Scrutiny of the British Royal family is currently at fever pitch. Not only are we binge watching latest episodes of The Crown—the TV sensation that reveals in soap opera style the trials and tribulations of Elizabeth II’s reign—but we are also devouring all we can on the real-life fairy tale of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markel. So now is not a bad time to show off a small fraction of masterworks from the Queen’s art collection.

By some considerable margin, the Queen’s art collection is the largest private art collection in the world, with over 50 paintings by Canaletto, a Vermeer, Titan’s, a handful of stunning Rembrandts and more than 30 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Its sheer size is breath-taking, boasting 7,000 paintings, 500,000 prints and 30,000 drawings from most of the world’s greatest artists. Worth a staggering £10 billion, the British public—still reeling from the estimated £40 billion Brexit Bill—should take solace from the fact that should the monarchy ever be abolished, the Royal Art Collection and Buckingham Palace would become public property. 

On the left Lorenzo Lotto, Andrea Odoni, 1527 and on the right Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II

Of course such an event would be unthinkable. The Queen enjoys enormous popularity with her subjects, and in tourism alone generates £550 million a year for the economy. And anyway the last time the British jettisoned their monarch—beheading Charles I for supposed treason—it did not take long for them to come curtsying and kneeling in supplication for his son, Charles II, to return.

That regrettable period in the annals of Royalist Britain is the underlying subject of a fascinating new exhibition “Charles II: Art and Power”, at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. Before his death at the hands of Parliamentarians in 1649, Charles I had managed to put together the most spectacular collection of art that any monarch has ever amassed. Including Caravaggio’s, Raphael’s, Leonardo da Vinci’s, Holbein’s, he was even drawn by Velasquez at the Spanish Court. That his reign was gruesomely cut short was a tragedy for the Royal Art Collection, but much worse was the catastrophic decision to sell it all off. A significant portion of that collection is now the basis for the Prado Museum.

The man behind that decision, the Republican Oliver Cromwell, quickly helped Britain realize that it had made a mistake by outlawing any activity then deemed to be fun. Seizing power after the Civil War, some of Cromwell’s first acts were to suppress dancing, theatre, bear-baiting, most festivities, and general good cheer. After a dour decade Britain had had enough. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1661 came all the pageantry, deference, and flair they had long been missing.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents

Charles II immediately tried to recover some of his father’s artworks dispersed during the Commonwealth. Bruegel’s censored masterpiece, Massacre of the Innocents, 1567 was clawed back as well as Lorenzo Lotto’s somber and complex portrait of collector Andrea Odoni, 1527. The restored King’s great insight was in realising that his subjects once again wanted a kingly king, with all the bling, showmanship, and pomp that came with a lavish monarch. He knew that art was the greatest weapon in his armoury.

To say his coronation was a showy affair is an understatement, his coronation trinklets—specially commissioned for the occasion—were fashioned from vast amounts of highest-quality Guinean gold. Situated either side of the altar during his coronation at Westminster Abbey, two giant candlesticks, gilded in gold, are a stunning addition to the show. Wandering around the exhibition, the irony is hard to miss, that whereas Charles I’s extravagance was a contributing factor in his own downfall, his son’s opulence was welcomed by a nation bored by the tedium of austerity.

Which brings us back to the current Queen, presiding over a kingdom toiling through its own era of government backed austerity. Recently the German newspaper, Wirtschaftswoche, has revealed the impact of Brexit on the Queen’s personal finances. The withdrawal of EU subsidies is expected to make the Queen at least £100,000 a year poorer, rendering any new additions to the Queen’s art collection wholly unlikely. Not that she can compete with the spending power of the Saudi Royal family—$450 million for a da Vinci anyone?

Wenceslaus Hollar, The Coronation of King Charles the II in Westminster Abbey the 23 of April 1661

The Queen has often been accused of having no real interest in the art and has contributed little to the vaults of the Royal Collection. It is well known that she prefers horses to pictures, and as recent photographs of her private residence have revealed, when art and horses are combined, like in the work of George Stubbs, so much the better.

Despite the Queen’s reluctance to add to the Royal Collection, she has no aversion to being portrayed by many of the world’s greatest artists, and has famously sat for Thomas Struth, Cecil Beaton, had a controversial portrait made by Lucian Freud, and has been photographed surrounded by her beloved corgis by Annie Leibovitz. Not to mention the unofficial depictions by street artists like Banksy and Bambi. In 2012 she did authorize the purchase of four Andy Warhol limited edition prints of herself, in celebration of her diamond Jubilee.

After Cromwell’s dismal decade, Charles II helped re-establish a culture of arts appreciation and patronage in court and society. An appreciation that has continued and accumulated over five centuries. And just as the story of the monarchy is a defining characteristic of Britain, so the Queen’s art collection, has become an almost physical embodiment of that rich history. Let’s hope it continues. God Save our frugal Queen!

Charles II: Art and Power can be viewed from the 8th December 2017 through to the 13th May 2018.

Duncan Ballantyne-Way