The Queen joked she had ‘no taste’ – but the Royal Collection reveals the truth

Master work: The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johan Zoffany, circa 1772 - PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo
Master work: The Tribuna of the Uffizi by Johan Zoffany, circa 1772 - PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo

Amid all the celebrations of the life and deeds of Queen Elizabeth II, one important achievement has not been sufficiently recognised: her stewardship of the Royal Collection. I suspect this is because the late monarch was never perceived as an ardent art lover – unlike her mother, who collected works by Augustus John and Walter Sickert, or her eldest son, now King Charles III, an enthusiastic watercolourist with a passion for architecture.

In fact, Her Majesty did buy the odd picture, picking up something by L S Lowry, for instance, in 1963. As a child, she was taken to the National Gallery by her grandmother, Queen Mary. But, perhaps because she guarded her reputation for impartiality so fiercely, Elizabeth II never let it be known whether she had a predilection for, say, paintings from the Dutch Golden Age (which had so appealed to her predecessor, George IV), Old Master drawings (for which his father, George III, had a soft spot) or the work of one of Queen Victoria’s favourite artists, the German painter Franz Winterhalter. She was more likely, when visiting exhibitions, to ask staff about practical details than to debate the finer points of iconography.

The possibility that she had hidden depths of connoisseurship occasionally appealed to writers such as Alan Bennett, whose one-act play A Question of Attribution (1988) explored the relationship between Her late Majesty and the art historian Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, who was eventually outed as a Soviet spy; more recently, their relationship was dramatised by Netflix in the third season of The Crown. Yet the image of a monarch with little interest in aesthetics stuck. Once, referring to the plethora of haphazard gifts that she received from foreign dignitaries, she cheerfully said: “I’ve got no taste, so I’m delighted with them.”

To which one might respond: “No taste, Ma’am? With the greatest respect, one disagrees.” Because, when it came to the Royal Collection, Elizabeth II’s quiet innovations deserve applause. She may not have been instinctively stirred by art, but she was an exemplary custodian of it.

Sometimes described as the largest private art collection in the world, the Royal Collection comprises more than a million objects held in 15 royal residences across the United Kingdom, and encompasses both the fine and decorative arts, from spectacular Old Master paintings and drawings (including a great number of the latter by Leonardo), to porcelain, manuscripts, arms and armour, and, of course, the Crown Jewels.

Extraordinary: one of the late Queen’s favourite paintings in the Royal Collection was Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife, 1633 - PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo
Extraordinary: one of the late Queen’s favourite paintings in the Royal Collection was Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife, 1633 - PAINTING / Alamy Stock Photo

Over the centuries, the collection grew as successive monarchs hoovered up new works. During the 1620s, for instance, agents for Charles I negotiated the purchase of the so-called Gonzaga collection from the bankrupt duchy of Mantua. This wasn’t the case under Elizabeth II, certainly when it came to paintings. However, she did transform the Royal Collection in another sense – by increasing its accessibility in significant ways.

First, she sanctioned the construction, on the site of a chapel next to Buckingham Palace bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, of a “Queen’s Gallery” in London. Originally the idea of the late Prince Philip, it opened in 1962.

Forty years later, it was expanded to mark Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee, and a second gallery – built at the west entrance to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, as a gift to the people of Scotland – was unveiled.

Both spaces hold temporary, themed exhibitions (82 to date), showcasing objects from the collection. They have proved very popular. In 2019, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing was visited by almost 200,000 people. Two years ago, as the country, still bedevilled by coronavirus, emerged from the Government’s second lockdown, a heartening exhibition, Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, opened in the Queen’s Gallery next door. It featured 65 paintings from the palace’s Picture Gallery (designed for George IV by the architect John Nash), and offered a reminder of the strength of the collection’s holdings.

Ambitious Biblical scenes by Van Dyck and a dashing self-portrait by Rubens; brilliant Venetian portraits by Titian and Lorenzo Lotto, and imposing vistas by Canaletto; a host of 17th-century Dutch pictures including The Music Lesson by Vermeer and The Shipbuilder and his Wife, an endearing double portrait by Rembrandt that was said to be the late Queen’s favourite work in the collection: all were on display, strongly lit at eye level.

Moreover, given that the Royal Collection holds 7,300 paintings (three times the number of the National Gallery), the show could have looked different but been equally compelling. For instance, neither Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (c 1565-67) nor The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-78) by Johan Zoffany was on display. The latter, which has appeared in five exhibitions since 2010, is currently in the Grand Corridor at Windsor, out of public sight. At first glance, it seems immaculately erudite, but closer inspection reveals several dirty jokes.

'Supreme treasure of the collection': detail from Andrea Mantegna's The Triumphs of Caesar, circa 1482 - classicpaintings / Alamy Stock Photo
'Supreme treasure of the collection': detail from Andrea Mantegna's The Triumphs of Caesar, circa 1482 - classicpaintings / Alamy Stock Photo

The late Queen’s second innovation was to lend objects whenever possible – personally approving every loan. For Neil MacGregor, a former director of both the National Gallery and the British Museum, this policy, of turning the collection into a sort of “great lending library”, was “very new and quite innovative”.

“She took the Royal Collection out of the royal palaces in a way that had never been done before”, MacGregor explains, and, by “lending all around the world”, made it “a public presence. That was a very big thing to do.”

MacGregor also points out that “the two supreme treasures of the collection” – the Raphael Cartoons (seven full-scale designs for papal tapestries) and Andrea Mantegna’s 15th-century Triumphs of Caesar paintings – “have long been on permanent public display at the V&A and Hampton Court [respectively]”. Arguably, though, the biggest change to the Royal Collection to occur during Elizabeth II’s reign was her third modernising intervention: the formation, in 1993, of a charitable trust, with clearly defined aims, to administer it.

The trust – which, admittedly, was the idea of the Lord Chamberlain, rather than the late Queen (although we have her to thank, of course, for approving it) – was established in the aftermath of the devastating fire at Windsor Castle during her Annus horribilis.

While, historically, the collection had belonged outright to the monarch, it was now explicit that the late Queen did not own it as a private individual; rather, it was held in trust by her “for her successors and the nation”. In other words, from this point on, the collection was effectively enshrined as a patrimony of the British people.

'Public presence': Vermeer's The Music Lesson, 1662-5 - https://www.alamy.com
'Public presence': Vermeer's The Music Lesson, 1662-5 - https://www.alamy.com

Unfortunately, the pandemic proved catastrophic for the trust. During the 2020-21 financial year, its income tumbled from £72 million to £7 million. (The most recent figures are thankfully a little healthier.)

Since last year, a fifth of the trust’s staff have departed, including the most recent surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who, to the disappointment of anyone concerned by the loss of expertise, hasn’t been replaced. The post, which stretches back to 1625, is today “held in abeyance”.

Moreover, despite the late Queen’s efforts, the Royal Collection is sometimes criticised for not being accessible enough. Since 1993, the public has been allowed to visit Buckingham Palace’s state rooms, including the Picture Gallery, but an adult ticket now costs £30, and access is restricted to the summer months.

Yet the weekend before Elizabeth II’s funeral is not the time to revisit arguments about whether parts of the collection should be nationalised.

Happily, King Charles III cares deeply about painting, and has demonstrated a real commitment to the visual arts throughout his life. So, as the new Carolean age begins, the Royal Collection Trust, which he chaired for almost 30 years, is in safe hands.

For further information about the Royal Collection and its exhibition programme, please see: rct.uk