By Hilton, Tim | The Independent (London, England), September 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)

THE CODE of the Windsors decrees that exhibitions taken from the royal collection are not attributed to the people responsible for them. Indeed, the catalogue of the show now at the Queen's Gallery, "Gainsborough and Reynolds: Contrasts in Royal Patronage", comes with the inscription " 1994, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II", as though the Queen herself had the idea, made the selection, compiled the scholarly entries, wrote the historical essay and supervised the hang.

In fact this show is the work of Christopher Lloyd, the excellent Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures. Lloyd has been in this post since 1988 and his position at Buckingham Palace is still a little odd. On the one hand he is a royalist and an anonymous servant of the Queen. On the other he is a respected scholar and an expert, among other things, on the republican and anarchist background of the Pissarro family. Lloyd wants to make the royal collection more accessible. Yet the more he puts the Queen's pictures before her subjects the more cries go up that such paintings ought to be permanently on view; preferably in the National Gallery and in rooms or a new extension donated by the Crown.

Such was the response to Lloyd's first major exhibition as Surveyor, "The Queen's Pictures", held in the gloomy National Gallery basement three years ago. It was so obvious that here were great pictures, unknown to most of us, that ought to hang side by side with their counterparts in the national public collection. Now Lloyd has another presentational problem. The Gainsborough and Reynolds show emphasises the inadequacies of the Queen's Gallery. It is cramped, without daylight; and approached via a vulgar souvenir shop that feels quite as large as the art gallery itself.

The marketing enterprise is tawdry, like everything else the public sees of Buckingham Palace. But we are bound to be impressed by the exhibition. I left the show with more respect for Reynolds than I had felt for years. The big Reynolds exhibition at the RA in 1986 emphasised the ways in which we found him wanting. He appeared repetitious, no draftsman, a limited colourist (more than any other major painter, his palette is affected by the colours of furniture, gilt and velour), unable to paint a friend who had genuine personal nobility, Samuel Johnson, and all too attracted by the nobility of birth.

These criticisms still hold, but Lloyd now presents a somewhat different Reynolds, a painter whose dignity is spirited as much as stately. Perhaps the very proximity of royalty fired him. A man who had seen, and inadvertently proved, that the aristocracy was much of a muchness still felt within the aura of a special glory when working near to the Royal Family. And this could be so however much Reynolds felt uneasy about the character, tastes and political purpose of the monarch. All kings are symbols as well as people and when Reynolds was at court he felt himself in front of a symbolic eminence. He could paint at a supreme point in society and the history of the nation.

The monarchs behind this show are George III and George IV. The earlier king was, of course, patron of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768, but that did not make him more friendly towards Reynolds, the academy's first president. The king found the painter dislikeable. George and his German queen preferred Allan Ramsay and especially Gainsborough, who had no official position at court but was clever and charming while Reynolds was over-serious and perhaps aloof. Gainsborough recalled that he "talked bawdy" with the king. Reynolds could never have done that.

Gainsborough's large twin portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte are the only paintings in the exhibition that show charm rather than a somewhat grandiose respect.

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