In 1625, King Charles I (1600 - 1649) succeeded his father James I as king of Great Britain and Ireland. Van Dyck became his court painter in 1632, and created images of him which expressed the king's belief in his divine right to govern.
This portrait probably dates from the later years of Van Dyck's English period, about 1637, not long before the outbreak of the Civil War which led to the king's execution in 1649.
The Gallery's picture shows Charles I wearing the medallion of a Garter Sovereign, riding as if at the head of his knights. He is dressed in armour and holding a commander's baton. The magnificent horse, and the subdued but rich colours of the saddlecloth, landscape and the page holding the helmet complement the elegance of the rider.
Miranda Hinkley: Perched astride a horse, long hair flying, Charles I – or, at least, his portrait – leads a quiet life these days on the Gallery wall. As one of the largest works in the collection, Van Dyck’s painting of the king attracts many admirers, but few know much about its colourful past. Lecturer Jacqui Ansell told me more.
Jacqui Ansell: Well, standing in front of Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I, one thing that immediately strikes you is its sheer size; it’s one of the biggest paintings in the Gallery, but it’s also, despite its sheer size, one of the paintings that’s got one of the most exciting histories. There are some paintings that have only had three careful owners since they were painted, but this one has had such an exciting life as an object that a whole book has been written about it. It’s been christened ‘the wandering portrait’.
I suppose the story of this painting begins with the arrival of Van Dyck in England, and not for the first time, but for the first time under the employ of Charles I. Van Dyck was tempted to come to Britain from Antwerp and what he did immediately was paint something entirely different from what had gone before. Those paintings were very sort of formal, full frontal, stiff portraits, the sort of portraits you can see at the National Portrait Gallery, and what he did was give his sitters an air of elegance. And we’re standing in front of the painting and you can see the king on a horse and he’s looking very tall and magisterial and he’s leading the horse through a landscape.
What’s so very striking about this painting is the image of power that it presents; you’d never believe that Charles I was only about five-feet tall. He’s made to look extremely important and extremely commanding, as befits a man who believes in the divine right of kings. So he thought he’d got his right to rule directly from God. Now this, of course, was one of the things that really upset the Puritans and led to the events of the Civil War in Britain, and it was for this reason that Charles I was executed in 1649.
At the death of Charles I, the great painting collection that he’d spent years amassing was dispersed. Most of it was sold off, but what wasn’t sold was thrown in the Thames, specially the religious imagery like the crucifixes and the Madonnas. This painting was bought by Balthazar Gerbier and it passed through the hands of successive princes in Europe; it became in itself the spoils of war. And the reason it ended up back in Britain was again due to war and conquest, because it was given to the Duke of Marlborough. Well, it’s through the hands of a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough that it’s bought by the Gallery in 1885 and if you look very closely you can see it says on the frame that it was bought then and people were very proud of that fact.
During the Second World War there was of course a great threat, not only to the people of London, but also to the holdings in the National Gallery, so many of the paintings were evacuated to a slate quarry in North Wales. This painting was one of the most difficult ones to transport. It had to have its own case made for it called ‘the elephant case’, and the story goes that just as they were approaching the last few miles of the journey, the elephant case got stuck underneath a bridge as they were approaching the quarry. And people scratched their heads and wondered what to do and then somebody had a very bright idea and decided to let down the tyres of the lorry and excavate a little bit of the road and happily the elephant case sailed on through. And even more happily for the history of the nation and the history of the collection, the paintings survived very well their confinement in the quarry.
Since this painting was bought for the collection, many other Van Dycks have come to join it in this room where it takes pride of place, and whereas those paintings might be lent to other exhibitions, I think it’s fair to say about this painting that because of its size and sheer physical presence, its wandering days are over.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell. If you’d like to see Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I for yourself, it’s on display at the Gallery – entry is free.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Two, December 2008