The Art of Monarchy


Elizabeth II spent virtually her entire life surrounded by one of the greatest art collections in the world. Even as a child, and the likelihood of her inheriting the throne still seemed remote, visits to her grandparents at Buckingham Palace involved looking at pictures, since George V liked to show her the Victorian narrative paintings that were there. hung, like that of William Powell Frith. ‘Ramsgate Sands’.

Nobody knows exactly how many works of art there are in the royal collection, but by the end of Elizabeth II’s reign almost 300,000 objects had been cataloged online, probably just under a third of all. Among the many masterpieces are the monumental sequence of canvases by Andrea Mantegna “The Triumph of Caesar”, purchased by Charles I in 1629; nearly 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, including virtually all of his anatomical studies; one of the most beautiful Mughal manuscripts, “Padshahnama”; no less than 52 paintings by Canaletto; and the largest collection of 18th century Sèvres porcelain outside of France.

The existence of this extraordinary collection testifies to the longevity of the British monarchy: in most countries, the royal collections now form the core of the national galleries – the Prado in Spain and the Louvre in France, for example – while in Britain these works are distributed over 15 royal residences and former residences. Although the collection has sometimes been included in estimates of the Queen’s personal wealth, it is owned by the Crown and therefore cannot be sold, like Buckingham Palace.

It is one of the ironies of the Queen’s life that this vast accumulation was the backdrop to the ceremonial and domestic life of a woman who was supposedly indifferent to art. Anyone who asks a member of the Royal Household what the Queen thought of the subject is likely to be told the anecdote that when Christopher Lloyd, who was the Queen’s image surveyor from 1988 to 2005, raised the idea that she could spend money on contemporary works. art, she looked surprised and replied, “But what about my horses? (It seems unlikely that he was brazen enough to respond, as reported, “Well, they never win, do they?”) Unlike her husband and eldest son, she doesn’t never painted or drew; unlike her mother, she hardly tried to buy modern paintings for her own pleasure; and unlike Prince Philip, whose enjoyment of the company of painters such as Edward Seago and Feliks Topolski encouraged him to accumulate a large private collection, she had no artist among her friends.

Although the fact that some 5,500 objects from the Royal Collection were acquired by Elizabeth II seems impressive (the figure for one of the greatest royal collectors, George IV, is 5,049), the overwhelming majority are donations varying degrees of merit made to the Queen during royal visits or state visits. On the advice of curators, she bought important works of royal provenance, such as Jacobite portraits, which for historical reasons had not been part of the collection, but a search was largely in vain for anything that might reveal tastes. or personal enthusiasms.

However, as often with Elizabeth II, an appearance of simplicity hid something more complex. In his fictional encounter with Anthony Blunt – Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures from 1945 to 1973 – in Alan Bennett’s 1988 play Knowledgeable A question of attribution, she says of the Royal Collection: “What I don’t like is the idea that you don’t notice, who cares.” The Queen, as those who worked with her soon came to realize, sometimes at their expense, possessed the most prized asset of a monarch, an excellent memory. She paid close attention to the collection and could often remember more accurately than her curators where a picture now hung and where it had hung in the past.

Although his education, which involved visits with Queen Mary to the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, taught him a good knowledge of art history rather than an appreciation of art for its own sake, she displayed impressive visual recall when she was just 11 years old. A state trainer who would drive her parents to the coronation in 1937, she noted that her decorative Cipriani paintings reminded her of the drawing room ceiling in the Mountbattens’ home, Broadlands, which are well in her style, although now generally attributed to Angelica Kauffman .

The paintings that pleased the Queen the most in the royal collection were not necessarily horses. When asked once if she had a favorite picture, she pointed to Rembrandt’s ‘The Shipbuilder and his Wife’, which hangs in the Buckingham Palace Picture Gallery, a work that would appear on any which list of the collection’s most adorable photos, as well as being one of his standout masterpieces. Dutch images – a passion of George IV – and the British seem to have been closest to his heart: most of the paintings in the small rooms of his private apartment at Buckingham Palace were Dutch, while his private reception rooms were ornate British pictures. , notably by Gainsborough and Stubbs. Still, it would probably be unwise to read too much because the choice of paintings in these rooms had changed very little since they were rehung by Edward VII after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.

It would not be entirely unfair to say that, despite the many acquisitions made by Queen Mary in particular, by the end of the Queen’s reign the Royal Collection was largely frozen in the state it was in a century earlier. There are many reasons for this, only some of which are reflections on the Queen not collecting art. She inherited the throne when she was only 25, too young to have formed many enthusiasms herself, and her tastes remained close to those of her father, whom she revered and who is not known for the love of art. This was not the case with the Queen Mother or Princess Margaret, but they liked to tease the Queen about her supposed philistinism, which did not encourage her to take an interest in the subject.

The half-century before his accession, dominated by two world wars, had not been conducive to collecting, and by the 1950s the aristocratic circles closest to the royal family were more likely to be sellers than buyers. of works of art. In the 1960s the art market entered its long boom and for the Queen to have regularly purchased works of art of sufficient quality for the Royal Collection would have required expenditure on a level impossible even if she had been less frugal by nature.

Shortly after the Second World War, the Queen Mother bought herself a painting by Claude Monet. Aware of the pleasure this gave her, the Queen tried in 1957 to buy her as a birthday present Monet’s

‘The Blue House at Zaandam’ when it sold at Sotheby’s as part of the Weinberg Collection, only to be heavily overbid when it fetched £22,000, equivalent to current prices of around £500,000.

Prince Philip believed the Royal Family could do more to support contemporary artists, and when he visited a sales exhibition he would usually buy a painting. In 1960 one of Windsor Castle’s guest suites was due for refurbishment and he suggested that it be decorated in a modern style and furnished with contemporary artwork. To encourage his wife to take an interest, a shortlist of paintings and drawings, chosen under Blunt’s supervision, was shown to the Queen so that she could make the final choice. The result was impressive – works by Barbara Hepworth, Ivon Hitchens, Sidney Nolan and Mary Fedden, among others, were acquired – but the experience was not repeated.

Most of the Queen’s encounters with contemporary artists were the result of her portrait sessions, beginning with a miniature painted by Mabel Hankey of Princess Elizabeth when she was three years old. Given the number of portraits made over the next century, the results are sadly immemorial, largely the result of the chasm that had grown between the concerns of most contemporary artists and those of the monarchy. Among the few that have more than documentary value are the two portraits of Pietro Annigoni, painted in 1955 and 1969, and a handful of photographs commissioned, notably by Cecil Beaton. The best-known portrait of a prominent modern artist is that of Lucian Freud, painted in 2001. The Queen found it difficult to conceal her dislike of him: “At least he didn’t make me pose naked,” she said in response to a friend. derogatory comment.

One portrait that is likely to last is Andy Warhol’s 1985 serigraph for his “Reigning Queens” portfolio, which is based on an official photograph taken by Peter Grugeon for the Silver Jubilee in 1977. The importance of Warhol’s work has been recognized by the Queen when she purchased the Royal Edition of the Wallet (adorned with diamond dust) for the Royal Collection in 2012. Warhol was attracted to her as a subject in part because of her interest in reproduction: in 1978 he purchased for his own collection two copies by Allan Ramsay of his state portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte . For once in the Queen’s long reign, the priorities of the monarchy and a major artist had coincided with fruitful results.


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