Magazine article The Spectator

Jewels in the Crown

Magazine article The Spectator

Jewels in the Crown

Article excerpt

On entering an exhibition of PostImpressionist paintings, George V is said to have turned to his consort, Queen Mary, with the words, `Here's something to make you laugh, May.' Nor was his attitude unusual among our monarchs. The roster of those displaying utter indifference, or even downright hostility to the visual arts is surprisingly long. The accession of George I, for example, according to Sir Hugh Roberts, Director of the Royal Collection, signalled `almost half a century of inactivity' on the artistic front.

William IV's only pronouncements on matters artistic, Sir Hugh observes, `tend to support the popular view of him as an ignorant philistine' (though he managed to acquire some fine dinner-services). On the accession of Edward VII in 1901, `the fact that the new king knew little about art meant that the sweeping changes he initiated were in many cases too briefly considered and came to be regretted later' (though this high-living monarch did acquire images of items of interest to him personally, such as racehorses and fine-looking women).

All things considered, it is remarkable that successive generations of the family which produced those individuals put together the staggering array of high art and high class bric-abrac on display in Roval Treasures: A Golden Jubilee Celebration at the new Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace (until 12 January 2003). There is absolutely no doubt about it, the Queen really does have some very nice things.

A choice selection of them is splendidly displayed in appropriate neo-Regency profusion in this exhibition. Great pictures are mingled with such startling objets d'art as the silver table and mirror made in 1699 for William III, and one of the few survivors of this insanely extravagant 17th-century vogue (most of them very soon had to be melted down by the profligate baroque despots who had ordered them).

Another piece of startling opulence is the golden Neptune Centrepiece, probably made for Frederick, Prince of Wales around 1741-2, and doing for table decoration what the Trevi fountain does in the field of water supply. This dizzying rococo accretion of shells, mermaids, dolphins and deities, however, was too restrained for George IV, who had some fish-tailed horses added at the base.

It is appropriate that the overall effect of the exhibition is Regency - with fearlessly green and crimson walls and a rich visual mix of gold, silver, bronze, polished wood and Old Master oils. The Regent, subsequently George IV, was, of all the post-- Cromwellian interregnum monarchs, the one with the greatest enthusiasm for the arts. In Britain - though not elsewhere, which perhaps says something about this country - the royal rulers with artistic flair have been uniformly politically disastrous: Richard II, Charles I and George IV.

George was the least catastrophic of the three - as he succeeded at any rate in holding on to his throne - but then, he was probably the one with the least good taste. Charles, of course, accumulated one of the greatest collections Europe has ever seen, which was sold to pay off his debts by the Parliamentarians. The royal family managed to hold on to, or repossess, some of his possessions, such as the little Holbein `Noli Me Tangere' taken to France by Henrietta Maria. …

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