Among all the celebrations of the life and deeds of Queen Elizabeth II, one important milestone has not been sufficiently recognized: her administration of the Royal Collection. I suspect this is because the late monarch was never perceived as an ardent lover of art, unlike his mother, who collected works by Augustus John and Walter Sickert, or his eldest son, now King Charles. III, an enthusiastic watercolorist with a passion for architecture.
In fact, Her Majesty purchased the strange photo, picking up something of LS Lowry, for example, in 1963. As a child, she was brought to the National Gallery by her grandmother, Queen Mary. But, perhaps because she cherished her reputation for impartiality so fiercely, Elizabeth II never made it known whether she had a predilection, for example, for Dutch Golden Age paintings (which had so attracted her predecessor, George IV ), Old Master drawings (for which his father, George III, had a soft spot) or the work of one of Queen Victoria’s favorite artists, the German painter Franz Winterhalter. He was more inclined, when she visited the exhibitions, to ask the staff for practical details rather than to discuss the finer points of the iconography.
The possibility that he had hidden connoisseur depths occasionally attracted writers such as Alan Bennett, whose one-act comedy A Question of Attribution (1988) explored the relationship between Her late Majesty and art historian Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s paintings. , who was eventually denounced as a Soviet spy; more recently, their relationship was dramatized by Netflix in the third season of The Crown. Yet the image of a monarch with little interest in aesthetics remained. Once, referring to the plethora of random gifts he received from foreign dignitaries, she cheerfully said, “I have no taste, so I’m happy with them.”
To whom could one answer: “No taste, madam? With the utmost respect, she disagrees. “Because, when it comes to the Royal Collection, Elizabeth II’s silent innovations deserve applause. She may not have been instinctively moved by art, but she was one. exemplary keeper.
Sometimes described as the largest private art collection in the world, the Royal Collection encompasses more than a million items housed in 15 royal residences across the UK, and encompasses both fine and decorative arts, from spectacular paintings to drawings by Old Masters (including a large number of the latter by Leonardo), porcelain, manuscripts, weapons and armor, and, of course, the Crown Jewels.
Over the centuries, the collection grew as successive monarchs aspired to new works. In the 1820s, for example, Charles I’s agents negotiated the purchase of the so-called Gonzaga collection from the failed duchy of Mantua. This was not the case under Elizabeth II, certainly when it came to paintings. However, you have transformed the Royal Collection in another sense, increasing its accessibility significantly.
First, it authorized the construction of a Queen’s Gallery in London on the site of a chapel near Buckingham Palace bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Originally an idea of the late Prince Philip, it opened in 1962.
Forty years later, it was enlarged to celebrate Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee and a second gallery – built at the west entrance of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, as a gift to the Scottish people – was inaugurated.
Both spaces host temporary themed exhibitions (82 to date), which exhibit objects from the collection. They turned out to be very popular. In 2019, for example, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing was visited by nearly 200,000 people. Two years ago, when the country, still plagued by the coronavirus, came out of the second government bloc, an encouraging exhibition, Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, opened in the Queen’s Gallery next door. It featured 65 paintings from the palace’s Picture Gallery (designed for George IV by architect John Nash) and offered a reminder of the strength of the collection’s heritage.
Van Dyck’s ambitious biblical scenes and a fiery self-portrait by Rubens; the brilliant Venetian portraits of Titian and Lorenzo Lotto, and the impressive panoramas by Canaletto; a plethora of 17th-century Dutch imagery, including Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and The Shipbuilder and his Wife, a captivating double portrait of Rembrandt said to be the late queen’s favorite work in the collection – all were on display, heavily lit eye level.
Furthermore, given that the Royal Collection contains 7,300 paintings (three times the number of the National Gallery), the exhibition could have looked different but was equally compelling. For example, neither Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (ca 1565-67) nor Johan Zoffany’s La Tribuna degli Uffizi (1772-78) were on display. The latter, which has appeared in five exhibitions since 2010, is currently in Windsor’s Grand Corridor, out of public view. At first glance, he seems perfectly erudite, but closer inspection reveals several dirty jokes.
The late queen’s second innovation was to lend items whenever possible, personally approving each loan. For Neil MacGregor, former director of both the National Gallery and the British Museum, this policy of transforming the collection into a kind of “great lending library” was “very new and quite innovative”.
“He took the Royal Collection out of the royal palaces in a way that had never been done before,” explains MacGregor, and, “by lending all over the world,” he made it “a public presence. It was a very important thing to do ”.
MacGregor also points out that “the two supreme treasures of the collection” – Raphael’s Cartons (seven life-size drawings for papal tapestries) and Andrea Mantegna’s 15th-century Triumphs of Caesar paintings – “have long been exhibited to the permanent public at the V&A and Hampton Court [respectively]”. Probably, however, the biggest change to the Royal Collection during the reign of Elizabeth II was her third modernization: the formation, in 1993, of a charity fund, with clearly defined objectives, to administer it.
The trust – which, of course, was the Lord Chamberlain’s idea, rather than the late queen’s (although we have to thank her, of course, for approving it) – was founded in the aftermath of the devastating fire at Windsor Castle during her Horrible year.
While, historically, the collection had belonged to the monarch outright, it was now explicit that the late queen did not own it as a private individual; indeed, it was entrusted by her “for her successors and for the nation”. In other words, from now on, the collection was effectively sanctioned as a heritage of the British people.
Unfortunately, the pandemic proved to be catastrophic for confidence. During the 2020-21 financial year, his income plummeted from £ 72 million to £ 7 million. (The more recent figures are fortunately a bit healthier.)
Since last year, a fifth of the trust’s staff have departed, including the latest surveyor in the Queen’s photos, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who, to the chagrin of anyone concerned about the loss of experience, has not been replaced. The office, which dates back to 1625, is today “held in abeyance”.
Also, despite the late queen’s best efforts, the Royal Collection is sometimes criticized for not being accessible enough. Since 1993, the public has been allowed to visit Buckingham Palace’s state rooms, including the Picture Gallery, but an adult ticket now costs £ 30 and access is limited to the summer months.
Yet the weekend before Elizabeth II’s funeral is not the time to revisit discussions on whether to nationalize parts of the collection.
Fortunately, King Charles III is deeply concerned with painting and has shown a true commitment to the visual arts throughout his life. Thus, at the beginning of the new Carolina era, the Royal Collection Trust, which he chaired for nearly 30 years, is in good hands.
For more information on the Royal Collection and its exhibition program, see: rct.uk