Transcript - Legacy

In collaboration with royal collection

The Infinite Monkey Cage

29/10/2014

A witty, irreverent and unashamedly rational look at the science of perception.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

On next: 17:00 PM

Programme Transcript

PRESENTER/WILL GOMPERTZ: It's early afternoon on a Monday late in November and I'm in Buckingham Palace. More precisely I'm in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace which when built was the largest room in London. Alongside me are a couple of palace staff wielding a trolley of china plates and they're not just any old plates. Tables the length of football pitches are being set with a fabulous Minton dinner service. Tomorrow night the Queen will host a state banquet in honour of the President of Turkey. As ever on such occasions it will be a grand affair. A hundred and seventy place settings are being carefully arranged alongside the silver gilt Georgian tableware.

KATHRYN JONES: An ordinary museum curator might be quite shocked to see people ..

PRESENTER: Appalled.

KATHRYN JONES: .. dining off the Georgian silver plates. But it's part of the history of the object. And for us that's as important as the work of art itself.

PRESENTER: With me is Kathryn Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection. She's keen to draw my attention to one of a pair of candelabra that will sit either side of the Queen. To be honest they're quite difficult to miss.

KATHRYN JONES: Well as you can see it's over four feet tall. And actually when they're constructed they have to be constructed on the table. The footman has to climb up and create them there. The fact that these candelabra in particular have been used at every state banquet since eighteen sixteen it adds quite a lot to their aura. They're not just sterile museum pieces, they're there to be used and they still are.

PRESENTER: As we've discovered during the course of this series in which we have seen things that are well, eye boggling.

SIMON METCALF: It's a unique object.

PRESENTER: It's covered in diamonds.

SIMON METCALF: Yeah set in gold.

PRESENTER: And objects that frankly struggle to catch the eye.

KIT MAXWELL: Ah, here we are.

PRESENTER: It looks like a bit of kindling wood, something you'd get the fire going with.

KIT MAXWELL: Exactly that. It is a shard of wood.

PRESENTER: But big or small, grand or modest, each has had a story to tell, an insight into the art of monarchy.

KIT MAXWELL: A shard of wood taken from the coffin of George Washington.

PRESENTER: And that's the magic ingredient contained within the Royal Collection. It's not just a remarkable array of masterpieces and mementos, it's revelatory. It can help us understand what it takes to be a successful monarch and to maintain a monarchy for almost a thousand years.

JUSTIN CHAMPION: These material objects are not just about the history of the monarchy but they're the public history of the relationship between King, Queen and people across centuries.

KATHRYN JONES: It's a working collection of course, you know everything is here to serve the monarch.

PRESENTER: In the final programme this series I want to look more closely at what is perhaps the most important aspect of monarchy and that's leaving a legacy, not so much in terms of memorable achievements but more making sure there's an heir to take over the old firm, someone to rule the country and look after the family silver, which takes us back to our pair of candelabra. They form part of George the Fourth's grand service, a banqueting plate, which consists of some four thousand silver pieces. The candelabra feature sculpted figures from Greek mythology adorning base and stem which are then further enhanced by intricate and ornate floral flourishes all set in luxurious silver gilt. Having a collection of such exclusive tableware that can be passed from monarch to monarch down the dynastic line doesn't just reaffirm your authority, it actually helps prove your right to rule. It's a sort of royal birth certificate and curriculum vitae rolled into one.

KATHRYN JONES: I think there's a real sense of history here. This is the Queen entertaining another head of state and showing that she has this great history behind her.

PRESENTER: I suppose what's so interesting standing here in the second decade of the twenty first century seeing all around us this extraordinary show of ostentatious wealth which has been brought into the collection by George the Fourth is that it's still the image we're putting across, hundreds of years later. It's almost feels as if we are stuck in aspic.

KATHRYN JONES: It may seem very old fashioned in some ways but of course what a monarch is trying to do is connect with the history of the monarchy. And this idea of display, when people come to Buckingham Palace of course they expect to see a lot of gold, they expect to see a lot of magnificence and what better way to do it than really with this magnificent service.

PRESENTER: That sense of history of being able to prove your lineage, of stressing continuity, of aligning yourself with the past is perhaps the most fundamental requirement of any monarchy with an eye to the future. Now should you ever be invited to attend a state banquet at Buckingham Palace or indeed have one put on in your honour, you'd reach the ballroom by way the grand staircase which with its sweeping curvature and splendid banister more than lives up to its name. But it's only as a precursor to a picture story Queen Victoria had laid out for visitors to see as they reached the top.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: There's a cast of characters of eight, nine, ten. You look behind us, they keep on coming at you don't they?

PRESENTER: Ten large paintings hang on the walls that frame the grand staircase. Each is a full length portrait depicting one of Queen Victoria's relations. But they're not there for sentimental reasons. No. Victoria wanted them to work for their wall space as Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen's pictures explains.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: This really deals with the crisis in the succession which took place in eighteen seventeen to eighteen nineteen, during those short years with Princess Charlotte. She is the daughter of George the Fourth, heir to the throne but she in eighteen seventeen died in childbirth which meant that other sons of George the Third ..

PRESENTER: And there were several.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: .. hastily made dynastic marriages, two in fact on the same day. King William the Fourth appears at the top of the staircase. He succeeded his brother George the Fourth. But that marriage was childless so it didn't solve the problem as it were. The problem was solved by Edward Duke of Kent who we see up ..

PRESENTER: Now where's he on this?

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: He's up here on this wall and he married Victoria of Saxe Coburg Saalfeld also in eighteen eighteen on the same day as his brother William and they had a daughter Princess Victoria.

PRESENTER: Who of course became Britain's Queen Victoria. But what a palaver. I mean death in childbirth, brothers both hastily marrying on the same day and the eventual arrival of a longed for baby. It all sounds like the amusing ingredients of a right royal soap opera but it's much, much more serious than that.

ANDREW THOMPSON: Perpetuating the dynasty is absolutely and fundamentally the most important task that any monarch is going to face.

PRESENTER: Andrew Thompson, history fellow at Cambridge University.

ANDREW THOMPSON: It's a recurrent idea and it's an idea that's common across Europe as a whole. Some research suggests that on average most European royal houses would have had a succession issue about one generation in three and so it's important always for those in charge to be looking as to what's going to happen next, maintaining the family business, maintaining the dynasty, through appropriate marriage, through ensuring that you've got the right resources available as a kind of constant struggle.

PRESENTER: It's a struggle that can be traced back centuries and one that takes us from Buckingham Palace to Hampton Court which is where Desmond Shawe-Taylor and I headed next to see what is frankly a bit of a disappointing picture.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: This as you say as itself is not much. It's a small canvas. But it's important because it's a copy made in sixteen sixty seven of Holbein's Great Mural at Whitehall Palace which was destroyed in sixteen ninety eight so this copy suddenly becomes of great significance.

PRESENTER: And what was the date of Holbein's mural?

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: Fifteen thirty seven.

ANNA WHITELOCK: I just think it's fantastic. I mean it is just Tudor propaganda at the absolute best.

PRESENTER: Doctor Anna Whitelock is a lecturer in early modern history at the University of London.

ANNA WHITELOCK: I mean this is Henry the Eighth with Jane Seymour and also of course with his mother and father, Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth of York. And it's trying to emphasize lineage, succession, legitimacy, continuity but also of course magnificence and political power. Henry the Eighth is very much the central figure.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: It's almost like a perspective of antecedence. Rather like you know a line of telegraph poles going into the distance and we see two of them in the distance, Henry the Seventh and his Queen and nearer to us Henry the Eighth and his Queen. And I think we immediately therefore imagine that further pairs will come in front of us and off to the crack of doom. So it gives that sense of continuity.

PRESENTER: Henry the Eighth commissioned Holbein to paint the portrait in fifteen thirty seven, the same year as his son Edward was born. For a king who had become obsessed with producing a male heir all at last was right with the world. Andrew Thompson again.

ANDREW THOMPSON: Henry the Eighth in a sense he puts the country through a huge amount of political turmoil. He actually breaks with the Church of Rome, precisely because he wants to have a male heir and thinks this is so fundamentally important to his role as a monarch. Because one of the things that people want to avoid is a disputed succession because disputed successions can lead to civil war and turmoil and general problems.

PRESENTER: And civil wars are risky things for a monarch with designs on a dynasty as Richard the Third found out. What room are we in.

JENNIFER SCOTT: The King's dressing room.

PRESENTER: So where's Richard the Third?

JENNIFER SCOTT: Richard the Third's up here.

PRESENTER: I'm in Windsor Castle with Jennifer Scott, Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection. We're looking at a painting of Richard the Third that was probably commissioned by Henry the Eighth around fifteen ten. Now the Tudor king had no desire to have a re-run of the Battle of Bosworth which of course is where the Plantagenet king had met his fate. Henry was far more interested in establishing his own credentials to rule. And to do that meant looking back as well as forwards.

JENNIFER SCOTT: It was very popular, particularly in the sixteenth century. It was something that Henry the Eighth was really into, having groups of portraits of early kings sort of looking at who went before him and grouping them together as a painted history.

PRESENTER: But from that point of view this is particularly interesting because obviously Richard the Third is the last Plantagenet king, the Tudors them come in having defeated the Plantagenets. So they weren't fans. They also sowing vicious propaganda about Richard the Third that he had a withered arm, he had a hunchback, he killed the princes in the tower.

JENNIFER SCOTT: Yeah.

PRESENTER: Yet this picture is reasonably flattering.

JENNIFER SCOTT: Yes. There are some subtleties about this portrait. There are some parts of the painting which look a little bit odd because the shape of the shoulders going down is uneven. The left hand side of the painting is higher than the right hand side. And the paint in that area is thinner than the paint on the rest of Richard the Third's clothing. Now our conservators have looked at this in detail and they think that that paint was added but it was added very shortly after the painting was made if not almost immediately. So it's a change that was made probably to make the shoulder look higher.

ANDREW THOMPSON: What he's trying to do is suggest that his father and of course him coming after him are a distinct improvement on what had gone before. So although this is a portrait of a monarch and they want to suggest that there is an unbroken line of monarchy and monarchical rule they also want to suggest the Tudors are very definitely an improvement on what had gone before and therefore it's an attempt to retrospectively justify what had happened in fourteen eighty five when the Tudors had come to power.

JENNIFER SCOTT: And it's not just the shoulder when we look at this portrait. There are other changes as well, very, very subtle. But it seems that the eyes were over-painted to make them a sort of more grey colour. And the mouth, there are two little lines that are painted at either corner which draw the mouth downwards so as if that smile ..

PRESENTER: Slightly mealy-mouthed.

JENNIFER SCOTT: A little bit. And when Thomas Moore was writing he called Richard the Third "Hard favoured of visage" and I think that's what this artist here is doing. He's making him hard favoured of visage.

PRESENTER: Manipulating the past to secure your future is standard practice in life. We all do it to some extent. But there tends to be rather more at stake with a monarch. Henry the Eighth wanted to undermine his father's opponent and reinforce his own claim to the throne. George the first also used a picture to tell his story. He though didn't set out to alter an image but to establish one. He was a Hanoverian, a German, a fact he wanted to play down when he was invited to become the British king. George needed to establish his family's credentials. Well let's open it again, just cos it's good for your muscles Kate.

KATE HEARD: Yes.

PRESENTER: I'm in Windsor Castle with Kate Heard Curator of prints and drawings.

KATE HEARD: It's a book of prints of members of the royal family. Because it's chronological this is George the First, George the Second. This is the volume for George the First, George the Second. It's the start of the Hanoverian series. There we go. And that's the one we're looking for.

PRESENTER: That's a fantastic print.

KATE HEARD: Isn't it stunning?

PRESENTER: That really is quite exceptional. It's black and white but the detail and the shading is of the highest quality.

KATE HEARD: It's an absolutely fabulous print. It's a really, really excellent example. And it's a print with a very interesting history because this is the second version of the print. It was first issued in seventeen forty seven, seventeen forty eight to show the Hanoverian succession from George the First at the top to George the Second and Queen Caroline and then down to the heir Frederick Price of Wales. But Frederick died in seventeen fifty one and his heir became George, his son George Prince of Wales. And if you look very carefully you can see that the print has been changed here. He's no longer Prince George, he's now George Prince of Wales.

PRESENTER: Oh yes.

KATE HEARD: So the print was re-issued in seventeen fifty two to reflect the change in the line of succession.

PRESENTER: It's stacked with symbolism as well.

KATE HEARD: Absolutely. Because surrounding these miniatures of the royal family are these virtues, gods, goddesses. You get plenty here to show that the Hanoverian succession brings plenty ..

PRESENTER: Who's this chap who's being trodden on over here?

KATE HEARD: That's the Pope because the point of the act of settlement in seventeen O one was that the monarch needed to be protestant, needed to be Anglican.

PRESENTER: It's quite aggressive. I mean obviously the Hanoverians were waved in on a protestant ticket. But trampling on the Pope's quite rude isn't it?

KATE HEARD: It is yes. But it gets the message across. It's a visual clear way of showing this particular aspect of the act.

ANDREW THOMPSON: This is a very interesting image because it works on a number of levels. On the one hand it's seeking to suggest the Hanoverians are an established dynasty, it's also by the fact you have the figure of liberty trampling on the Pope showing why it was that the Hanoverians were there in the first place because the Hanoverians had come to power in seventeen fourteen because they were protestants and precisely because there weren't any closer protestant heirs so it's wanting to stress the Hanoverians' Protestantism but also trying to tap into the older idea that it's important that monarchs are hereditary. Because this is a point in time at which wars about succession are very frequent in Europe. When the print first appeared in seventeen forty eight that was at the end of the war of the Austrian succession. There'd already been a war of the Spanish succession. There'd be other successions conflicts later on. And one of the ways to avoid succession conflicts is to have a kind of clear line of succession going down the generations.

PRESENTER: Was there still any sense the Hanoverians were foreigners, were Germans?

KATE HEARD: Well the print itself suggests there are two points of view because it says it is to all true Britons, lovers of liberty and the present succession, suggesting also that there are also those who are not supporters of the present succession. So the print itself in selling this tells us that maybe there were voices of dissent.

PRESENTER: Those voices were quelled in Britain largely because our system of constitutional monarchy meant that the sovereign was not all powerful. If things weren't going well parliament could share or even take the blame. But elsewhere in Europe the dictatorial Louis the Sixteenth had been deposed and executed. And then a century or so later the autocratic Romanovs in Russia also came unstuck. It was nineteen eighteen and Queen Victoria's great granddaughter found herself on the wrong side of an argument with the Bolsheviks. The then The then Tsarina was murdered along with her children and husband Tsar Nicholas the Second. George the Fifth the Tsar's cousin could have saved the family by offering them asylum in Britain. He didn't but their memory lingered.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: It was purchased by George the Fifth from a shop called Cameo Corner.

PRESENTER: That's fantastic.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: For the ..

PRESENTER: Just this idea of George the Fifth walking up the street thinking I must pop into Cameo Corner and see what they've got for sale at the moment. Caroline De Guitaut Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection has with her the object George the Fifth bought on that shopping trip in nineteen thirty three.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: In here we have the mosaic egg which was made for the last Tsar of Russia in nineteen fourteen and made by the wonderful Russian goldsmith and jeweller Carl Faberge.

PRESENTER: That is genuinely magnificent.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: It's incredibly richly decorated but if you can manage to draw your eye away from the glitter and the sparkle what you see actually is a remarkable technical feat because if I open the egg it's totally transparent. You can see right through ..

PRESENTER: It's mesh.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: .. from one side to the other. Exactly. And this isn't a question of welding together a mesh of platinum. Every single tiny square that you can see there was cut by hand. And applied into that platinum, precious and semi-precious stones.

PRESENTER: Each one of those mesh ovals must have two hundred individual inlays.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: Something like that yes. I mean I have to say I have never counted all the stones but there are a lot of them and they're all absolutely minute. And each of the stones is only held by the means that it is perfectly cut and calibrated to fit the slot. There's no glue, there's no other setting. It's just perfectly cut and slotted into that mesh. I mean something like this could never be made today because the skills are just not there. And of course the tragedy of the Faberge firm was that the skills obviously died out as soon as the revolution came in nineteen seventeen. But then there's a double tragedy because obviously the egg is completely bound up with the fall of the Romanov dynasty as well.

HELEN RAPPAPORT: The buying of Romanov artefacts after their murder I think it was a mixture of nostalgia and guilt.

PRESENTER: Historian and writer Helen Rappaport.

HELEN RAPPAPORT: And the particular significance of this mosaic imperial egg, I think it's terribly poignant because inside it contains a cameo of the five children in profile. And I think George must have been tormented by guilt at letting the family down and not letting them have asylum in Britain if only because five completely innocent children were murdered so horribly. And I think he had to live with that on his conscience.

PRESENTER: Why didn't he give them asylum?

HELEN RAPPAPORT: The real stumbling block I think was he was fed a lot of very inflammatory propaganda to the effect that if you have Nicholas of Russia here there will be revolution on the streets of Britain. Your throne may fall you know, the British monarchy will collapse. And of course in the short window of opportunity that they could have got the Russians out, by the time he'd prevaricated the moment had passed and the couldn't get them out anyway.

PRESENTER: The Faberge egg marked the end of a Europe-wide royal dynasty that Queen Victoria had spent decades constructing. The Russian branch had been severed as had German representation in the form of Kaiser Wilhelm the Second her grandson who is deposed in nineteen eighteen. The British monarchy survived having adapted after its own brush with republicanism. Russia and Germany remain republics to this day but the interregnum in this country only lasted eleven years, enough time though for Oliver Cromwell to melt, burn or sell the majority of the Royal Collection. So when Charles the Second reclaimed the throne in sixteen sixty he had a bit of shopping to do. The royal treasure chest needed re-stocking. So I'm in the print room at Windsor Castle, fans are whirring and doors are opening and shutting so we need to go somewhere a little bit quieter and the room as we walk along gets smaller and smaller. I know that above me are the state rooms of Windsor Castle. And then I come round the corridor onto this small room and in front of me is an exquisite drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci. In front of me is the Head of Leda, a beautifully balanced pen and ink portrait by Leonardo. It's one of many Da Vinci drawings Charles the Second acquired in a single album. Now he had a good eye. It's one of the most important collections of drawings in the world. Martin Clayton is a senior curator of prints and drawings at the Royal Collection.

MARTIN CLAYTON: Leonardo is unquestionably one of greatest artists in the European tradition. Without this group of over five hundred drawings by him we would have ..

PRESENTER: I mean five hundred is a staggering amount isn't it?

MARTIN CLAYTON: It's by far the greatest concentration of his surviving artistic drawings. And without them we would have only the faintest notion of much of Leonardo's activity. And in that regard they are unquestionably one of the greatest survivals in renaissance art history.

JUSTIN CHAMPION: The English revolution saw not only the King's head being severed from his body but many of the King's goods - his palaces, his greyhounds, his horses and very, very much the fine art collection that Charles the First had gathered together, dispersed, sold around the kingdom, sold internationally.

PRESENTER: Justin Champion, Professor of History at the University of London.

JUSTIN CHAMPION: And Charles the Second saw as part of the restoration process the re-accumulation, the reacquisition of all of those great works of art. And I think in one sense that's absolutely significant for us today. Many of the objects that we can see in various of the royal collections were purchased through Charles the Second's attempt to reconstruct if you like not only his patrimony but the sense of the monarchy having this great contribution towards arts and culture.

MARTIN CLAYTON: What Charles the Second was doing was quite clearly collecting with a view to enhancing the royal collection, putting together something which was of great repute, of great breadth, of great quality and although it's very hard to cite any documented instances where he'd made a particular acquisition for a certain reason, looking at the overall pattern of his collecting of old master drawings it's very clear that must have been one of the motivating factors.

PRESENTER: From I suppose a legacy point of view you've got this extraordinary collection of Leonardo drawings. You then have this charge of drawings brought in by George the Third and then by Victoria and Albert. Does it stop there or is there a way of building on that legacy?

MARTIN CLAYTON: The drawings collected by Charles the Second, George the Third were acquired at a time when one could buy enormous tranches of drawings in one go for relatively modest amounts. With bottomless pockets one simply could not do that now because the drawings just aren't out there on the market in the numbers that they were at that time.

PRESENTER: Which means that whether or not the present Queen wanted to make an acquisition to compare with the Leonardo's bought by Charles the Second in the seventeenth century it would be impossible. Such opportunities simply do not exist. Instead she has focused her energies on making the royal collection more accessible and better cared for. Thanks Rufus. Off we go. I went to one of the Royal Collection's conservation studios with Rufus Bird, Deputy Surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art. Wow, this is something else.

RUFUS BIRD: This is one of my favourite places.

PRESENTER: It's great.

RUFUS BIRD: It's a really marvellous place to come and see what's going on in the world of arms and armour and metalwork. Here's some of the original straps. This is what armour people get very excited about, the original riveting and some of the leather strap work.

PRESENTER: It's a really difficult thing isn't it for the royal collection, you know the more you look at it the more extraordinary you realise it is, its breadth and depth. And actually when people go to the houses and see it in-situ they tend to just look at the houses. They miss, I miss stuff the whole time. Because it's all in-situ, because it just sits there you become slightly blind to it after a while I think.

RUFUS BIRD: Yeah I think the Queen's guard chamber at Windsor is a really, really good example of that because yeah, it's a fantastic room. It's, it's a very densely furnished room that has those cabinets around the walls and inside those cabinets there's every type of armour, I mean amazing mixture of armour and yet you know you could just walk straight through that room and you know be none the wiser about it.

PRESENTER: I remember standing in the King's dressing room at Windsor Castle looking out of the window at the fields below and onto Slough beyond and then turning around and seeing Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents hanging on the wall behind me. And then to its left a Rembrandt self portrait. And next to that another Rembrandt. Now all three paintings are masterpieces. All three paintings are on public view for anybody taking a tour of Windsor Castle and yet I'd completely missed them, too caught up in the history of the room which you could argue is a disadvantage of having the paintings hung in the places chosen for them by the kings and queens who once lived in the castle. But Jonathan Marsden Director of the Royal Collection thinks the authenticity of having the objects shown as previous monarchs intended is one of the best ways to experience them.

JONATHAN MARSDEN: The overriding understanding of where you can see art is in a publicly funded museum open all the time to all which is a wonderful and noble idea. It is however a bit one-dimensional and I speak of the Royal Collection as being still in its natural habitat. There is something sad about a clock that doesn't go, a musical instrument that doesn't play, an altar piece that isn't on an altar. There's a diminution there. And so if it can safely be arranged for these things still to inhabit the habitat for which they were made there's enormous value and wonder to be had there.

PRESENTER: Is a habitat through which I've roamed over the course of this series. I've walked around Balmoral Castle to find the exact location for a photograph taken of the Queen by her father when she was just two years old.

DEBORAH CLARKE: I think that's correct yes.

PRESENTER: Yeah, I think x marks the spot. Here it is. And I've been amazed by some royal interior design. It's a sort of Santa's grotto meets an Indian theme park. And I've seen some extraordinary things. Now I've just walked round the corner and there's this big cabinet, maybe it's eighteen foot long and ten foot high and it is absolutely packed with gold objects. Some of which we've been unable to include, masterpieces such as Vermeer's painting the music lesson and Rembrandt's shipbuilder and his wife. All in a quest to gain some understanding of the monarchy, its past and how that impacts on our lives today. In the year the Queen celebrates her Diamond Jubilee the Royal Collection which has been accumulated over centuries by our kings and queens has helped reveal to us how the monarchy has survived and thrived for nearly a thousand years. Collection and monarch continue to work for each other. The Queen conserves and displays her art and artefacts and they make her and her palaces look good. It's a partnership built on the past that is intended to help secure the future and that is a crucial part of the art of monarchy.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.