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The Art of Monarchy: The Royal Collection in Context

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Rufus Bird 17:20, Friday, 24 February 2012

Editor's note: To coincide with the Art of Monarchy, the Radio 4 blog is running a series of posts by the Royal Collection's curators on different aspects of the collection. In this post Rufus Bird considers Royal art in context - CM.

Abraham Tapestry

As a curator I am faced with considering the place of art (in my case, decorative art) in its historical as well as contemporary context, something familiar to all curators in museums and galleries.

Those working with the Royal Collection have further considerations however:

  1. How does this object relate to its surroundings, given that it may hold a prominent location in a Royal Palace?
  2. Does it in some way reflect the institution of the Monarchy?


An example of the former might be the magnificent pietra dura (literally 'hard stone') mounted commode by Martin Carlin in the Green Drawing Room in Buckingham Palace - one of the great masterpieces of French eighteenth-century cabinet-making. This lives in one of the State Rooms, the principal reception rooms for visitors to Buckingham Palace, and along with the other contents of the room, projects magnificence: the intangible aura that we have come to expect to surround a monarch.

So objects need to be appropriate to their settings.

An example of the second question might be State portraits, perhaps the family group by Winterhalter: The Royal Family in 1846, a contemporized self-image of the royal family as conceived by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, presently displayed opposite an earlier royal family group: The Great Peece, by Van Dyck, of 1632. Both are displayed in significant spaces within Buckingham Palace, and were painted to project a particular image of Monarchy that is as powerful today as it was in 1846 and 1632.

If a nation is defined by its history, then the art that monarchs choose to surround themselves with, either privately or for political means, in some way reflects that journey: Henry VIII's tapestry collection is littered with politicized examples. Even during the Interregnum in the 1650s, The Abraham Tapestries, the cream of Henry VIII's art collection and Mantegna's The Triumphs of Caesar, which had only recently been acquired by Charles I, were reserved for Cromwell's use. This, during what was perhaps the most charged moment in the history of our nation.

The Royal Collection has been formed through acquisitions (reflecting the collecting tastes of successive monarchs) as well as gifts. The continuing tradition of the exchange of gifts between Heads of State has contributed enormous richness to the collection - one splendid example of this might be the gold pre-Inca crown presented to Queen Victoria by the President of Ecuador in 1862. It is usually on display in the Grand Vestibule at Windsor Castle alongside a number of other splendid gifts, but from March to November this year it will be displayed in The Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh. So this remarkable item is not only a magnificent object, but also symbolizes important diplomatic and cultural relations between two nations. While this is a sort of 'internal' exhibition loan, from one Palace to another, The Queen has been generous in loaning parts of the Royal Collection to exhibitions around the world. A notable recent example was the loan of 33 drawings to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery. The Queen was the lender of the largest number of individual works to that excellent exhibition.

In 2012, the public can enjoy the Royal Collection in so many different ways: there are over 3,000 items on long-term loan to regional and national museums. A current example is the loan of the three magnificent bronze portrait busts by Leone Leoni of Charles V, Phillip II and the Duke of Alba. They normally live in the Queen's Guard Chamber at Windsor, but are enjoying a change of scenery in the Renaissance sculpture galleries at the V&A. Later this month, 135,000 records of individual works will be available to view on a revitalized Royal Collection website, giving global access to the Collection online.

You may not be surprised to learn that the majority of the 1m visitors to Windsor Castle do not come to see the Rembrandts, the Van Dycks, the collection of French eighteenth-century furniture, or the unrivalled collection of Sèvres. They come to visit the home of The Queen; the magnificent collection on display is a bonus. This brings them into contact with art, as it is the art collection that furnishes the rooms in the Palace they come to visit. Those who seek out the art, come specifically to see the masterpieces that in many other nations might reside in a national museum. In Britain we are fortunate in possessing several magnificent national art collections in London, Cardiff and Scotland, as well as a Royal Collection.

As the Art of Monarchy demonstrates, the Royal Collection undoubtedly contains many masterpieces, but it is not always about great art. It contains a large number of fascinating curios, which might never make it into any museum or gallery. The Royal Collection is a great group of objects that in some way both reflects and symbolizes the activities of successive monarchs as part of the rich tapestry of our nation's history.

Rufus Bird is Deputy Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art The Royal Collection

  1. View more images and listen to the third programme in the Art of Monarchy series: Faith
  2. Learn more about The Royal Collection on the Royal Collection website
  3. Visit the Art of Monarchy website

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