Three men in a gallery of paintings
‘The Gallery of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’ by David Teniers the Younger

The King’s Pictures: The Formation and Dispersal of the Collections of Charles I and his Courtiers, by Francis Haskell, Yale University Press, RRP£30/$60, 256 pages

Francis Haskell (1928-2000) was one of the most original and influential historians of art – with the emphasis very definitely on the history – of the 20th century. The publication of his Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque in 1963, exactly half a century ago, signalled the arrival of a major new voice, dedicated above all to the exploration of artistic taste, patronage and collecting, as opposed to issues of attribution and connoisseurship. For the rest of his career Haskell continued to investigate this vast terrain.

As Nicholas Penny explains in his foreword to The King’s Pictures, this book would have seen the light of day long ago “but for Francis’s misplaced apprehension concerning work by other art historians”: to misquote Churchill on Attlee, Haskell was a very modest man who had nothing to be modest about. The book is partly the result of an invitation to give the inaugural series of lectures at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London in 1994, but also the culmination of a decade of research into the subject. In consequence, and thanks to Karen Serres’s editing and bibliographical updating, it effortlessly avoids the off-the-cuff superficiality and glibness that are all too often the déformation professionnelle of lecturers and, instead, gives an account of its subject that is both deeply learned and page-turningly absorbing.

Its theme is the collecting of Charles I and his courtiers, and the book’s subtitle is crucial for two main reasons. The first is that the king’s activities cannot be understood in isolation: in this same period, such figures as the Earl of Arundel, and the Dukes of Buckingham, Hamilton, and Northumberland all assembled astonishing collections, and were at times leading the charge as opposed to following in their sovereign’s footsteps. The second is that although painting was the dominant art form when it came to collecting, it was complemented by a taste for classical antiquities, modern sculpture, drawings, and much else besides.

Critically and commercially, contemporary art has never been more esteemed and enjoyed than it is today yet we take it for granted that the greatest art of the past is almost bound to be even more revered. In the early 17th century, this was a distinctly new idea. On the contrary, in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, revised and expanded 1568) the history of art is seen in straightforwardly evolutionary terms, as a gradual ascent with Michelangelo at its summit, with the inevitable consequence that the artists of the 14th and 15th centuries are deemed to be the inferiors of their successors. The only exception to this unbending rule concerned the worship of the art of ancient Greece and Rome, to which Haskell (and Nicholas Penny) devoted their Taste and the Antique. Yet in early 17th-century England, it was, perhaps, precisely a passion for Raphael, Correggio and Titian that led to the luring of the likes of Rubens, Van Dyck and Orazio Gentileschi to these shores.

What is most striking about the story Haskell tells is how brief this golden moment was, and the extent to which the collecting bug was the exclusive preserve of the happy few. Turning the pages of his book and admiring the works illustrated here, it is hard not to feel a twinge of parochial pain at the mouth-watering quality of what a fisherman might term the ones that got away. However, since the principal beneficiaries have turned out to be all manner of major European museums, this regret is arguably misplaced. What is more, their very absence may have been a blessing in disguise, as a spur to the collecting of paintings of the earlier periods, of which there are unrivalled holdings in our museums and galleries. Better yet, almost none of the star items – with the exception of Bernini’s marble bust of Charles I and Titian’s set of twelve emperors, both of which were destroyed by fire – have been irretrievably lost. To see the rest, we just need to bite the bullet and head to the Louvre, the Prado and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

David Ekserdjian is professor of history of art and film at the University of Leicester

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