New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

November 21 2014

Image of New Royal Collection display at Hampton Court

Picture: Guardian

Excellent news from the Royal Collection and Historic Royal Palaces; the 'Cumberland Rooms' at Hampton Court Palace have been refurbished and re-hung with some of the Royal Collection's finest paintings. There's even a Rembrandt self-portrait. Many pats on the back for both the RC and HRP for helping get so much great art out on display.

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones has been to see the new display, and writes:

The Cumberland Art Gallery – named after the Georgian prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, for whom in the 1730s William Kent created the suite of palace rooms where the superbly lit and sensitively selected new gallery has now been installed – is the Royal Collection’s latest attempt to display its art to us, the public. It is like looking into the Queen’s jewel box. This is a much more convincing royal art space than the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which always feels like a liveried adjunct to the royal tourist industry and has never succeeded in competing with London’s big museums – its exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings a few years ago, for instance, drew nothing like the attention the National Gallery’s Leonardo show got. [...]

Curator Brett Dolman says the thinking behind the new gallery was precisely to free the art from “heritage”. Paintings by artists as lofty as Rubens can be seen all over this palace, as part of its decor or even as props in tableaux of royal splendour.

“We’re aware that when you hang paintings in that way you sometimes can’t get near to the art,” he concedes. So the new gallery “is where art speaks for itself”.

It does so absorbingly in what amounts to a permanent gallery of some of the Queen’s very best paintings. The Rembrandt is stupendous. Admittedly the Queen has some other mighty Rembrandts that are not on view here, as well as a drop-dead Vermeer. But there are enough splendours of Renaissance and Baroque painting to satisfy anyone. Two Caravaggios reveal the opposing sides of his vision – a boy peels fruit in one of his early sensual works while Jesus calls his disciples to him in a sombre Christian scene. I was more moved however by a painting of St Jerome looking downward with deep introspective eyes by the 17th-century French master of light Georges de la Tour.

The new display is largely due to one of HRP's energetic curators, Brett Dolman, who I'll embarass by identifying here as posing in the above picture on the left, where he and a colleague are partaking in The Useless White Glove Photo Opportunity. Brett has done a great job persuading the Royal Collection to lend so many treasures, and for turning a part of Hampton Court Palace which used to be a little lost into a destination in its own right. He kindly asked me along when the Cumberland rooms were mid-renovation, and asked my views on the potential hang. Of course, I lobbied for Van Dycks to feature prominently... I can't see from the photos in The Guardian's piece whether they are - here's hoping!

Update - a reader writes:

This Gallery sounds magnificent. I can't wait to go and am especially pleased to see Watts's Lady Holland on view (it was cleaned for my exhibition Watts Portraits at the NPG  in 2004).

But, and this is a big but, it costs an eye-watering £17.05 to go (more if you pay on the door--£18.20) because it is included in admission to all of Hampton Court Palace.

Doesn't this raise the issue of the status of the paintings in the Royal Collection and just whose paintings they are?   I relish the masterpieces in the Royal Collection, admire its publications and value the expertise of its staff, so I certainly don't have an answer to this one. But many people might think twice about paying that much to go and see those wonderful paintings.

Another reader, on a similar theme, adds:

Just a thought on the Royal Collection hanging some of its gems at Hampton Court. Whilst this is good news, it does (as Jonathan Jones alludes) throw light on what is absent.

Ever since seeing Tim's Vermeer earlier in the year (silly concept but a decent film) I've wanted to see Vermeer's Music Lesson and yet because it usually hangs in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace I'm faced with having to await an honour or pay £20.50 to visit the state rooms in the summer. Why is this painting not on regular public show?

We're told that the Queen does not own the Royal Collection, she merely holds it in trust for the nation (and her successors). Well that's potentially a benign technicality as long as we have access to its treasures. But this is one of the world's great paintings (so I'm told) and it is hidden from most people, most of the time. Imagine if the National Gallery had a Vermeer that was in an upstairs room which you could only see when the Director invited you to or you had to pay £20 whilst he was on his summer holiday, what would the reaction be?

Yet with the Royal Collection this is accepted. The Music Lesson is not of a royal, it was not painted for a royal or to be hung in Buckingham Palace and as such there is no particular significance for it being there.

So if the Queen only holds it in trust for us, as she maintains, then could we see it please?

Update II - a curator writes:

Amid all the glamorous Old Masters, nice to see Frank Holl’s grave and lovely picture prominently hung  - a seriously under-rated painter.

I agree. I love Holl's portraits - for me, he's often on a par with the likes of Millais and Watts.

Update III - a reader writes:

May I take up the baton and run ( or totter in my case) with it a while ?

It seems to me that your recent correspondents may have missed the fact that the Royal Collection is indeed a private collection and is funded entirely by admission charges ,and other revenue raising enterprises, and from time to time I dare say the Queen opens her handbag to help fund an acquisition as indeed, she has done on many occasions in the past. So far as I know, there is no public funding whatever.

The works of art on display are changed about and loaned to exhibitions all over the world  viz the Watts of Lady Holland; and I am told such loan requests are sanctioned by the Queen personally.

I am certain that the vast majority of the works of art ( let’s not forget the furniture, sculpture and applied arts) is on view at most times of the year, throughout the royal residences, with only a small percentage displayed in the private apartments. All such places are staffed and maintained all of which has to be paid for.

All of these factors make it a fairly pricey visit, and short of hanging “Sponsored by Honda “ flags outside Buckingham Palace; I can’t see how else they can continue to delight us.

I have to say I'm inclined to agree with this. I think there's something rather magical about the fact that the Royal Collection is what we might call a 'working collection'. That is, it has a function which goes beyond the usual one of public display, and retains something of the original purpose of a 'royal collection'; that of pure decoration, be it in an ambassador's waiting room or the Queen's private study. Therefore, we ought to be patient that while I suppose 'we', the public' really own the collection, we cannot always see everything in it. Not being able to see a picture because it's being looked by the Queen is much more acceptable to me than the various excuses our museums come up with for keeping 80% of their works locked away in storage. And, for me, the Royal Collection staff more than make up for any access issues by consistently putting on some of the best exhibitions inthe world.

Update IV - a reader from Italy writes:

In my opinion the British royal collection is better 'visible' and better studied than many museums in Your country or abroad.

I think to the wonderful catalogues of Castiglione drawings , 2013, or Italian Renaissance and Baroque pictures, 2007 for example...

And it's true they often loan very important pieces to scientific exhibitions.

I live in Italy, and I could see wonderful royal paintings loaned to the Carracci exhibition in Bologna, 2006, a beautiful Cagnacci in Forlì,  2008, a supposed Raphael portrait in Urbino, 2009, and also in 2003 the Duccio tryptich in Siena at the monographic show (the NG or the American museums didn't loan anything). I remember also a Mantegna 'triumph' in Paris in the 2008 big  exhbition.

So the RC has to be congratulated for the care but also for sharing the Queen treasures (and look at the web site!). Sure, it's expensive to visit the Residences, but also if you visit the Louvre or the Vatican Florence and Siena now we have to pay for visit churches! 

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