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Old Master paintings removed from the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the first time in almost 45 years in preparation for landmark exhibition (all images courtesy Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020)

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The Queen’s Gallery, which is adjacent to Buckingham Palace, displays rotating exhibitions from the Royal Collection, the vast collection of art and furniture “belonging” to the Crown. Following a hiatus due to Covid, its current show “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” resumes until January 2022. Reviews have consistently praised the superfluous quality and quantity of treasures: Waldemar Januszczak describes the exhibition as a “royal cornucopia” of the finest European art amassed by British monarchs, notably George IV during a spending spree in Napoleonic times. Yet we owe this rare opportunity to visit such a wide breadth of the Royal Collection to the closure of the Picture Gallery where they usually hang, as Buckingham Palace undergoes a 10-year renovation. The glaring absurdity here is the sheer inaccessibility of the collection the rest of the time — and indeed after the exhibition ends — with Buckingham Palace available to visit only between July and October and costing a single adult an extortionate £60 for entry. By comparison, one may visit the Royal Palace collection in Madrid for 12EUR.

In contrast to the usual display, the exhibition offers the chance to view the works at eye level in a modern gallery format that allows proper perusal, as opposed to double-stacked and hung as if the paintings were more part of the furniture than individual artworks. When in the palace, they “make a grand, splendid ornamental impact”, as curator Desmond Shawe-Taylor claims in a Facebook video. Their usual function in situ is to provide a grand backdrop for diplomatic and special visits, forming surely the most art historically rich wallpaper in existence.

The Royal Collection is managed by the Royal Collection Trust, whose function stipulates it ensures “as much of the Royal Collection as possible can be seen by members of the public,” and “Access to the Royal Collection is broadened, in person, in print and online, and increased to ensure that as many people as possible are able to enjoy the Collection.” All these impediments — such limited availability during the year, a prohibitively high entry fee, little to no advertisement, and display arrangements less for examining the art than for conveying overall decorative impact — undermine the supposed goal of increasing and broadening access for enjoyment. The incongruity is amplified by the hyperbolic reviews accompanying the exhibition where the public can actually see the work. The public is thus obliged to get to this show before it is dismantled.

Old Master paintings removed from the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace for the first time in almost 45 years in preparation for landmark exhibition

Unlike public galleries in the United Kingdom, which became free for entry in 2001, the Royal Collection Trust is a charity and relies on exhibition fees and commerce to support itself. The Royal Collection comprises almost a million objects spread across royal palaces in the UK, of which Buckingham Palace is one venue. It is described as a private collection, held in trust by the monarch in right of the Crown, with Elizabeth II personally owning some items, including some left to her by the Queen Mother. As such, what exactly the public has a right to access is murky. The renovation itself is being paid for via an increase in the sovereign grant from 15 to 25% over the course of the project, an amount decided by the treasury and taken from the profits of the Crown Estate, separate from the Royal Collection Trust. The general cost of upkeep however, of the occupied royal palaces, which are held in trust for the nation and not owned by the queen, is footed by the taxpayer. So, with the combination of public entry fees paid to royal palaces contributing to the Collection Trust, and public maintenance of other royal palaces, it feels unjust that the “greatest” segment of the Royal Collection — according to the Buckingham Palace website — should be so comparatively difficult for the public to access. 

Covid has ravaged the Royal Collection’s coffers, and since the show’s opening its curator and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures Shawe-Taylor has taken redundancy from the post which was first created in 1625 and which is not scheduled to be refilled. To fulfil its promise of increasing accessibility for audiences, and to increase visitor numbers (and therefore income), the trust may do well to promote its “greatest” collection, outside of the prescribed summer months. For now, grab the opportunity to see this incredible collection at an affordable rate (£16) before it goes back up out of sight (and out of pocket).

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Olivia McEwan

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...

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