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Taste of Kings

The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Royal Collection

by Oliver Millar
Phaidon, Volume I (text), 220, Volume II (plates), 226 pp., $21.00

Except for the rapidly dwindling collections of the reigning house of Lichtenstein, the British Royal Collection is the last survivor of one of the great historic categories which fall under what Francis Taylor described in The Taste of Angels. The few remaining crowned heads of Europe own, as their private property, a handful of old masters and a number of depressing portraits; but the other great royal collections—those of the Bourbons, the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Italian principalities—have all been either nationalized or dispersed. For this reason they are a good deal better known than the British Royal Collection. They have been fully catalogued and published and many of their early inventories are available in print. By a certain irony the only inventory of the British Royal Collection which has been properly published (and that only in 1960, and also by Mr. Millar) is the catalog of the collection of Charles I, which, in 1649, was the first royal collection to be nationalized—but only to be sold. The great masterpieces of Charles I’s collection (except for the Mantegna and Raphael cartoons) eventually entered other European royal collections and only the lower part of the barrel was recovered at the Restoration in 1660. The British Royal Collection is thus not as remarkable as it would have been if this regrettable incident had not occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century: but it is very rich indeed, in spite of that.

The present book is the first of six volumes which will cover for the first time in print the entire holding in pictures (but apparently only of those executed before the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837) of the British “Royal Collection,” a collective concept which may never have been closely defined, but excludes such works of art as may be the private property of the Sovereign.

The principal locations of these pictures are Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace, Hampton Court, the Palaces of Kensington and Kew, and Holyroodhouse at Edinburgh. A good deal of movement of the pictures between one and the other has taken place in the past and takes place today, but they are all listed in this book regardless of location. The only one of these buildings to which the public has ready access is Hampton Court, which has always been something of a dumping ground for pictures that are not wanted for royal living rooms or purposes of state; and useful catalogs of the pictures at Hampton Court have been available for a century. The State Rooms at Windsor and Kensington and Holyroodhouse are also accessible under conditions that make close scutiny of works of art impossible. A catalog of the more important pictures at Windsor was published in 1937 in a rather plushy edition of 750 copies. Since 1961 the new Gallery attached to Buckingham Palace has for the first time made available small periodical selections of other pictures in the collection, but by and large it is fair to say that the British Royal Collection is one of the least known of all great European collections, either to sight or to scholarship—although a useful synopsis of its chief masterpieces came to be known from the Royal Academy exhibition of “The King’s Pictures” in 1946.

This new series thus falls into the “indispensable” class for libraries, and the text volume, which catalogs 649 pictures, has been superlatively well done. An introductory history of royal collecting is followed by a much fuller list of ms. sources than has ever been given before, and the pictures are then cataloged in chronological order of the artists’ birth (with the “unknowns” inserted at the approximate chronological point). This has certain advantages in the volume of plates (only 226 of them). The flow of style and taste and patronage can be fascinatingly observed, and it would seem to be an axiom in our civilization that pictures of kings and queens should follow one another in the order in which they reigned. But it makes the text volume, in spite of good indexes of portraits and of painters, somewhat infuriating to use. Presumably the pictures of schools other than the native school will be allowed their alphabetical sequence.

It was certainly right to start with the native school, and with the first half of it. But it cannot be denied that British painting up to 1750 counts among the drearier fields of the history of art. Hogarth and Dobson (neither very fully represented in the collection) are the only two names of any distinction in the native school of this period, but the eye is comforted by the inclusion of Holbein, Van Dyck (not only his portraits), and the other foreign painters who worked for the British Crown. The most remarkable section is that on Van Dyck, twenty-two of whose works are reproduced. If one judges this catalog by the entries for Van Dyck: one sees that extremely substantial addition to scholarship have been made. There is no good book on Van Dyck: he is one of the least studied of major old masters. It may in fact be because there has been no authoritative treatment of his royal portraits that his English period is still the most flimsily known. Studio versions and copies are rigorously separated from originals—perhaps the only case of importance in which a copy still passes as the original in this volume is the so-called Holbein of the Duke of Norfolk; there is new matter for dating; a formidable list of copies and versions; an account of Van Dyck’s sources for his several compositions and of their impact on later British painters (e.g., under The Villiers Boys); and a fairly searching list of the other pictures by Van Dyck known to have belonged to Charles I with their subsequent history. For its Van Dyck entries alone the book is worth having—and these are pictures almost univerally known.

A great many pictures cataloged, however, are totally (and in some cases deservedly) unknown. On this score a complaint is perhaps in order. The volume of plates is by no means so satisfactory as the text volume. Many of the blocks are dark and some are smudgy, and only about a third of the pictures cataloged are reproduced. This is no doubt excusable as, rather quaintly, this first publication of what might reasonably be considered one of the principal “national” holdings in the field of the arts is a commercial venture by the Phaidon Press, not supported by any public or foundation funds. What should have been done is something comparable to the recent catalogs of the Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gellery in London, in which the lesser things are illustrated the size of large postage stamps. Since the minor pictures in the Royal Collection are in storerooms, bedrooms, or other places inaccessible to all but the best-accredited and most importunate scholars, it is much to be regretted that they are only described and not illustrated here.

It will come as a surprise to many people that no less than thirty of the pictures in the present volume—some of considerable historical interest—have been purchased for the Royal Collection during the present century—far more than during the long reign of Queen Victoria, who acquired few pictures, then sometimes only on the “earnest entreaty” of the then Keeper of the Collection. The five portraits bequeathed by the late Countess of Craven are also a remarkable addition.

There is one mystery on which no evidence is forthcoming: how did a number of pictures that appear in the inventories after the Restoration disappear from the collection? The most curious case in this volume is the Michael Wright ceiling recorded in store during Queen Anne’s time. It then disappeared and turned up a few years ago at Nottingham; it is hardly the kind of picture that would have been given a royal mistress, even to one of George I’s.

The obsessive British passion for portraits is very much in evidence, and is only slightly mitigated, as 1750 approaches, by a few “conversations” and sporting pictures. Native artists were not thought fit by their royal patrons to paint anything more ambitious. The landscapes are little more than furniture pieces and, after the pageant pictures of the time of Henry VIII, the only history pieces commissioned by the Crown are the three rather sad little stories by Kent from the life of Henry V, which were probably painted for Queen Caroline—only one of these is reproduced. The two heroes of this portion of the collection are Charles I and “Poor Fred,” the father of George III. They were the only two royal patrons who had a real feeling for quality in a painting and for surrounding themselves, in their daily lives, with works of art rather than mere records of their exalted rank.

Later volumes of this catalog will be more exciting to the eye and rest more acceptably on the drawing-room tables of those who use “art books” for this purpose. But this one, perhaps more than any other, makes available for learned discussion a greater number of pictures of historical importance which have been neglected in the past for lack of available information about them. We are living in an age in which catalogs of this kind are an important vehicle for the publication of research, and each great collection which is cataloged as definitively as the Royal Collection has been in this volume, will bring nearer that happy millenium when, the work of making inventories over, it will be possible to begin to contemplate the painting of the past from a new standpoint of knowledge.

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