Kitsch Britannia: Ned Denny Discovers Tacky Baubles and True Gems among the Queen's Treasures. (Art)

Article excerpt

For somewhere intended to display the cream of the Royal Family's long-accumulated booty, the new Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace makes a cheap first impression. After entering through a dinkily proportioned Doric portico (the kind of bland heritage-lite effect that firms adopt in environmentally "sensitive" areas, as when McDonald's goes neoclassical or Tesco's does Tudor), you find yourself in what appears to be a Las Vegas marriage parlour. What with the sugar-icing friezes, the olde worlde balustrades and the preponderance of gilt, the resemblance is so complete that you half-expect a fake Elvis to swagger down the stairs singing "Love Me Tender". Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to "Royal Treasures".

In some ways, it is entirely appropriate that the architect chosen for the job (John Simpson, one of the Prince of Wales's favourites) is someone who has absolutely no truck with modernity. Despite the claims made in the catalogue, this isn't really a serious gallery but a shop window for the royalty industry, and thus primarily intended for fragrant old ladies, troupes of Japanese newly-weds and curvaceous families from Des Moines, Ohio. And the overweening tackiness of Simpson's design is entirely in keeping with the stuff on display, much of which demonstrates what happens when vast wealth and the necessity for ostentation outweigh all considerations of beauty and taste.

Witness, for example, the display case that groans with gold of every description, from the (admittedly magnificent) 17th-century altar dish embossed with the Last Supper to shell-shaped salt cellars of varying degrees of awfulness. Another contains rows of Chinese porcelain in fancy dress, the clean lines of the original jars obscured by nightmarish encrustations of bronze gilt. Or how about a pair of nine-foot-high candelabra covered in yet more gilt, or a vase of ceramic flowers that conceals (cunningly disguised as a sunflower) a working clock? You wouldn't mind so much if all these glorified trinkets were used by dissolute dukes to vomit into, or sold off to fund stupendous drug habits; the idea that they are priceless treasures that we should gawp at while doffing our hats is, if anything, even more repellent.

OK, I'm being a little unfair here, because in among the dross is an equal number of wonders. Witness the ghost-white cameo head of the Roman emperor Claudius (c.43-45 AD), the image having been revealed by cutting away into the differently coloured layers of a large onyx pebble, or the extraordinary silver-gilt rosewater basin (c. …