitors, King Charles rather modestly kept his art largely to himself.

In his lecture, Dr. Thurley provides examples from contemporary written accounts of how many visitors to Whitehall during Charles I’s reign made no comment whatsoever on some of the very important works of art there, including paintings by Mantegna, Titian, and Veronese. This seeming omission is explained by the fact that these visitors were given access to the spaces where objects such as official portraits were displayed, but they never secured entry into the private rooms. As he explains when showing the architectural layout of the palace, indicating which rooms and wings were accessible and which were not, Dr. Thurley also shares some interesting information regarding what the King chose to display in his private apartments.

Among the works that Charles kept close to himself is this beautiful group portrait of five of the royal children with two of their favorite dogs, a painting that is now at Windsor Castle:


The directness and intimacy of the work is breathtaking, if you consider the formality of court life at the time. We get a sense of the personalities of all five siblings here, particularly the three eldest: on the far left we see Princess Mary, then the future King James II (looking a bit melancholy), and the future King Charles II at the center of the picture, gazing boldly at the viewer. The fussy, half-naked infant on the far right is Princess Anne; I particularly like how Princess Elizabeth is trying to both stop her baby sister from falling out of the chair, and from grabbing a hold of what must have been a very good and obedient mastiff.

Another work that the King kept close to him is this lovely High Renaissance image (in a later frame) of the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist in a landscape; we can just see St. Joseph with a lantern inside the ruined building in the background:


At one time this painting of the Holy Family with St. John was believed to be by Raphael, but historians now believe it is more likely a work by his workshop assistants or those in his circle, probably based on Raphael’s design. This was not at all unusual at the time, for popular artists often had so many commissions that they could not possibly hope to keep up with demand. We can see a rather similar-looking Virgin Mary in the “Madonna dell’Impannata” in the Pitti Palace in Florence, which dates from around the same time, and this painting like the one in Charles’ collection is now believed to have been executed mostly by Raphael’s workshop assistants to his designs, with only some intervention by the Master in some of the faces or other details.

After having been sold off by Cromwell during the English Civil War, King Charles’ painting ended up at the Escorial in Spain. It remained there until it was stolen during the Napoleonic period, and eventually made its way back to a collector in England. [Quite a number of works of art currently in English and French collections were stolen from Spain during the 19th century, and unlike some you don’t see Spain screaming and wailing about getting all of them back, but we’ll leave that subject for another time.]

In any case, the Van Dyck portrait of his children and the Raphael-esque devotional painting are two of the images that Charles I wanted to see when he got up in the morning, and at night before he went to bed. Dr. Thurley doesn’t explore the question, but for the purposes of this post it’s a relevant one for us to ask: do these art choices, and the placement of them in the King’s private apartments, tell us something about the King’s character and personality? Did he smile and greet the image of his children and their dogs, for example, or did he pray before the image of the Holy Family and St. John?

As to the former, Charles loved having paintings of his children around him, and commissioned quite a few of them, so we can reasonably assume that this was one of his favorites. We know that the beginning of his marriage to Queen Henrietta Maria was a bit rocky, but once they started having children they became very devoted to one another; they would have nine children in all, not all of whom survived to adulthood. Over time, as he became less popular with the low church Protestants who came to dominate Parliament, he and the royal family withdrew more and more from public life in order to spend more time together. So perhaps an image such as this one not only reminded Charles on a daily basis of his paternal love for his children, but also of his duty to them as a monarch to try to set an example of how one ought to rule.

Regarding the devotional art, we may not want to read too much into the fact that this very personal, affectionate, and Catholic image was kept in the King’s bedchamber. Although Charles tolerated his wife’s Catholicism, he himself was a Protestant, and intended to remain so. He often clashed with the Presbyterians and Puritans, who (wrongly) suspected that he was either about to convert to Catholicism or legalize it once more in Britain, but at the end of the day he was what today we might call a smells-and-bells Anglican: a very devout one, who spent a great deal of time in prayer, but not a Catholic. As the Catholic Herald pointed out in their review of the Royal Academy exhibition on the King’s collections, “Charles’s taste lay with the Catholics, and while that tells us something about his aesthetic leanings, and quite a bit about his political ambitions, it does not very much about his faith.”

By way of conclusion then, I have an interesting question that I’d like my readers to consider.

If a group of historians visited your home today, without your being present to explain what art you had on display, or why you put it where you did, what conclusions would they be able to draw? We’ve seen how the art objects that Charles I chose for his private apartments tell us something about the man himself: what mattered to him, and what inspired him on a daily basis. In our own, far less magnificent way, each of us has a collection of pictures, decorative objects, and the like, however great or small, that whether we realize it or not tells a story about us.

So it’s a good exercise to, periodically, take a step back, look at what you have on the walls, shelves, and tabletops, and ask yourself, what do these things say about me? Do I actually like or agree with the message they are conveying about who I am to others? Whatever you happen to collect – be it paintings, porcelain, or postage stamps – you may be surprised by what you discover about yourself, if you take a  detached look at both what you collect and where you display it.