A Phaidon guide to the Royal Collection
On Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday, we take a look through her art collection, from Rembrandts to war photos
Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II is many things to many different people: head of the British State, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces. However, she is also, in one sense, an art collector, since the British Royal Family owns the Royal Collection - one of the most impressive and extensive collections of artworks anywhere in the world. Acquired by successive monarchs over centuries, the collection includes fine examples of Renaissance and Old Master works, as well as some surprisingly modern-looking additions. To mark the monarch’s 90th birthday, we have selected just a few highlights from the collection which are also featured in Phaidon titles.
Raphael __ The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (c.1515-6)__ (above) The Royal Collection not only includes finished works, but also many sketches, and works on paper, such as this full-scale drawing, known as a cartoon, for the tapestry of The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel, and currently on loan to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The works found their way into the Royal collection, thanks to another great artist, Peter Paul Ruben. “The extant documents refer to two payments made to Raphael, one on 15 June 1515, and the final balance on 20 December 1516. The cartoons remained in Brussels after the execution of the tapestries. One cartoon, representing the Conversion of Saulus, was in 1521 in the collection of Cardinal Domenico Grimani in Venice; it is not preserved. Seven were recommended by Rubens to King Charles I of England in 1630,” explains the text in our classic Raphael monograph. “After 1648, Oliver Cromwell bought them for the State.”
Vermeer Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman or The Music Lesson, (1662-5) This highly prized oil painting, currently on display at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyrood house, in Scotland, displays the Dutch painter’s peerless compositional skills, as well as one, tiny, barely perceptible flaw.
“Vermeer’s ceaseless adjustments to existing objects and spaces in his work underscore his habit of structuring his paintings to maximize their potential to evoke ambience,” writes Wayne Franits in our classic Vermeer monograph. “In this instance, arrangements of light, colour and form are even more delicately orchestrated, ranging from the parallel beams of the ceiling to the veined patterns of the lozenge-shaped marble floor tiles. As these tiles recede further into the background, the veining gradually diminishes as the subtle bluish tint of the tiles morphs into dark grey.”
However, as Franits points out, the painter’s craft could not eliminate one blemish. “A very small hole in the paint layer at the approximate site of her elbow is visible to the naked eye; this is the point where Vermeer had inserted a pin into the canvas in preparation for constructing the picture’s perspective system.
Leonardo da Vinci __ A plan of Imola (1502)__ This map, drawn up for the infamous Italian nobleman Cesare Borgia, may not be one of da Vinci’s most beautiful creations, yet it is incredibly accurate for its time, enabling Borgia to better defend this Italian city, which he had recently conquered.
“The technical aspect of the drawing is augmented by the artistic rendering of the surrounding fields in pale green, the delicate blue of the Santerno River and the pink houses and green gardens within the city,” explain Phaidon’s editors in Map: Exploring the World. “The artist shows every street, plot of land, church, colonnade gate and square, the whole encompassed by a moat.”
Rembrandt __ The Shipbuilder and his Wife (1633)__ Rembrandt scholars may well remark on the artist’s choice to depict a couple together, rather than in individual portraits, while would-be collectors, when seeing the price George IV paid for the work, will have to remind themselves that these are nineteenth century prices. “The married couple in the painting have been identified as Jan Rijcksen (1560/62–1637), who became the master shipbuilder of the Dutch East India Company in 1620, and his wife, Griet Jans,” explains the accompanying text in our Rembrandt monograph. “Unusually for the time, they are shown on the same canvas, interacting with each other, rather than in separate portraits designed to be displayed side by side. Griet Jans appears to have just entered the room to hand her husband an apparently urgent message, while he sits at his desk, surrounded by papers. In 1811, this painting was bought for 5,000 guineas by George IV (1762–1830), when he was still prince.”
Roger Fenton __ Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855)__ This ghoulish war photograph, shot in the Crimea, might seem like an odd addition to the Royal Collection. However, Fenton was an early British photographic pioneer who photographed members of the Royal family. This image belongs to the Royal Collection of military photographs, and is one of the finest examples of the form.
“Although it shows nothing more than a track across a barren landscape in the Crimea, this is one of the most famous of war pictures – and one of the earliest,” explains Ian Jeffrey in The Photography Book. “Its title is taken from the 23rd Psalm, which is equally well known for its mentions of ‘green pastures’, ‘still waters’ and ‘the paths of righteousness’. The positive, redemptive aspects of the psalm must always have formed part of the picture’s meaning. Contemporaries also saw the cannonballs lying like stones in the hollows of the ground as being rather like the debris left behind by glaciers, thus prompting them to think of war as a natural as well as a man-made catastrophe."