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Buckingham Palace’s Art Collection to Be Exhibited in Public Gallery for First Time

The 65 works set to go on view include masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian

George IV commissioned architect John Nash to design Buckingham Palace's picture gallery as a home for his art collection. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)
smithsonianmag.com

England’s George IV was widely reviled for his lavish lifestyle and trail of debt. But even the Hanoverian king’s critics acknowledged that he had an undeniable eye for the arts.

In the 1820s, George commissioned architect John Nash to construct Buckingham Palace’s picture gallery as a home for his impressive trove of masterpieces. Now, with the venue set to undergo renovations, 65 paintings from the royal art collection will be temporarily relocated to the nearby Queen’s Gallery.

As Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the queen’s pictures, tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown, the upcoming exhibition—titled “Masterpieces From Buckingham Palace”—will mark the first time the artworks are displayed in a “gallery context” rather than as palatial décor. The show opens December 4 and runs for just over a year, closing on January 31, 2022.

George IV acquired around half of the paintings in the collection, which features art by the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck and Johannes Vermeer. The 65 works included in the exhibition are among some 10,000 objects slated for relocation amid refurbishments to Buckingham Palace’s decades-old wiring and lead pipes.

Vermeer, Lady at the Virginals With a Gentleman
Johannes Vermeer, Lady at the Virginals With a Gentleman, early 1660s (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)

According to Kabir Jhala of the Art Newspaper, the Royal Collection (overseen by the Royal Collection Trust, or RCT) encompasses 7,000 paintings, 500,000 prints, and 30,000 watercolors and drawings, as well as photographs, ceramics, sculptures, manuscripts, jewels and other artifacts. In total, the collection is valued at more than $13 billion.

Normally, visitors can only access the picture gallery during palace receptions and the royal residence’s annual summer opening. Per a statement, the room first opened to the public during Queen Victoria’s reign, with tourists welcomed when the royals were away at other estates.

“You can see them reasonably well in the picture gallery, but it is still a palace,” says Shawe-Taylor. “ … [T]hey are double stacked in a sumptuous interior, most visitors would be going for the whole experience of the summer opening. Many people would not be saying: ‘Oh I’m really looking forward to seeing the Dutch genre painting.’”

Among the exhibition’s highlights are Lady at the Virginals With a Gentleman—one of only 34 surviving Vermeer paintings—and Cristofano Allori’s Judith With the Head of Holofernes. The former depicts a woman playing an instrument as she surreptitiously glances at the man beside her, while the latter shows the biblical heroine hoisting the head of decapitated Assyrian general Holofernes.

Rembrandt, The Shipbuilder and His Wife
Rembrandt's The Shipbuilder and His Wife (1633) is reputed to be Elizabeth II's favorite painting. (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)

Also on view are several portraits, including Rembrandt’s 1641 painting of Agatha Bas, a Dutch wool merchant’s wife. It is “one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection,” according to RCT. Bas poses against a painted frame, seemingly leaning out of the canvas into the real world. Her strands of pearls, delicate lace and fine hairs exemplify Rembrandt’s attention to detail.

Another Rembrandt work, The Shipbuilder and His Wife (1633), is arguably the most interesting painting in the exhibition. Not only is its composition realistic, capturing a “tender, almost comic depiction of a relationship between husband and wife,” according to Shawe-Taylor, but it is also rumored to be Elizabeth II’s favorite painting.

“It is always said,” the art historian tells the Guardian. “I have no more inside information than you.”

Masterpieces From Buckingham Palace” is on view at the Queen’s Gallery in London from December 4, 2020, to January 31, 2022.

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