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Charles II: Art and Power

Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh until June 2nd 2019
Four stars

When Charles II was restored to power in 1660 following the demise of Oliver Cromwell, the new king on the block made up for his nine years in the wilderness inbetween reigns by becoming a good time boy who put himself about a bit. He also did his best to buy back all the art Cromwell’s parliament had flogged off on the cheap.

Whether these events influenced Charles’ taste in art isn’t on record. Judging by some of the restoration era riches gathered here to show off the original merry monarch’s relationship with art on a personal, professional and aesthetic level, Charles certainly had a darker side. Beyond the self-deification, propaganda and pure glamour-chasing pleasure, the presence of no less than three paintings of biblical beheadings suggests a fondness for grand gestures of a decapitatory kind. Elsewhere, Sir Peter Lely’s ten portrait series, The Windsor Beauties, show off Charles’ assorted rosy-cheeked mistresses, plus his presumably indulgent wife, Catherine of Braganza, lined up in portraits that resemble a restoration version of Hello magazine.

While one can’t help but fall for the majesty of Antonio Verrio’s magnificently overblown and not a little camp The Sea Triumph of Charles II, in which the king looks every inch the pop star monarch, there was political skullduggery at play too. This is clear from Paolo Veronese’s The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria, part of the so-called ‘Dutch Gift’, essentially a major backhander of paintings, sculptures and a yacht designed to appease the king, only for the two countries to end up scrapping again within a couple of years.

Charles II wasn’t the first member of the establishment to try and use an artistic veneer as a political tool to beautify the nation(s) and lend the set-up they front some credibility, and he’s certainly not the last. As with all of them, and as the last part of the exhibition shows, legacy is everything, and, if handled right, will still be paying dividends long after the old order has fallen. 

The List, December 2018


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