Jack Wakefield

Nationalise the royal collection!

It is high time we did justice to the treasures of the royal collection

Nationalise the royal collection!
‘A lady at the virginals with a gentleman’ (‘The Music Lesson’), c.1662-65, by Johannes Vermeer [© Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2022 / Bridgeman Images]
Text settings

The royal collection consists of millions of objects whose purpose and ownership are sometimes obscure. Does the collection serve the monarchy, and if so how? Or is the care of the collection, and of the palaces that contain it, the sacred duty of the Queen? Housed throughout the royal palaces, it includes works held by the Queen in trust for the public as well as those owned personally by Elizabeth Windsor, such as valuable paintings by Monet and Paul Nash that were bought by the late Queen Mother and not taxed as part of her estate.

This is the sort of confusion that needs to be cleared up to prevent the perception that the royals act in their own narrow interest when it suits them, a necessary step in the post-Prince Andrew era.

But aside from bickering over a handful of paintings acquired in the 20th century, there are bigger questions. Among the millions of objects, from arms and armour to teacups and saucers, are a group of outrageous masterpieces. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the last surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, described an exhibition of works from Buckingham Palace currently on view in the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse as ‘a generational chance to see in ideal gallery settings some of the greatest paintings in the history of art’.

The Royal Collection Trust was created in the aftermath of the Windsor fire of 1992, when the costs of restoring the building were met, in part at least, by selling tickets to visit the royal palaces. The need to raise money to spend on the palaces led to an opening up. At the same time the new income allowed long-overdue investment in the presentation of the collection. By the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace had been built to put on exhibitions drawn from the royal collection, which has embraced the digital age with an outstanding website.

When the art is displayed in the gallery, it shines like Cinderella at the ball. But the Queen’s Gallery is small and the collection is large and when the art is not included in an exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery, its interests are placed beneath the interests of the palaces in which they hang. As Shawe-Taylor says of the usual hang of the masterpieces from Buckingham Palace: ‘They are hung too high, so they are double stacked,’ and their qualities as art are subordinated to their role projecting ‘overall magnificence’. It makes no sense to treat works valued into the many billions of pounds like this.

Not only are these paintings inappropriately displayed, they have also been treated with insufficient care. The Royal Collection Trust could not sell tickets to the palaces through the pandemic and therefore sustained enormous losses. As a result, the Trust had to take on emergency loans and consequently make huge cuts. The most visible casualties were the surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, and the surveyor of the Queen’s works of art, Rufus Bird.

There was a surveyor of the Queen’s pictures before a single ticket had been sold to Buckingham Palace – there had been one since 1625. But there is not one now, and without sufficient curatorial staff it will not be possible to mount the same quality of exhibition, or to process responsibly the loans of paintings to exhibitions.

The royal collections of most European countries form part of their national collections. That is not true just of republics such as France and Austria but also monarchies like Sweden and Spain, where crowds flock to the Prado to see Velazquez’s paintings of the Habsburg royal family, and above all his great ‘Las Meninas’. In Britain, which enjoyed unparalleled wealth in the 19th century, the creation of national museums patronised by commercial titans prevented the nation from gobbling up the royal collection.

Some parts of the royal collection are currently on view in the great public collections. Most famously, the Raphael Cartoons, enormous designs for papal tapestries, are magnificently displayed in the V&A; elsewhere Jan Gossaert’s great painting of ‘Adam and Eve’ is on long-term loan to the National Gallery. But these are the exception, not the rule. Arguably as important as the Raphael Cartoons are Andrea Mantegna’s paintings of the ‘Triumphs of Caesar’, acquired by Charles I when he bought the collection of the Duke of Mantua and preserved by the vanity of Cromwell, who sold the rest of Charles’s collection but saw himself as a new Caesar. This great sequence of paintings languishes in an out of the way gallery at Hampton Court. It is accessible but tickets are expensive. Hampton Court is on the periphery of London and consequently the paintings are little visited. Paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio; drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, and above all Leonardo; sculpture by Cellini and Adriaen de Vries; the Padshahnamah of Shah Jahan, which contains some of the greatest Mughal paintings: all these would be far more accessible in the National Gallery, the British Museum, the V&A, and the British Library respectively.

If the masterpieces of the royal collection were to hang alongside the masterpieces of the national collections, they would transform them into collections that rivalled the Louvre in some respects and surpassed it in others. It would allow our collections to tell a story of European art since the Renaissance through British eyes to a global audience. This embarrassment of riches would also spare the national collections their periodic convulsions as they race to raise another astronomical sum to save some hard-up duke’s loot from being sold to a foreign billionaire. Why raise £30 million for a Rembrandt for Wales – as an abortive Art Fund campaign was going to try to do a few years ago – if one of the seven royal Rembrandts could hang in Cardiff? Which in turn would allow the national collections to devote their acquisition budgets to enlarging the scope of their collections to the art of the Americas, the Slavs, and even Australia.

Removing the masterpieces would not leave the walls of the palaces bare. Many great paintings would undoubtedly remain, as in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor. But in the galleries built for the display of pictures the displays should not be frozen in time. Just as a new monarch will need to recreate the monarchy for his age, these rooms should be open to transformation and renewal. They could hang paintings from the over-full stores of our national museums that reflected the modern world; they could even show contemporary art.