So Downton Abbey reruns began this week in advance of the show’s final season and I dutifully watched, even though I’d seen it all before. I’m not a big fan of this show–the writing is a bit too erratic and melodramatic for me–but I certainly will miss seeing the house when the series is over. The production values of the series have been stellar, although several friends of mine who are landscape architects tell me that the opportunity to showcase the the estate’s grounds has been squandered. There are two rooms in the “abbey” (really Highclere Castle) that I particularly like: the Earl’s library with its pair of plush red couches and the dining room. I love that huge van Dyck portrait of Charles I and his riding master towering over the Crawley family, but I suppose I can see it elsewhere because it’s one of at least 3 variant copies.
King Charles I (1600-1649) with M. de St Antoine (1633) by Anthony van Dyck at Highclere Castle; in the Royal Collection (Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015); After van Dyck paintings at the Launceston Town Hall and Aspley House, Wellington Collection.
I’ve been thinking about Charles a lot over the past few weeks as I have just dragged the students in my graduate course on Early Modern England through the history and historiography of the English Revolution. When you’re focusing on Charles in this particular context, he looks arrogant and ill-advised, even stupid, and you tend to dwell on his death rather than his life. The enormity of being the only king in English history to be tried, convicted, and executed by his subjects for high treason will always be his primary identify and legacy, but still, sometimes it’s nice to think about “villains” in other ways. When I look at these images of Charles on horseback I see a dashing, dignified, and powerful cavalier (and also TALL, much taller than his actual height of 5’4” or so), and that is a nice way to consider him on this day, his birthday. Before the Revolution and after, when the monarchy was restored through the equally dashing persona of his son and namesake Charles II, similar portraits of Charles were commissioned, created, and published, almost as if the image of the robust, noble, and virtuous (horses are always virtuous) king was intended to wipe out alternative images of the tyrant or the traitor. Van Dyck painted two other equestrian portraits of Charles in the 1630s: the very large “wandering portrait” of Charles I on Horseback, c.1636-8 (National Gallery, London) and my favorite, Le Roi à la Chasse, c.1635 (The Louvre), and after the Revolution, prints of the equestrian king were produced well into the nineteenth century.
Above: the Van Dyck equestrian portraits of Charles I from the National Gallery and the Louvre, and a 1636 line engraving of the latter from the National Portrait Gallery, London; Below: a succession of equestrian portraits of Charles I.
Bernard Baron, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, line engraving, 1741 (1633); after Unknown artist, line engraving, 18th century; Charles Turner, published by Samuel Woodburn, after Francis Delaram, mezzotint, 1813, all National Portrait Gallery, London.