The Sale of the Late King's Goods by Jerry Brotton

The lost art of royal taste
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The Independent Culture

The future King Charles III has made several inteventions, some well-meaning, all clumsy, into architecture. These might have carried more weight had he a more solid reputation as a generous and daring patron of the arts. As it is, the depressing Potemkin Village of Poundbury is his monument: Barrett Homes with royal knobs on.

His ancestor Charles I was made of more ostentatious stuff. Suffering from what today might be diagnosed as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (a taste for grandiosity, a need for self-mythology and a lack of empathy), the first Charles spent extravagantly on art, making for a glorious moment London the creative capital of Europe. This is a conceit often repeated today, but more likely by Charles Saatchi than Charles Windsor.

His achievements might be measured by the mood of the nation before and after his lavish and tragic reign. In the 17th century the English enjoyed a cult of death: wax images of corpses and jewelled walnut skulls were typical period artefacts. Then, with a mixture of prim religiosity and fiscal bravura, not to say recklesness and greed, Charles I made the art of the here and now, not of the hereafter, his preoccupation. A specific island melancholy was replaced by coloratura cosmopolitanism: big canvases and big effects. Baroque swags and swirls replaced solemn nocturnal reveries.

Charles took his wife and his taste from abroad, establishing the theory of exotic validation that has ever since influenced the art trade. Among his first promulgations was to attack jerry building in the City of London. He ordered ornamental pilasters on exisiting façades and put a stop to new developments.

Thus fortified, he assembled one of the greatest art collections ever. Agents brought to London Raphaels, Dürers and Leonardos, and the whole Gonzaga collection from Mantua. These were added to the Titians the king himself had brought from Madrid in 1623. Van Dyck and Rubens were already commuting to and from the Continent. But as ever in the history of taste, there was a reaction and the stern Commonwealth followed.

Charles's lavishness - its culture and consequences, the story-arc of excess and hubris - is the subject of Jerry Brotton's book. The Sale of the Seventeenth Century, as it might have been called, describes a remarkable moment in English history: ravishing, retributive, rough, redemptive. Brotton has written about it with authority, point and style, although he has not entirely escaped the snares which can trap an academic in pursuit of a bestseller. He wants to write impressionistically, but the heavy apparatus frustrates his design.

In 1649 Charles ascended to his execution in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, its magnificent Rubens showing his father James more optimistically ascending to Heaven. Rubens's iconography also concerns the triumph of wisdom and justice over rebellion and falsehood, but that was wishful thinking. From the scaffold, Charles could see that Inigo Jones's seven windows had been boarded up. Indeed, Charles's successor put the lights out.

Cromwell's Sale of the Late King's Goods allowed redistribution of all the expensively acquired Carolean artistic wealth. Nearly 2,000 canvases and statues were sold to cancel debts and raise money for the New Model Army. Spanish and French ambassadors busied themselves in returning booty to Madrid and Paris, so forming the basis of their great national collections.

Predictably, by 1660 there was the Restoration, and by 1667 Pepys was describing Charles II not losing his head, but losing four and a half pounds playing tennis. By the second Charles's death in 1685, London had a thriving art market. Sales were often held in the Banqueting House. But the English monarchy had lost its taste for art.