Charles II: Art and Power review – crowning glories of a royal passion

By Jonathan Jones

Queen's Gallery, London
Portraits depicted him as a grotesque figure but the king loved art and amassed a magnificent array of works that celebrate his love of theatre – and Nell Gwyn

Charles II had the face of a corrupt satyr. His portraits resemble the one Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray kept in the attic. Every sin seems etched into the work as a grotesque wrinkle. His heavy black eyebrows and ungainly nose add to the ugliness. In a popular print that was pinned up in about 1661 in a pub or coffee house (it still has the pinholes), these features are exaggerated into an almost devilish mask.

He may not have minded looking like a stage villain, because he loved and supported the stage. When Charles was invited to claim the British throne in 1660, plays had been illegal for nearly two decades. They were banned for their “lascivious Mirth and Levity” in 1642 by the Puritans, who won the English civil war. Their religious bigotry was one of the reasons crowds hailed Charles II so enthusiastically when he returned from exile in the Low Countries, after the death of the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell.

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Source: Charles II: Art and Power review – crowning glories of a royal passion