Magazine article The Spectator

The Making of a Monarch

Magazine article The Spectator

The Making of a Monarch

Article excerpt

What does a monarch need to make it into the national memory bank? That is, what makes them vivid enough for us all to feel, centuries later, that we knew them personally. Triumphs in war are not sufficient, otherwise Edward I would be omnipresent on stage and screen. Nor are mistresses, or ditto George IV. A tragic biography involving madness, mass carnage, civil strife and murder made Henry VI a suitable subject for Shakespeare, but not really a figure who haunts the public imagination. No, what a crowned head needs in order to make a big impression on posterity, I submit, is a great portrait painter to depict it.

Who are the stars of English history? The ones whose faces and characters are most familiar? Henry VIII and Charles I, and it is surely no accident that they were the kings painted by, respectively, Holbein and Van Dyck (the other contenders for top of the all-time royal pops position are the two stellar queens, Elizabeth I and Victoria, to whom I shall come below, with Richard III among the runners up). As far as the cavalier king is concerned, Van Dyck's part in his image-creation is documented by The King's Head, Charles I.' King and Martyr at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace (until 3 May).

This little exhibition tracks portrayals of the king from the cradle - or, at least, childhood - to beyond the grave in his strange apotheosis as the only baroque saint the Church of England ever produced. But the Charles I whose memory stays with one is the noble, melancholy man, solemn, wistful, a touch lugubrious, impeccably elegant, of Van Dyck's `Charles I in Three Positions'. This is divine monarchy incarnate, but then so is Charles in all the versions which Van Dyck created, as the conquering Christian knight, for example, in Charles I on horseback - represented in the show by a sketch - St George crossed with the Emperor Constantine.

It comes as quite a shock to see some of the portraits by other painters, particularly the ones produced before Van Dyck got to work. The early ones - the miniatures by Isaac and Peter Oliver, for instance - present us with a very average beardless, slightly potato-faced youth, resembling his ill-favoured and unromantic father James I. Daniel Mytens, the court painter before Van Dyck, presents us with A.N. Other cavalier, a posturing, uncertain figure and, the artist is unable to disguise, distinctly on the titchy side (though that beard was obviously a good idea). Later, after Van Dyck's death, William Dobson painted a less olympian Charles during the Civil War: weary, a rednosed gnome, a broken man, as the catalogue says.

Had any of these alternative Charles Is become the official image, one doubts that the king would have become the central figure in so many plays and Victorian sentimental subject pictures. We might remember him as a sad but foolish monarch, like Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas III, destroyed by forces of history he did not understand, but not as a romantic, noble figure.

In reality, of course, Van Dyck's Charles was the one that was taken up during his lifetime by many artists - the print-maker Wenceslas Hollar, for example - and also after his death (the painting of Charles at his trial in 1649 was by Edward Bower 'a servant to Anthony Vandike', who had died in 1641).

As Sir Roy Strong has explained, by a fluke of cultural history Van Dyck had provided, in advance, a suitably melancholy image of the martyred king. …

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