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Visual arts: Masterpieces of Buckingham Palace at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

17 December 2021

Nicholas Cranfield on the masterpieces of Buckingham Palace

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Titian, Madonna and Child with Tobias and the Angel (c.1537)

Titian, Madonna and Child with Tobias and the Angel (c.1537)

IN 1762, Buckingham House became the domestic home for George III, a short walk from the more formal Tudor St James’s Palace across the park. The eastern façade was added only in 1913, giving the familiar aspect seen along The Mall.

Its interiors now need rewiring and redecoration. This began in 2017 and this year reached the long gallery in which the prime canvases of the Royal Collection hang, a worthy backdrop to state receptions and parties. When he became king, George IV brought in John Nash to design this picture gallery for the Palace in the 1820s to house paintings that he had amassed at Carlton House.

Clearing it for refurbishment has allowed the then Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, to stage a wonderful show of 65 masterpieces taken down from the walls.

I was always taught that it was rude to talk about paintings in somebody else’s house; so this is a welcome chance to see many significant paintings, acquired since 1623, that are otherwise only ever glimpsed over the canapés or across tables of ten at formal dinners or, more frustratingly, above the shoulders of other visitors trudging through the palace at the crowded Summer Opening.

Many of the pictures usually hang at a level where it is still possible to see them in detail — the Van Dyck double portrait of the fashionista metrosexuals Thomas Killigrew and William Lord Crofts, the Rubens self-portrait of 1623, the Dutch interiors of Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer.

But others are hung in a second, higher register: Van Dyck’s 1618-20 The Healing of the Paralytic, Titian’s Madonna and Child with Tobias and Raphael, Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, and Guido Cagnacci’s Jacob Peeling Rods (Who? What? Hold on: we will get there) and are more difficult to see.

This generous exhibition runs until 31 January 2022. It may be that the Palace has other plans in hand for 6 February 2022, but I came away wondering whether the exhibition could be extended for just one further week, especially as it closed all too soon after opening, and the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures was abolished, making Shawe-Taylor redundant after 15 years in the post first created by Charles I in 1625.

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Christ Healing the Paralytic (1618-19)Our present monarch has bought few paintings in her reign to enhance the Royal Collection, but this show would pay fair tribute to her as the nation comes to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her Accession.

It is, largely, a Hanoverian exhibition that reflects the insatiable collecting of Frederick Prince of Wales and of his son George III (1760-1820) and of George IV, the Prince Regent who became king in 1820 and reigned for ten years.

A dozen of the works had entered the royal collection in the 17th century — the sale of the Gonzaga collection in Mantua (1627) offered Charles I a purpose- built selection and after the Restoration the States General in the Republic of Holland had voted to send Charles II a diplomatic gift including Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of the merchant collector Andrea Doni and, next to it here, the Titian portrait (c.1514) of Jacopo Sannazaro.

The three exhibition rooms begin with domestic cabinet paintings, from Gerrit Dou to Johannes Vermeer, all but two of them bought by George IV. In 1762, George III bought the indescribably sensuous Vermeer The Lady at the Virginals (as the work of another artist), and he owned Rembrandt’s 1635 Rabbi in a Black Cap.

This was painted in the same year as the portrait recently identified as being by Rembrandt of another Jewish elder and shown among the treasures from Woburn Abbey at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. There the curators were more interested in explaining that it was painted on a mahogany panel that would have come from a West Indian packing case containing sugar bound for Amsterdam (slave-trade alert) than in exploring Rembrandt’s close association with the Jewish and Mennonite communities or in remarking on his astounding skill.

At the Queen’s Gallery, the rabbi is paired off with the 1641 portrait of Agatha Bas (1611-58) — whose husband, the wool merchant Nicolaes van Bambeeck, languishes, widowed a second time as it were, in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels — either side of the First Easter Morning, with the Magdalen encountering the Risen Lord. It does not get much better than this.

Among the cabinet paintings here is The Eavesdropper, painted by Nicolaes Maes in 1655. In this small picture, one of a series of at least half a dozen on the same subject, four of which were the centrepiece of the recent monographic show of the artist (1634-93) at the National Gallery (from February 2020), the pupil of Rembrandt invites us to collude.

The lady of the house descends a spiral staircase, her forefinger to her lips as she silences us as we see a couple kissing in a cellar. They are not alone, as an old man holds a lantern behind them. Thus, we are all voyeurs. Perhaps the most important picture by Rembrandt is in the next gallery: the double portrait (1633) known as “The Shipbuilder and his Wife” cost George IV 5000 gns in 1811. Jan Rijcksen was a shareholder in the Dutch East India Company (VOC), becoming its master shipbuilder in 1620, a generation before the VOC started to transport slaves to South Africa; so this painting is “safe”.

Van Dyck and Rubens face them, the master’s self-portrait set alongside the 20-year old Van Dyck’s narrative of the healing of the paralytic, which was last shown alongside its Munich version in the 2019/20 winter exhibition of Van Dyck at the Alte Pinakothek. That show highlighted that in second versions (rather than copies) the young Flemish master often tried out new ideas. Here it is the figure of the younger disciple behind Christ who grows in understanding the gospel between both paintings.

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans, known as “The Shipbuilder and his Wife” (1633)The final room holds Italian paintings from Titian to Canaletto, but here the selection becomes more random and, dare I suggest, less satisfying. In one corner is Parmigianino’s painting of Pallas Athene next to his Portrait of a Young Nobleman. Both came to Charles II from Holland, but is the youth really by Parmigianino, who, like Raphael, died at 37, in 1540? A previous catalogue of the collection remarks that it is a “slack and disappointing” work that “lacks the verve and delicacy of the works to which it is related”. It is cruel to expose it next to the Pallas Athene.

The Titian Madonna and Child in a Landscape was the most highly prized in the Dutch Gift, but even the status of that work is debatable; is it a workshop piece, or by Polidoro Lanciani or others? Does it matter? In a way, it does, and it is a pity that the exhibition is staged as a blockbuster without explaining the chosen works in a more scholarly catalogue.

No such questions surround the two most astounding works in the room: the Cristofano Allori (1577-1621) and the Guido Cagnacci (1601-63). The 1613 Judith is the first of many that Allori painted publicly, settling a very private demon. His affair with Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirri, who died in 1617, came to an end probably because of her mother’s constant meddling, and because Maria reduced him to misery; he portrayed her as Judith with an unsheathed sword and, after growing a beard, he painted himself as the hapless Assyrian commander. For good measure, he gave Judith’s serving woman the mother’s features.

The Cagnacci has been hung opposite you as you enter, and you can see it from the Flemish room. This surprising artist from Romagna died in the service of the Emperor Leopold I in Vienna after a troubled career in the Marche and in Venice. His lifestyle was thought scandalously improper, not least as his female travelling companion dressed as a man, and he never really settled.

But the extraordinary light that he brings to his subjects makes them appear more like 19th-century paintings. Here, illustrating Genesis 30.37-39, Jacob, portrayed as a half-naked youth, whittles a rod to deceive Laban’s sheep, while Rachel and Laban stand either side in an open landscape. The painting had been acquired by Frederick, Prince of Wales, by 1750.

In 1749, he had acquired another rare scene by an equally less well-known artist – Jacob Fleeing from Laban by the Roman artist Filippo Lauri (1623-94), whose father, Balthasar Lauwers, had moved from Flanders and had settled in the Rome of Pope Urban VIII.

Why include such seemingly obscure artists at the expense of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo? The surprising answer is simple. Apart from the portrait thought to be a self-portrait of Raphael, the Queen owns none of their paintings.

Seen up close, the pictures here also can teach us what it means to look at a painting and to assess what is and what is not a masterpiece. Shawe-Taylor’s exemplary scholarship and courtly manner will be much missed.

“Masterpieces of Buckingham Palace” is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until 31 January 2022. www.rct.uk/visit/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace

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