Owen Higgs reviews the Royal Collection from postage stamps to Old Masters


‘Royal Heritage: The story of Britain’s Royal Builders and Collectors’ was one of the highlights of Her Late Majesty’s 1977 Silver Jubilee. In 13 one-hour programmes it told the history of the monarchy through buildings built and objects collected by the kings and queens of England. Every episode began with ‘Zadok the Priest’ and members of the royal family gave a number of pieces to camera. The greatest coup was in the first episode when the Queen spoke about the Imperial State Crown. 

The book of the series was a bestseller, with high-quality reproductions of one of the world’s finest private art collections. It was worthy but not without humour. The stamp collection of King George V was laid before us for veneration along with the Mantegnas and Raphaels of Charles I. George’s interventions over Ireland suggest he was a wiser king than the great æsthete and martyr; an uncomfortable thought for those who honour Leonardos above Penny Blacks. Her Late Majesty seems to have enjoyed showing off the £100 million collection which includes the first stamp issued by a colonial Post Office (that of Mauritius). The stamps are rarely displayed in the Gallery.

Today, the Queen’s Gallery shows the same mix of world-class art and superior gifts and knick-knacks which were part of the television series. It is one of the achievements of our monarchs that they have managed to keep hold of their collection whilst that of most other European monarchies has become their respective national collections – think of the Prado or the Vienna Kunsthistoriches. This has been helped in recent times by the policy instituted by Queen Elizabeth II of making loans from the Royal Collection and by the creation of the Royal Collection Trust in 1993 under which the works are not held as the property of the reigning monarch. In the longer term it was probably good to have monarchs who were more interested in bloodstock than the arts – Ludwig of Bavaria might have lived longer had it been known he spent more per annum on carriages than on Wagner’s operas. 

The collection is about 1 million objects, of which 281,648 are on the online catalogue – the quality and accessibility of the online resource is exemplary. The collection includes Mantegna’s ‘The Triumph of Cæsar’ (usually at Hampton Court), the Raphael Cartoons for the Sistine Chapel (The V&A), nearly 600 drawings by Leonardo (Windsor), Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson,’ numerous Rembrandts (including ‘The shipbuilder and his wife,’ often said to have been the Queen’s favourite painting), Parmigianino’s ‘Pallas Athena,’ drawings by Holbien (which give us more insight into the court of Henry VIII than even Hilary Mantel), Titians, Dutch sea- and landscapes, Canalettos by the yard, and Lelys, Hogarths, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Lawrences (think the magnificent series of politicians who defeated Napoleon, in Windsor), and Artemisia Gentileschi’s late self-portrait. 

It is hard not to think of the numerous paintings sold-off after the execution of Charles 1st, and the Royal Academy’s 2018 show which brought many of them back to London. Charles II’s work in restoring those losses is not often acknowledged. Nor that the collection suffered as great a loss when William of Orange borrowed from it. When Stephen Fry has returned the Elgin Marbles to Greece, he might work on the Dutch to return their royal loans.

Today the Collection is spread around the royal residences. It is also shown at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. The Gallery opened in 1962 on the site of what had been one of the three conservatories Nash attached to the Palace in 1831. In 1843, Queen Victoria turned one conservatory into a chapel. In 1940 it was badly damaged by German bombs. The change into a gallery was made under the direction of Prince Philip. John Simpson redesigned it as an expanded gallery with up-to-date facilities for the 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations. 

The Gallery puts on exhibitions which faithfully reflect the monarchs as connoisseurs and the recipients of many, many gifts – the gifts made up a sizable proportion of its growth under Queen Elizabeth II. They are always presented with skill and understanding, and it’s hoped that at a time when the Trust can no longer afford a Surveyor of the King’s Pictures (a post which dates back to 1625 and whose most famous holder was the Russian spy Anthony Blunt), the quality of scholarship will be maintained.

At their best – the ‘Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace’ after the second lockdown was one such – the Gallery’s shows are of the highest quality. We owe Her Late Majesty thanks for her wisdom in helping to bring the Royal Collection to a wider audience.

It is usually possible to buy tickets for the Gallery on the door. Tickets bought with Gift Aid may be reused for 12 months.