The Telegraph
Friday , March 14 , 2014
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The king’s pictures: the formation and dispersal of the collections of Charles I and his courtiers By Francis Haskell, Yale, £35

The predominant trend in the writing of western art history has been a concern on the production of art. Historians have focused on artists, their paintings, the context of the paintings, the techniques and colours used and then they have interpreted the paintings. This mode was initiated, it can be said, by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century in his book, The Lives of the Artists, a kind of urs text for art historians. A departure from this form of analysis can be seen in the works of Francis Haskell, who looked more at the consumption side of art: at patrons, collectors, sales, tastes, and the setting up of collections and museums. This book, published posthumously (Haskell died in January 2000), shows how fruitful and enriching art can be for understanding a period.

Haskell looks at the fate of four great collections of art in 17th century England: those of Charles I, the Earl of Arundel, the Duke of Buckingham and the Duke of Hamilton. These collections were accumulated sometimes in collaboration but more often in competition with one another. But these collections, because of the Civil War in England in the 1640s, were all dispersed across Europe. Haskell believes that this dispersal “represents one of the most important movements in the history of European taste and collecting as a whole.” Never before, he writes, “had pictures travelled so extensively or been seen (and even owned) by so many different people. The artistic map of Europe was transformed.” A series of sales in one decade — 1643 to 1654 — decided almost conclusively which paintings were to enter the “national canons of art history, and even affected our holidays destinations.’’

In the first two chapters, Haskell studies how these collections were formed. This brings to light a relatively unknown aspect of the Stuart court. That court had within its large network a number of men who acted as advisers to the noblemen and helped them assemble spectacular collection of paintings in a very short time. Haskell thus also charts European artistic networks.

Knowledge about art and the possession of high quality paintings, tapestries and sculptures became essential for social status and prestige. Important and ambitious courtiers needed to have the ability to engage in knowledgeable conversation about Old Masters like Raphael, Leonardo, Titian and Tintoretto. Connoisseurship was a mark of nobility and was endorsed by the king himself. Charles I was known for his educated eye for art. He once rebuked Peter Paul Rubens for misleadingly presenting as autograph a painting that had actually been done by his studio assistants.

In spite of the obvious splendour of these collections, contemporary references to them were scarce. Haskell wrote in a letter to Christopher Hill, a historian of the 17th century, “how rare are the [contemporary] references to what were, by any standards, the most amazing art collections of the 17th century, or perhaps ever.’’ The dearth of sources brings out the historian in Haskell, who scoured parliamentary papers, dispatches, memoirs, diaries and letters to shed light on the making of these collections and their dispersal.

This dispersal started even before the royalist forces were defeated in the 1640s and the king executed. The Earl of Arundel’s exile and death, and the trouble that the Dukes of Buckingham and Hamilton fell into meant that parts of their collections began to be sold in the Continent. After the king’s death, his painting collection, along with his other possessions, were inventoried and were kept in Somerset House. From there, the paintings were slowly sold to pay the king’s creditors and to finance the Commonwealth.

This had several consequences, of which three need to be noted. First, many of the creditors could not be paid in cash, of which there was a shortage. They were given paintings instead. Thus common people — a tailor, a glazier, a plumber and so on — came to briefly possess outstanding works of art. They sold them and these sales were often regulated by syndicates. Second, because the paintings were on display in Somerset House, people who previously had no visual access to such works of art — soldiers, for example — got to see these paintings. Third, the sale of the king’s pictures resulted in a keen rivalry between the Spanish and the French ambassadors in London to acquire the best of these paintings.

Apart from Haskell’s eye for detail and his appreciation of art, what is evident here is that he wrote always as a historian sensitive to contexts, the complex relationship between art and politics, paradoxes and even to silences.