Having just arrived in London, I detoured past the crowd waiting for the "Changing of the Guard" at Buckingham Palace and went around the side. I was looking for the new Queen's Gallery. Its once barely visible entrance now sported a handsome Doric portico. What had been one large gallery had morphed into a first-rate set of exhibition spaces.
Since 1962, the Queen's Gallery has been exhibiting shows drawn from the Royal Collection. The Royal Collection is the largest private art collection in the world, but one "held in trust by The Queen as Sovereign for her successors and for the Nation," as it is officially described.
The Royal Collection receives no government or outside funding, and it generously loans pieces, especially within Great Britain. Whether this huge quasi-private collection is really the nation's (if so, why not have the government support it?), it certainly has enriched the lives and apartments of British sovereigns. Many of its items decorate palaces and spaces off-view to the non-royal, so seeing whatever bits are offered is always a treat.
Closed for several years for expansion and updating and reopened in May, the new Queen's Gallery, designed by London's John Simpson and Partners, is a graceful suite of three main rooms. In honor of the Golden Jubilee of the Queen this year, the gallery is chockablock with a survey of the collection consisting of 450 paintings, sculptures, furniture, plate, porcelain, objets d'art, weapons, books and even a royal barometer. "Royal Treasures: A Golden Jubilee" offers works from the many mini-collections amassed by various British rulers. Its riches have been deftly jiggered into every available nook and cranny of the new space.
The chirpy attendants around the portico, loaded with merchandise with the Queen's Golden Jubilee imprimatur, direct visitors inside to purchase a ticket for timed entry. I dutifully lined up for my entrance with the other guests after purchasing an adult ticket at £6.50. On this weekday in June, I could buy a ticket for entry only two hours after approaching the sales area. There is a website for advance purchases, but having checked it twice before my arrival, it was unable to process ticket orders both times.
Surrounded by t-shirts, chocolates, posters, pencils, scarves, commemorative plates, plus much, much more, which you see again on the way out, I noted the cash registers ringing and long lines. The Queen should turn be able to easily pay off the $30 million spent in enlarging and refurbishing the gallery.
The exhibition is a whopper, despite the space limitations. The average stay, according to one guard, is about one hour. For 450 treasures? I lasted almost two, but with so much eyestrain, even trying to pace myself, I was more than ready for a trip to St. James Park to play with the ducks.
Here are a few things you won't want to miss.
I'll admit to my bias for two-dimension items -- I do write a drawings column after all. The first room, the Pennethorne Gallery, is a large airy space filled with furniture, pottery and paintings. Glance at everything but first stare at the paintings.
Start with Anthony Van Dyck's Charles I with M. de St. Antoine (1633), a key work in the history of royal portraiture and in the Royal Collection. At about 12 x 8 ft. plus, it won't be hard to locate. Charles I is shown on horseback with his riding master. Every regal attribute -- armorial shield, equerry, white horse and parade armor -- along with flowing drapery makes this a great evocation of royalty, one that would become the model for many future royal portraits.
Charles I was the first great English royal collector, and by all accounts one of the most astute connoisseurs of his age. He gathered together a first-rate collection only to have it dispersed after he lost his head to Cromwell and his followers. This painting and several others from his holdings were bought by Charles II after he regained the throne in 1660. Charles II added, among other works, a volume with 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci to the collection.
Seven Leonardo's are on view near the end of the exhibition, so to savor them properly keep moving around the Pennethorne Gallery. Enjoy Vermeer's A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (ca. 1662-5), Rembrandt's Agatha Bas (1641), exquisite in face and costume and with an interesting composition, a possible Giorgione The Concert (ca. 1505), and Lorenzo Lotto's Andrea Odomi (1527).
My favorite picture in the room is the relatively small St. Jerome by Georges de la Tour from around 1621, a little miracle of light. You can see the script on the paper that the saint reads with his glasses as light from the left melts the paper in its ineffable glow.
My least favorite is a rare religious work by Hans Holbein the Younger. In his Noli Me Tangere (ca.1524), Christ draws away from Mary Magdalene's touch. The Magdalene's features and pose are arresting, but the position of Christ's hands reminded me of some Kung Fu adept getting ready to attack.
Yes, there are other great oils in this room like Frans Hals' Portrait of a Man, but spend most of your remaining time not with the ravishing carved and gilded furniture, though it merits a look, but with a High Baroque solid silver table and mirror frame. This over-the-top production from 1699 has a pineapple nesting in the stretchers of the table whose legs are formed by caryatids and scrolls. The entire surface of the table is engraved. The arms and motto of William III is in the center with other emblems surrounding them. The royal coat-of-arms graces the top of the mirror.
The main space here has two tiny, and I mean tiny, cabinet rooms. You must worm your way into these cramped spaces and prepare to be tread upon -- I was. Yet the rewards are seeing the Queen's crown, the one she wears at state functions and is pictured with on British currency, plus several other remarkable pieces of diamond jewelry.
Here you will also discover a small Duccio triptych with the Crucifixion (ca. 1308-11) and an array of Indian bejeweled weapons and jewelry, including a necklace with ruby-red uncut spinels, one as big as a baby's fist.
At a well-installed selection of Fabergé, do not spend too much time ogling the flowers or cute little piglets, kiwi and cockatoo on a swing among other animals but concentrate on the four Easter eggs and their surprises. Forget the portrait miniatures. You cannot see them well, and many more are available at other venues like the National Gallery and the Gilbert Collection at Somerset House.
The Nash Vestibule, a narrow gallery filled with silver and gold plate and porcelains, is tempting. Glance at whatever strikes your fancy. If I had to choose one piece to focus on, it would be the Sunflower Clock from Vincennes (ca. 1752). A bouquet of ceramic flowers, not all original naturally, surround a single sunflower. If you look closely, you can make out the tiny hands of the clock. The painted vase in which these flowers stand is improbably mounted on a swirling gilt bronze pedestal with candelabra, a later addition.
The Nash Gallery, another large, airy space, is filled with very British treasures like a Landseer of a greyhound and a set of Indian ivory furniture, along with prized Continental holdings, like two Canova marble nudes. There are even some tall, imposing Chinese ceramics with English mounts.
Besides the English paintings, take time with one by the Anglo-American artist John Singleton Copley. The Three Youngest Daughters of George III from 1785 is one of the few rococo masterpieces by an American, well, Anglo-American. This confection of pink-cheeked fun with the three little girls also contains three dogs, birds stealing grapes from an arbor, flowers, a distant cityscape, and Copley's lush drapery.
A writing desk (1947-9) by Ernst Anton Plischke is a real find. Plischke, an Austrian who settled in New Zealand during WWII, introduced Modernist architecture to that area. He made this desk as a wedding present from the New Zealand government to then-Princess Elizabeth on her marriage to Prince Philip. Its spare modern style blends a variety of native woods into a sturdy whole. Marquetry panels with birds and flowers decorate two cupboard doors.
Lucian Freud's small (only about 10 x 6 in.) oil from 2001, Her Majesty the Queen, is powerful all out of proportion to its size. The Queen's head bears the crown, seen elsewhere in the exhibition, high on her perfectly coiffed head. The top half of the painting is formal, an artificial construct. The steely-eyed look and slightly pursed lips give nothing away, but show plenty of determination and resolve even as the aging flesh in the shadowed lower half of the face reveal the mortal woman supporting the crown. No room for vanity here. The cropped top of the crown and side wings of hair suggest the confines of royalty rather than its prerogatives.
The Chambers Gallery is the last of the three main rooms. This long narrow corridor dog-legs into an area showing watercolors of royal apartments illustrating many of the items in the show in use in royal palaces and residences just before the exit. I was less interested in the watercolors than the impressive gathering of Old Master drawings, books, and Mughal watercolors found in the corridor. A tip -- bring your magnifying glass.
Among the Leonardo drawings of especial interest are The Babe in the Womb (ca. 1511) and an odd Political Allegory in red chalk from around 1495. In the latter, a wolf in a boat (the Pope?) is steering toward an eagle (France?). No one has quite figured out what it means, but it will stop you in your tracks anyhow.
Nearby are Raphael's The Three Graces (ca. 1517), Michelangelo's A Male Nude with Proportions Indicated and his lively Archers Shooting at a Herm (ca. 1530). Hans Holbein the Younger's William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury (1527) is someone who has seen it all but still loves the battle and its trophies, like the fur around his neck.
A sweet Head of the Madonna (ca. 1582) by Barocci in colored chalks, Annibale Carraci's Polyphemus (ca. 1597-8), Rubens' Silenus and Aegle (ca. 1612-16), and Castiglione's Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law (ca. 1660) are among the other delights.
Pencil drawings of winners of the Order of Merit and cases with extraordinary book-bindings and illuminated manuscripts were not given their due by me, I'm afraid. I concentrated on the several scenes from Padshahnama or the Chronicle of the King of the World, a description of part of the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan from the second quarter of the 17th century. As much propaganda as art, these splendid drawings focus on his accession ceremonies and, in one, the beheading of one of his former supporters.
Considering Charles I, we seem to have come full circle.
The current exhibition remains on view until Jan. 12, 2003, and is open by timed ticket daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with last entry at 4:40. The impressive catalogue costs £40 in hardback and £27.50 in soft cover.