High culture is less a set of discrete works of art than a phenomenon shaped by circles of conversation and criticism formed by its creators, distributors and consumers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England such communities were largely confined to the royal court or, if found outside the ruler’s palace, looked to the monarch and his entourage as leaders of taste. The court was the centre of high culture, its superiority expressed in its magnificent buildings, ornate tapestries, lavish decoration and exquisite collections of paintings, all of which created a glittering stage on which the drama of monarchy was enacted. But in the late seventeenth century high culture moved out of the narrow confines of

the court and into diverse spaces in London. It slipped out of palaces and into coffee houses, reading societies, debating clubs, assembly rooms, galleries and concert halls; ceasing to be the handmaiden of royal politics, it became the partner of commerce. Between the restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the accession of George III one hundred years later art, literature, music and the theatre were transformed into thriving commercial enterprises. These looked not to the court but to coffee houses, key places in creating new cultural communities, and to the clubs and associations which were among London’s leading cultural patrons. People at the time were much struck by this remarkable change. Whether they greeted

it with enthusiasm or complained at the loss of a better age, the cultural life of London and its new institutions gripped them. Just as artists had once devoted themselves to depicting the court and its values, so London was now repeatedly represented on the stage, in prose and verse, in painting and engraved image. The city had become not only the centre of culture but one of its key subjects. How did this change come about? To answer this question we have to look back to the

court culture of the Tudors and early Stuarts and to the political circumstances that fatally undermined the credibility of the monarch and his entourage. The English court of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially during

the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47), Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and Charles I (1625-49), followed the pattern of many monarchies throughout Europe. Royal courts were centres of national power, arenas where the struggles and alliances between monarchs and nobility were played out. Increasingly, as kings tried to reduce the military might of their most powerful subjects and as nobles came to accept humanist ideas that valued learning and taste as much as martial prowess, courts became centres of culture and refinement. Modelling themselves on the Italian courts at Florence, Urbino and Ferrara, the English

monarchs and their courtiers created communities in which good conversation, taste and learning were cherished. These values were embodied in the courtier, in his manners and elegant comportment –

the gesture of a hand, the subtlety of a bow, a witty remark – but also in the objects with which he surrounded himself. From the Thames to the Danube princes urged their courtiers on a headlong pursuit of tasteful magnificence, the collection and display of everything rare, beautiful and wonderful. The Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano described these objects as ‘statues, pictures, tapestries, divans, chairs of ivory, cloth interwoven with gems, many-coloured boxes and coffers in the Arabian style, crystal vases and other things of this kind … [whose] sight … is pleasing and brings prestige to the owner of the house’. They all spoke to the wealth, taste and virtu of their owner. Rulers were in the forefront of this fashion, wrapping themselves in visual splendour and using their palaces, pictures, libraries and collections of curiosities to display both their exquisite taste and their divinely ordained authority. For the monarch’s courtiers cultural pursuits were a means to an end. Dancing, draw-

ing, literary composition and the playing of musical instruments – those skills that the Italian Renaissance courts and their chief propagandist, Baldassare Castiglione, had made the essence of the noble courtier – were used as weapons in wars of personal intrigue and seduction designed to enhance the status of their possessor and win the monarch’s favour. The monarch, at the apex of court power and centre of its ritual, and the greatest patron of the arts, was the cynosure of this culture, standing (or, more usually, sitting) at the centre of a system of artistic practice intended to represent his or her sacred omnipotence and monopoly of power. At first sight the English court was not a prepossessing place in which to display

such royal magnificence, for it consisted of a hotchpotch of asymmetric late-medieval buildings. It was intimate, local and particular, the personal territory of the ruler. In the chief palace, at Whitehall, the king’s private servants and officials lived crammed together in close proximity to the monarch. Quite unlike the grand palaces of other European monarchs, it was a warren of ill-proportioned rooms and temporary structures erected for special occasions. Canvas banqueting halls put up to entertain foreign dignitaries were jumbled up with gardens, bowling alleys, a theatre and tennis court, as well as the monarch’s private chambers and public receiving rooms. Repairs and alterations were constantly under way. Yet, for all its architectural incoherence and its importance as a place of intrigue, the

monarch and his followers thought of the court as a microcosm of how the kingdom ought to be, the harmonious expression of a social order centred on the monarch. Though its members were quarrelsome and contentious, in its literature, ceremony and theatre it represented itself as orderly, coherent and hierarchical. Within its narrow confines the court and its elaborate patterns of distinction were believed to reproduce the patterns of the knowable world. It was not necessary to represent anything else, because all things could be represented through the court. Charles I’s court represented the English apotheosis of this Renaissance ideal of

kingship. The patron of Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck and Inigo Jones, Charles owned some of the finest pictures in Europe, including works by Leonardo, Correggio, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Raphael, Bronzino, Titian, Rembrandt and Dürer. ‘When it comes to fine pictures,’ said Rubens on his visit to London in 1629-30, ‘I have never seen such a large number in one place as in the royal palace.’