Charles I: King and Collector: Royal Academy of Arts

The early 1600’s in Britain are best known for the political upheaval surrounding the English Civil War rather than an illustrious arts scene, however the Royal Academy of Arts’ current ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition certainly questions that. Twelve vast gallery spaces across Burlington House are dedicated to showcasing the kings’ collection, and the walls of each gallery are painted a vivid shade of regal blue or red and act as the perfect backdrop for works by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Pieter Bruegel, Andrea Mantegna and Hans Holbein amongst others. These works have been sourced from the Royal Collection, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Frick Collection in New York and various private stores, and reunited for the first time in over four centuries, having been sold off following Charles I execution in 1649. The show flows easily, manages to feel relaxed despite its grandeur, and the works bounce off each other; evident in the opening gallery where a portrait by Van Dyck of Charles I from three different angles is positioned behind a marble sculpture of the kings torso, marrying the two together. The sheer scale of several paintings, four enormous tapestries from the Mortlake workshop and the nine canvases depicting the ‘Triumph of Caesar’ by Mantegna shown side by side in one space is truly staggering. Status affirming images are common, but this exhibition does more than simply portray Charles I as king, and there are numerous family portraits and intimate scenes between himself and his wife Henrietta Maria on display. The final gallery focusses on Van Dyck and Rubens, two artists who owe their careers to Charles I who commissioned several works, including the ceilings of Banqueting House by Rubens which are likely to have been the final images the king saw before being beheaded outside it.

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Plantin-Morteus Museum: Antwerp, Belgium

The Museum Plantin Moretus in Antwerp is a little known Unesco World Heritage Site that up until last weekend I’m ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of! The 440 year old former residence and print-works of Christophe Plantin and his heir and son-in-law Jan Moretus is a unique place to visit; the dark wood and original tapestry interiors smell centuries old, the 17th century floorboards creak under foot, the gilt leather walls cry out to be touched, and an enviable library fills your nostrils with the aroma of old parchment. The rooms are numbered to help orientate visitors and ensure a set route through the museum, however I still felt free to explore and roam the idiosyncratic town house… crouching under low doorways, ambling up narrow stairwells and venturing in and out of the beautiful courtyard garden the building centres around. It has been a museum since 1876 when Edward Moretus esquire sold the building and its contents to the Belgian state and city of Antwerp for that exact purpose, and it opened to the public within a year. The eclectic collection invites just as much exploration as the building and comprises period furnishing and paintings, 640 manuscripts, 80,000 printed items, 25,000 books, etching plates illustrated by the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, as well as the two oldest printing presses in the world dating back to 1600. It’s always good to be pleasantly surprised by a less celebrated museum and the fact that I had a fun-fuelled grin on my face throughout my visit is testament to how convivial the building and its collection are. The fact that it is not a “big-name” also meant it was minus the throngs of tourists that its neighbour Rubens House museum had, which only made for a far more intimate and enjoyable experience.

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