There are thirteen royal residences, some lived in others not, and the Queen moves from one palace to another, and in her absence, these royal homes are opened and transformed temporarily into Art Galleries. As it happens the Royal Collection is the largest private art collection in the world.
The collection is owned by the Queen, some of it as a private individual, the rest is held in trust for the country by the sovereign. Is it ours then? One million objects, including paintings, watercolours and drawings, photographs, tapestries, carriages, clocks, manuscripts, armour, jewellery, and so on. Little of it dates back to before the Tudors. The first truly royal collector was Charles I, a big patron of Flemish artists. The Hanover Georges picked up the Old Masters, including forty Canaletto, and Dutch paintings. The King’s Library, originally part of the British Museum, now the British Library, was based on a donation of 2000 manuscripts by George III, the collection kept growing through purchases, bequests and gifts from other nations, especially the Commonwealth in the 20th Century.
Palaces that are permanently open to the public, such as Hampton Court, are called Historic Royal Palaces. Hampton Court, the favourite of Henry VIII, was built by his cardinal, who fell out of favour over that divorce. Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, supposedly haunts one gallery where she was dragged out of having desperately tried to reach Henry in his chapel to plead for her life. She was still in her teens, he in his forties. There are galleries, royal apartments and ‘grace and favour’ apartments, which were given to loyal servants and courtiers by the Georges.
The Tower of London is another one with its priceless exhibit – the Crown Jewels – guarded and only visible for a few seconds, as visitors are herded past a continuous line.
The Queen’s Gallery is the main public art galley of Buckingham Palace, and displays a few hundred artworks. As you would expect they include Old Masters, furniture, and lots of photographs. The exhibition rotates selections, the rest going on tour or loan to other museums, sometimes permanently. Recent exhibitions include Leonardo da Vinci drawings, just a couple hundred of them!
The Queen’s Gallery has been modernised in 1997 and is based in one of three conservatories built by architect John Nash for the conversion of Buckingham House to Buckingham Palace for George IV. Finished in 1831, converted into a private chapel by Victoria, bombed in a raid in 1940, it reopened as a gallery for the Royal collection in 1962. Prince Philip, who passed two weeks ago, personally oversaw this transformation. Since the collection changes, it has the unusual advantage of never growing old and tired. You can visit and revisit a few years later and discover new things. I can’t think of another museum or gallery that can do this without repeating itself. Can you?