Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Charles the First’s Love of the Fine Arts.

Herbert, the faithful attendant of Charles the First during the two last years of the king’s life, mentions “a diamond seal with the king’s arms engraved on it.” The history of this “diamond seal” is remarkable; and seems to have been recovered by the conjectural sagacity of Warburton, who never exercised his favourite talent with greater felicity. The curious passage I transcribe may be found in a manuscript letter to Dr. Birch.

“If you have read Herbert’s account of the last days of Charles the First’s life, you must remember he tells a story of a diamond seal, with the arms of England cut into it. This, King Charles ordered to be given, I think, to the prince. I suppose you don’t know what became of this seal, but would be surprised to find it afterwards in the Court of Persia. Yet there Tavernier certainly carried it, and offered it for sale, as I certainly collect from these words of vol. i. p. 541. —‘Me souvenant de ce qui etoit arrivé au Chevalier de Reville,’ &c. He tells us he told the prime minister what was engraved on the diamond was the arms of a prince of Europe, but, says he, I would not be more particular, remembering the case of Reville. Reville’s case was this: he came to seek employment under the Sophy, who asked him ‘where he had served?’ He said ‘in England under Charles the First, and that he was a captain in his guards.’—‘Why did you leave his service?’ ‘He was murdered by cruel rebels.’—‘And how had you the impudence,’ says the Sophy, ‘to survive him?’ And so disgraced him. Now Tavernier was afraid, if he had said the arms of England had been on the seal, that they would have occasioned the inquiry into the old story. You will ask how Tavernier got this seal? I suppose that the prince, in his necessities, sold it to Tavernier, who was at Paris when the English court was there. What made me recollect Herbert’s account on reading this, was the singularity of an impress cut on the diamond, which Tavernier represents as a most extraordinary rarity. Charles the First was a great virtuoso, and delighted particularly in sculpture and painting.”

This is an instance of conjectural evidence, where an historical fact seems established on no other authority than the ingenuity of a student, exercised in his library, on a private and secret event, a century after it had occurred. The diamond seal of Charles the First may yet be discovered in the treasures of the Persian sovereign.

Warburton, who had ranged with keen delight through the age of Charles the First, the noblest and the most humiliating in our own history, and in that of the world, perpetually instructive, has justly observed the king’s passion for the fine arts. It was indeed such, that had the reign of Charles the First proved prosperous, that sovereign about 1640 would have anticipated those tastes, and even that enthusiasm, which are still almost foreign to the nation.

The mind of Charles the First was moulded by the Graces. His favourite Buckingham was probably a greater favourite for those congenial tastes, and the frequent exhibition of those splendid masques and entertainments, which combined all the picture of ballet dances with the voice of music; the charms of the verse of Jonson, the scenic machinery of Inigo Jones, and the variety of fanciful devices of Gerbier, the duke’s architect, the bosom friend of Rubens.1 There was a costly magnificence in the fêtes at York House, the residence of Buckingham, of which few but curious researchers are aware: they eclipsed the splendour of the French Court; for Bassompiere, in one of his despatches, declares he had never witnessed a similar magnificence. He describes the vaulted apartments, the ballets at supper, which were proceeding between the services with various representations, theatrical changes, and those of the tables, and the music; the duke’s own contrivance, to prevent the inconvenience of pressure, by having a turning door made like that of the monasteries, which admitted only one person at a time. The following extract from a manuscript letter of the time conveys a lively account of one of those fêtes.

“Last Sunday, at night, the duke’s grace entertained their majesties and the French ambassador at York House with great feasting and show, where all things came down in clouds; amongst which, one rare device was a representation of the French king, and the two queens, with their chiefest attendants, and so to the life, that the queen’s majesty could name them. It was four o’clock in the morning before they parted, and then the king and queen, together with the French ambassador, lodged there. Some estimate this entertainment at five or six thousand pounds.”2 At another time, “the king and queen were entertained at supper at Gerbier the duke’s painter’s house, which could not stand him in less than a thousand pounds.” Sir Symonds D’Ewes mentions banquets at five hundred pounds. The fullest account I have found of one of these entertainments, which at once show the curiosity of the scenical machinery and the fancy of the poet, the richness Of the crimson habits of the gentlemen, and the white dresses with white heron’s plumes and jewelled head-dresses and ropes of pearls of the ladies, was in a manuscript letter of the times, with which I supplied the editor of “Jonson”, who has preserved the narrative in his memoirs of that poet. “Such were the magnificent entertainments,” says Mr. Gifford, “which, though modern refinement may affect to despise them, modern splendour never reached, even in thought.” That the expenditure was costly, proves that the greater encouragement was offered to artists; nor should Buckingham be censured, as some will incline to, for this lavish expense; it was not unusual for the great nobility then; for the literary Duchess of Newcastle mentions that an entertainment of this sort, which the Duke gave to Charles the First, cost her lord between four and five thousand pounds. The ascetic puritan would indeed abhor these scenes; but their magnificence was also designed to infuse into the national character gentler feelings and more elegant tastes. They charmed even the fiercer republican spirits in their tender youth: Milton owes his Arcades and his delightful Comus to a masque at Ludlow Castle; and Whitelocke, who, was himself an actor and manager, in “a splendid royal masque of the four Inns of Courts joined together” to go to court about the time that Prynne published his Histriomastix, “to manifest the difference of their opinions from Mr. Prynne’s new learning,"— seems, even at a later day, when drawing up his “Memorials of the English Affairs,” and occupied by graver concerns, to have dwelt with all the fondness of reminiscence on the stately shows and masques of his more innocent age; and has devoted, in a chronicle, which contracts many an important event into a single paragraph, six folio columns to a minute and very curious description of “these dreams past, and these vanished pomps.”

Charles the First, indeed, not only possessed a critical tact, but extensive knowledge in the fine arts, and the relics of antiquity. In his flight in 1642, the king stopped at the abode of the religious family of the Farrars at Gidding, who had there raised a singular monastic institution among themselves. One of their favorite amusements had been to form an illustrated Bible, the wonder and the talk of the country. In turning it over, the king would tell his companion the Palsgrave, whose curiosity in prints exceeded his knowledge, the various masters, and the character of their inventions. When Panzani, a secret agent of the Pope, was sent over to England to promote the Catholic cause, the subtle and elegant Catholic Barberini, called the protector of the English at Rome, introduced Panzani to the king’s favour, by making him appear an agent rather for procuring him fine pictures, statues, and curiosities: and the earnest inquiries and orders given by Charles the First prove his perfect knowledge of the most beautiful existing remains of ancient art. “The statues go on prosperously,” says Cardinal Barberini, in a letter to a Mazarin, “nor shall I hesitate to rob Rome of her most valuable ornaments, if in exchange we might be so happy as to have the King of England’s name among those princes who submit to the Apostolic See.” Charles the First was particularly urgent to procure a statue of Adonis in the Villa Ludovisia: every effort was made by the queen’s confessor, Father Philips, and the vigilant cardinal at Rome; but the inexorable Duchess of Fiano would not suffer it to be separated from her rich collection of statues and paintings, even for the chance conversion of a whole kingdom of heretics.”3

This monarch, who possessed “four-and-twenty palaces, all of them elegantly and completely furnished,” had formed very considerable collections. “The value of pictures had doubled in Europe, by the emulation between our Charles and Philip the Fourth of Spain, who was touched with the same elegant passion.” When the rulers of fanaticism began their reign, “all the king’s furniture was put to sale; his pictures, disposed of at very low prices, enriched all the collections in Europe; the cartoons when complete were only appraised at £300, though the whole collection of the king’s curiosities were sold at above £50,000.4 Hume adds, “the very library and medals at St. James’s were intended by the generals to be brought to auction, in order to pay the arrears of some regiments of cavalry; but Selden, apprehensive of this loss, engaged his friend Whitelocke, then lord-keeper of the Commonwealth, to apply for the office of librarian. This contrivance saved that valuable collection.” This account is only partly correct: the love of books, which formed the passion of the two learned scholars whom Hume notices, fortunately intervened to save the royal collection from the intended scattering; but the pictures and medals were, perhaps, objects too slight in the eyes of the book-learned; they wore resigned to the singular fate of appraisement. After the Restoration very many books were missing; but scarcely a third part of the medals remained: of the strange manner in which these precious remains of ancient art and history were valued and disposed of, the following account may not be read without interest.

In March, 1648, the parliament ordered commissioners to be appointed, to inventory the goods and personal estate of the late king, queen, and prince, and appraise them for the use of the public. And in April, 1648, an act, adds Whitelocke, was committed for inventorying the late king’s goods, &c.5

This very inventory I have examined. It forms a magnificent folio, of near a thousand pages, of an extraordinary dimension, bound in crimson velvet, and richly gilt, written in a fair large hand, but with little knowledge of the objects which the inventory writer describes. It is entitled “An Inventory of the Goods, Jewels, Plate, &c. belonging to King Charles the First, sold by order of the Council of State, from the year 1619 to 1652.” So that from the decapitation of the king, a year was allowed to draw up the inventory; and the sale proceeded during three years.

From this manuscript catalogue6 to give long extracts were useless; it has afforded, however, some remarkable observations. Every article was appraised, nothing was sold under the affixed price, but a slight competition sometimes seems to have raised the sum; and when the Council of State could not get the sum appraised, the gold and silver were sent to the Mint; and assuredly many fine works of art were valued by the ounce. The names of the purchasers appear; they are usually English, but probably many were the agents for foreign courts. The coins or medals were thrown promiscuously into drawers; one drawer having twenty-four medals, was valued at £2 10s.; another of twenty, at £1; another of twenty-four, at £1; and one drawer, containing forty-six silver coins with the box, was sold for £5. On the whole the medals seem not to have been valued at much more than a shilling a-piece. The appraiser was certainly no antiquary.

The king’s curiosities in the Tower Jewel-house generally fetched above the price fixed; the toys of art could please the unlettered minds that had no conception of its works.

The Temple of Jerusalem, made of ebony and amber, fetched £25.

A fountain of silver, for perfumed waters, artificially made to play of itself, sold for £30.

A chess-board, said to be Queen Elizabeth’s, inlaid with gold, silver, and pearls, £23.

A conjuring drum from Lapland, with an almanac cut on a piece of wood.

Several sections in silver of a Turkish galley, a Venetian gondola, an Indian canoe, and a first-rate man-of-war.

A Saxon king’s mace used in war, with a ball full of spikes, and the handle covered with gold plates, and enamelled, sold for £37 8s.

A gorget of massy gold, chased with the manner of a battle, weighing thirty-one ounces, at £3 10s. per ounce, was sent to the Mint.

A Roman shield of buff leather, covered with a plate of gold, finely chased with a Gorgon’s head, set round the rim with rubies, emeralds, turquoise stones, in number 137, £132 12s.

The pictures, taken from Whitehall, Windsor, Wimbledon, Greenwich, Hampton-Court, &c., exhibit, in number, an unparalleled collection. By what standard they were valued, it would perhaps be difficult to conjecture; from £50 to £100 seems to have been the limits of the appraiser’s taste and imagination. Some whose price is whimsically low may have been thus rated from a political feeling respecting the portrait of the person; there are, however, in this singular appraised catalogue two pictures, which were rated at, and sold for, the remarkable sums of one and of two thousand pounds. The one was a sleeping Venus by Correggio, and the other a Madonna by Raphael. There was also a picture by Julio Romano, called “The great piece of the Nativity,” at £500. “The little Madonna and Christ,” by Raphael, at £800. “The great Venus and Parde,” by Titian, at £600. These seem to have been the only pictures, in this immense collection, which reached a picture’s prices. The inventory-writer had, probably, been instructed by the public voice of their value; which, however, would, in the present day, be considered much under a fourth. Rubens’ “Woman taken in Adultery,” described as a large picture, sold for £20; and his “Peace and Plenty, with many figures big as the life,” for £100. Titian’s pictures seem generally valued at £100.7 “Venus dressed by the Graces,” by Guido, reached to £200.

The Cartoons of Raphael, here called “The Acts of the Apostles,” notwithstanding their subject was so congenial to the popular feelings, and only appraised at £300, could find no purchaser!8

The following full-lengths of celebrated personages were rated at these whimsical prices:

Queen Elizabeth in her parliament robes, valued £1.

The Queen-mother in mourning habit, valued £3.

Buchanan’s picture, valued £3 10s.

The King, when a youth in coats, valued £2.

The picture of the Queen when she was with child, sold for five shillings.

King Charles on horseback, by Sir Anthony Vandyke, was purchased by Sir Balthazar Gerbier, at the appraised price of £200.9

The greatest sums were produced by the tapestry and arras hangings, which were chiefly purchased for the service of the Protector. Their amount exceeds £30,000. I note a few.

At Hampton-Court, ten pieces of arras hangings of Abraham, containing 826 yards at £10 a yard, £8260.

Ten pieces of Julius Cæsar, 717 ells at £7, £5019.10

One of the cloth of estates is thus described:

“One rich cloth of estate of purple velvet, embroidered with gold, having the arms of England within a garter, with all the furniture suitable thereunto. The state containing these stones following: two cameos or agates, twelve chrysolites, twelve ballases or garnets, one sapphire seated in chases of gold, one long pearl pendant, and many large and small pearls, valued at £500 sold for £602 10s. to Mr. Oliver, 4 February, 1649.”

Was plain Mr. Oliver, in 1649, who we see was one of the earlier purchasers, shortly after “the Lord Protector?” All the “cloth of estate” and “arras hangings” were afterwards purchased for the service of the Protector; and one may venture to conjecture, that when Mr. Oliver purchased this “rich cloth of estate,” it was not without a latent motive of its service to the new owner.11

There is one circumstance remarkable in the feeling of Charles the First for the fine arts: it was a passion without ostentation or egotism; for although this monarch was inclined himself to participate in the pleasures of a creating artist, the king having handled the pencil and composed a poem, yet he never suffered his private dispositions to prevail over his more majestic duties. We do not discover in history that Charles the First was a painter and a poet. Accident and secret history only reveal this softening feature in his grave and king-like character. Charles sought no glory from, but only indulged his love for, art and the artists. There are three manuscripts on his art, by Leonardo da Vinci, in the Ambrosian library, which bear an inscription that a King of England, in 1639, offered one thousand guineas of gold for each. Charles, too, suggested to the two great painters of his age the subjects he considered worthy of their pencils; and had for his “closet-companions” those native poets for which he was censured in “evil times,” and even by Milton!

In his imprisonment at Carisbrook Castle, the author of the “Eikon Basilike” solaced his royal woes by composing a poem, entitled in the very style of this memorable volume, “Majesty in Misery, or an Imploration to the King of kings;” a title probably not his own, but like that volume, it contains stanzas fraught with the most tender and solemn feeling; such a subject, in the hands of such an author, was sure to produce poetry, although in the unpractised poet we may want the versifier. A few stanzas will illustrate this conception of part of his character:—

The fiercest furies that do daily tread

Upon my grief, my grey-discrowned head,

Are those that own my bounty for their bread.

With my own power my majesty they wound;

In the king’s name, the king himself uncrowned;

So doth the dust destroy the diamond.

After a pathetic description of his queen “forced in pilgrimage to seek a tomb,” and “Great Britain’s heir forced into France,” where,

Poor child, he weeps out his inheritance!

Charles continues:

They promise to erect my royal stem;

To make me great, to advance my diadem;

If I will first fall down and worship them!

But for refusal they devour my thrones,

Distress my children, and destroy my bones;

I fear they’ll force me to make bread of stones.

And implores, with a martyr’s piety, the Saviour’s forgiveness for those who were more misled than criminal:

Such as thou know’st do not know what they do.12

As a poet and a painter, Charles is not popularly known; but this article was due, to preserve the memory of the royal votary’s ardour and pure feelings for the love of the Fine Arts.13

1 Gerbier was in Antwerp at Rubens’ death, and sent over an inventory of his pictures and effects for the king’s selection.

2 Sloane MSS. 5176, letter 367.

3 See Gregorio Panzani’s Memoirs of his agency in England. This work long lay in manuscript, and was only known to us in the Catholic Dodd’s “Church History,” by partial extracts. It was at length translated from the Italian MS. and published by the Rev. Joseph Berington; a curious piece of our own secret history.

4 Hume’s “History of England,” vii. 842. His authority is the “Parl. Hist.” xix. 88.

5 Whitelocke’s “Memorials.”

6 Harl. MSS. 4898.

7 One of these pictures, “A Concert,” is now in our National Gallery.

8 They were secured by Cromwell, who had intended to reproduce the designs at the tapestry-factory established in Mortlake, but the troubles of the kingdom hindered it. Charles II. very nearly sold them to France; Lord Danby intercepted the sale; when they were packed away in boxes, until the time of William III., who built the gallery at Hampton Court expressly for their exhibition.

9 This picture is now one of the ornaments of Windsor Castle.

10 These would appear to be copies of Andrea Mantegna’s “Triumphs of Julius Cæsar,” the cartoons of which are still in the galleries of Hampton Court.

11 Some may be curious to learn the price of gold and silver about 1650. It appears by this manuscript inventory that the silver sold at 4s. 11d. per oz. and gold at £3 10s.; so that the value of these metals has little varied during the last century and a half.

12 This poem is omitted in the great edition of the king’s works, published after the Restoration; and was given by Burnet from a manuscript of his “Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton;” but it had been previously published in Perrenchief’s “Life of Charles the First.” It has been suspected that this poem is a pious fraud, and put forth in the king’s name — as likewise was the “Eikon Basilike.” One point I have since ascertained is, that Charles did write verses, as rugged as some of these. And in respect to the book, notwithstanding the artifice and the interpolations of Gauden, I believe that there are some passages which Charles only could have written.

13 This article was composed without any recollection that a part of the subject had been anticipated by Lord Orford. In the “Anecdotes of Painting in England,” many curious particulars are noticed: the story of the king’s diamond seal had reached his lordship, and Vertue had a mutilated transcript of the inventory of the king’s pictures, &c., discovered in Moorfields; for, among others, more than thirty pages at the beginning relating to the plate and jewels were missing. The manuscript in the Harleian Collection is perfect. Lord Orford has also given an interesting anecdote to show the king’s discernment in the knowledge of the hands of the painters, which confirms the little anecdote I have related from the Farrars. But for a more intimate knowledge of this monarch’s intercourse with artists, I beg to refer to the third volume of my “Commentaries on the Life and Reign of Charles the First,” chapter the sixth, on “The Private Life of Charles the First. — Love of the Arts.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53