Royal Flourish: A New Look at the Queen’s Collection

The curators of the trove of masterpieces owned by the Queen of England are working to devise new and exciting ways to display them

Tucked away in the perimeter wall of London’s Buckingham Palace and easily missed among the hordes of tourists, the Queen’s Gallery is a little-known treasure-house that stages world-class exhibitions of works from Queen Elizabeth’s sumptuous art collection. Its current offering, “In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion,” which runs through October 6, pairs some 60 key paintings by artists from Hans Holbein the Younger to Anthony van Dyck, with borrowed garments, bringing to life the elaborate ruffs, doublets, and bodices worn by royalty and courtiers during the period.

Anthony van Dyck’s celebrated triptych of Charles I, 1635–6.  ©2013 HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II/ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST

Anthony van Dyck’s celebrated triptych of Charles I, 1635–6.


“This show is looking at portraits in the context of fashion, and not just royal fashion,” says Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. “We’re looking at two subjects, not just one. The thing that relates material culture to lifestyle is costume—you’re wearing it, it helps you to move in a certain way, and prevents you from moving in other ways.”

The juxtaposition of van Dyck’s famous portrait of Charles I (1635–6) with an exquisite lace collar, for example—possibly the same one sported by the king in the portrait—demonstrates how such items were worn and highlights the artist’s virtuosity in capturing the texture of the elaborate collar without eclipsing its wearer’s features. As well as serving as a gateway to the era, the show also features explanatory labels and glossaries that decode intimations of social position, marital status, and lineage communicated by the sitters’ attire but usually lost on the modern viewer.

An oil painting of Elizabeth I when a Princess, ca. 1546–7, attributed to William Scrots.  ©2013 HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II/ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST

An oil painting of Elizabeth I when a Princess, ca. 1546–7, attributed to William Scrots.


A painting attributed to William Scrots (ca. 1546–7), to name one, depicts Elizabeth I at the age of 13, wearing a crimson gown with foresleeves and forepart of silver embroidered with gold. It is more than just a dignified portrait, says the show’s curator, Anna Reynolds, who has an M.A. in the history of dress from the Courtauld Institute in London. Such “cloth of silver tissued with gold” was restricted by law to royalty at the time, Reynolds explains, so the young Elizabeth’s “clothes are saying that she’s of royal blood.” This was a defiant message, because after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, in 1536, Elizabeth was officially illegitimate.

This imaginative approach, in which artworks are considered within their wider cultural and historical settings, is something the Royal Collection’s curators are striving increasingly to bring to exhibitions. The goal is to broaden the shows’ appeal, according to Shawe-Taylor, who was director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London between 1996 and 2005, and has written several books on 18th-century portraiture and conversation painting. As Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures since 2005, Shawe-Taylor has the weighty task of overseeing Queen Elizabeth’s collection of 7,000 paintings, 40,000 drawings, and 150,000 prints. This trove includes masterpieces by Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Bruegel the Elder, as well as Andrea Mantegna’s 1484–92 series “The Triumphs of Caesar” in Hampton Court Palace; the seven cartoons from the “Acts of the Apostles” tapestries Raphael made for the Sistine Chapel (1515–16), which are on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum; and around 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci at Windsor Castle.

Embroidered gloves from ca. 1595–1605. COURTESY THE GLOVE COLLECTION TRUST

Embroidered gloves from ca. 1595–1605.


Also included in the Royal holdings are a vast array of decorative arts, from tapestries, ornately worked armor and weaponry, and fine porcelain and furniture, to exotic laquerware, gold- and silver-plated tableware, Fabergé objets d’art, and magnificent jewelry. Passed down through royal dynasties over the past 500 years, the collection is one of the few great royal European collections to remain intact. It is officially owned by the monarch (although not by Queen Elizabeth as a private individual) and is “held in trust for her successors and the nation,” according to the Royal Collection Trust’s website.

While this collection boasts an abundance of Old Masters, rivalling those of the Prado in Madrid or the Louvre in Paris, it contains almost no Impressionists (just one Monet) and only a smattering of modern and contemporary British artists. This is evidence of how, in many ways, the collection has been shaped by the whims of long-dead kings and queens. “It’s not comprehensive, and it reflects often-quite-short bursts of financially imprudent enthusiasm on the part of monarchs,” notes Shawe-Taylor. “Up to about 1800,” he says, “you could take the collection and map it over a systematically acquired Old Master collection in a museum, and you would find a very strong correlation between the two,” suggesting an alignment between popular, critical, and royal tastes. After 1800, however, art developed in a more avant-garde direction and was linked to an intellectual bourgeoisie—while royal taste remained conservative, and tied to the Salon.

Henry VIII was the first real royal patron of art in Britain—and in the 1530s he employed Holbein as his official painter, commissioned mainly to produce portraits of his court. By contrast, Elizabeth I’s interest was apparently confined to paintings of herself. By far the greatest connoisseur among the monarchs was Charles I, whose wholesale purchase of the art collection of the Gonzaga family of Mantua, Italy, in 1627–8, brought to England the Mantegnas, along with a raft of impressive antique and Renaissance sculptures. Charles I was also an avid patron, commissioning many portraits of his family and inner circle from van Dyck (some of which are featured in the current exhibition) as well as buying up portraits of his predecessors—a common practice among royalty, in order to emphasize ancestry. “If you’re a Stuart and you need to get out a pencil and paper and work out why you’re there, your desire to demonstrate allegiance to the previous dynasty is very important,” Shawe-Taylor says.

Reflecting the personal tastes of British monarchs and their advisers over the years, the collection also mirrors the predilections of each era. In 1762, George III purchased the entire collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, at the urging of his advisers— acquiring more than 170 Canaletto works; Vermeer’s A lady at the virginals with a gentleman (“The Music Lesson”), ca. 1662–5; and drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo, all in one swoop. Yet George IV, despite his generally lavish patronage of art, turned down Rubens’s celebrated Le Chapeau de Paille (1622–5) on the grounds that it was too expensive, and rejected Jan van Eyck’s now iconic The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) because it didn’t meet contemporary fancy. Fast-forward to the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the preference shifts to Salon-style paintings, pictures of animals, and portraits. The Pre-Raphaelites are hardly represented.

These days, the British royal family spends modestly on art, conscious of the political unpopularity of extravagant acquisitions. The Royal Collection Trust, chaired by Prince Charles, occasionally buys works seen as complementing the collection, such as four Warhol silk screens of the queen—acquired in 2012 to mark her Diamond Jubilee—and in 2006, the queen purchased Pietro Annigoni’s oil-and-pastel study for his 1969 portrait of her. While the queen is not involved in the day-to-day management of the collection, she has been instrumental in bringing it into line with modern art institutions, taking an active interest in the lending of works and approving the appointment of senior curators, according to Shawe-Taylor. She regularly visits her galleries, as well as other museums, and particularly admires 17th-century Dutch painting, he notes. Although her interest does not extend to making art, both Prince Philip and Prince Charles are keen amateur painters; their works currently feature in an exhibition at Windsor Castle titled “Royal Paintbox,” through January 2014, alongside paintings by past monarchs such as Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and King George III. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, studied art history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and has recently become a patron of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Periodic criticism still arises about public access to the collection, which is distributed across 13 royal residences and former residences, of which eleven are open to the public at certain times of the year. Jonathan Jones, art columnist of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, recently decried the queen’s ownership of da Vinci’s drawings, arguing that they should be displayed in a public museum rather than in palace galleries as a tourist attraction. “There’s something about a gallery attached to Buckingham Palace (or Holyroodhouse) that predefines what happens there as fluffy royal heritage,” he wrote.

The Royal Collection’s temporary art exhibitions rotate between dedicated galleries in three venues: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The challenge is to devise new and exciting ways to display well-loved pieces, particularly since the Royal Collection Trust does not generally borrow from outside institutions, although it loans many items out. Comparing his job to running an opera house, Shawe-Taylor aims for as wide a variety of works and as fast a turnover as possible in the exhibition programming, balancing crowd-pleasers with innovative fare.

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings from ca. 1510–11, on view at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.    ©2013 HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II/ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings from ca. 1510–11, on view at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.


His team appears to have ticked both boxes with “In Fine Style,” as well as with the concurrent Royal Collection show, “Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man,” curated by Martin Clayton and on view at the Palace of Holyroodhouse through early November. Showcasing 30 sheets of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings alongside magnetic resonance images (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans, the exhibition demonstrates how the artist’s extraordinary representations of the human body foreshadowed 21st-century three-dimensional imaging. “It isn’t just about Leonardo as a maker of lovely drawings, or Charles II as collector of Leonardo drawings,” Shawe-Taylor says. “It’s also about the history of anatomy and medicine.” The exhibition features da Vinci’s study of a human fetus in the womb (based on a dissected pregnant cow), the first accurate depiction of the spine, and numerous perspectives of the shoulder and arm muscles.

The highlight for Clayton is two drawings from a sequence recording da Vinci’s investigation into the aortic valve of the heart—one he believes would have made Leonardo as renowned a scientist as he was an artist, had his papers not been lost for hundreds of years after he died in 1519. “Even to have conceived that investigation is astonishing,” Clayton says, “but to get results that are as accurate and as comprehensive as a modern cardiologist can achieve through real-time MRI scanning . . . I don’t know of anything else like it in the whole history of science.”

While Clayton hopes the da Vinci exhibition will shed fresh light on the artist’s genius in the field of medicine, scholarship and conservation work on the Royal holdings as a whole continue to yield unexpected discoveries. New studies have found, for instance, that an important portrait of Richard III dating from 1500–20, and probably commissioned by Henry VII or Henry VIII, was touched up to make the sitter appear deformed and his facial expression severe, reflecting the Tudor family’s desire to tarnish its predecessor’s image. “It looks like we’re reconstructing more precisely a story of Tudor propaganda,” says Shawe-Taylor. “You know, ‘No I don’t want it looking like that, I want him looking a bit shiftier, more hunchbacked.’” The portrait —accurate or not—has indeed affected perceptions of Richard down the ages, proving the power of the paintbrush in shaping historical memory.

Elizabeth Fullerton is a freelance writer based in London and former foreign correspondent for Reuters.

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