It’s unusual for antiquated pipes and electric wiring to be a cause for cheer. However, that’ll be the case for art lovers over the next 14 months, as re-servicing works at Buckingham Palace mean that masterpieces normally hanging in the Picture Gallery have had to find a new home.
The upshot is an exhibition of 65 paintings – by the likes of Titian, Rubens and Canaletto – held around the corner from the palace, in the Queen’s Gallery. “It’s a one-off chance to put on public view works that are ordinarily kept in the privacy of the palace,” says Desmond Shawe‑Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.
He meets me at the gallery, where he’s putting the finishing touches to the exhibition. Though better acquainted with these works than anybody on Earth (barring perhaps the Queen herself), Shawe-Taylor can barely walk past a single one of them without slowing to revel in the brushstrokes of Frans Hals or the haze effect in a Claude.
People might have been able to see these pictures as part of Buckingham Palace’s “summer opening” each year, but the new show offers something superior.
“The Picture Gallery is one of 19 State Rooms to walk through. It’s sumptuously decorated, with the paintings double-stacked on the walls. They almost get lost there.”
As an employee of the Royal Household, Shawe-Taylor, 65, isn’t really allowed to give interviews, so he is speaking to me solely as the show’s curator. Alas, that does mean that certain topics – such as his thoughts on The Crown – are off limits.
However, he’s happy to engage on perhaps the hottest topic in museums and galleries today: whether historic collections should be contextualised (or even broken up) in light of a past owner’s links to slavery. “It’s something that has to be done sensitively and intelligently over a long term,” he says. “What I disagree with is the idea of policing yourself at every turn – of endlessly wagging your finger at how bad attitudes were 200 or 300 years ago. That’s not helpful – and frankly a bit dull.”
The Royal Collection doesn’t have such obviously colonial roots as, say, the British Museum, which recently unveiled a display about its founder Sir Hans Sloane’s slave-owning background. Shawe-Taylor – who, with a team of 18, cares for the 7,500 paintings in the Royal Collection – made his first concession to the new era in July. At Windsor Castle, the label for a portrait of the Waterloo hero, Sir Thomas Picton, has been rewritten to mention his “punitive administration of Trinidad and his subjects’ enforced adherence to strict penal codes” during his governorship of the island from 1797 to 1803. “Picton’s portrait is in the collection precisely because he died valiantly at Waterloo,” says Shawe-Taylor.
“It makes sense that labels have, until now, focused on that aspect. However, we realise that’s not good enough any more. A more complete look at him – and his past – is necessary.”
The Picture Gallery boasts what Shawe-Taylor calls “the greatest hits” of the Royal Collection. Alongside Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, the exhibition will include Guido Reni’s painting Cleopatra with the Asp (1628), depicting the eponymous queen’s snake-assisted suicide. I mention to Shawe-Taylor the furore last month when it was announced that the white actress, Gal Gadot, would play the ruler in a new film (the furore being that an African actress wasn’t cast).
How would he react if the PC brigade demanded Reni’s portrayal of a white Cleopatra be removed? “I’d say she was Greek and move on.”
The most famous predecessor in Shawe-Taylor’s job was Anthony Blunt, who held it between 1945 and 1972 – though his fame owes more to his parallel career as a spy. The role dates back to the reign of Charles I, the nation’s greatest art-collector king – closely followed by George IV.
Oliver Cromwell sold off most of Charles I’s art after the latter’s execution. Mercifully, George IV’s purchases didn’t meet the same fate – indeed, they make up more than half of the exhibition, among them Rembrandt’s magnificent double portrait, The Shipbuilder and his Wife: Jan Rijcksen & Griet Jans.
It’s of the Dutch East India Company’s chief shipbuilder, at work on plans in his study, when he’s interrupted by his spouse bearing what seems to her, if not him, an urgent message – and widely reported to be the Queen’s favourite painting. Is that true? “So I’m told, though I’ve never actually asked her,” Shawe-Taylor demurs. “If it is, it’s a very good choice.”
Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is at the Queen’s Gallery, London SW1, from Dec 4 to Jan 31 2022; rct.uk 0303 123 7301