Justly famous for works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Leonardo, some of the Royal Collection's greatest treasures are masterpieces of the decorative arts, says Andrew Graham-Dixon, who is presenting a new series for the BBC
I spent much of 2017 making Art, Passion & Power: The Story of the Royal Collection, a TV series currently being broadcast by the BBC. The result is the first televisual history of the British monarchy’s collections of fine and decorative arts since Royal Heritage, presented by Sir Huw Wheldon more than 40 years ago. We filmed many times at most of the royal palaces and residences — Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, the Palace of Holyroodhouse — generally starting at an ungodly hour of the morning to avoid bumping into tourists in the public sections, then moving into more restricted areas later in the day.
On camera, I suspect that my predominant expression is one of bleary-eyed wonderment provoked by the succession of masterpieces brought out for our contemplation with great patience and generosity by the curatorial staff: paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, Stubbs and Gainsborough; master drawings by Holbein, Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as numerous sheets from what is without doubt the greatest corpus of Leonardo da Vinci’s graphic work anywhere in the world. All this I was expecting to find, even if the experience of seeing such works in the flesh reminded me of the near ungraspable depth and breadth of the Royal Collection —and the extent to which it remains, owing perhaps to its necessary dispersal among a multitude of buildings, somewhat under-appreciated as the unparalleled singular entity that it actually is.
But what I had never quite realised was just how great the Royal Collection is as a repository of the decorative arts. Almost every object you pass, in Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace, is either the finest, or one of the finest, of its kind. There are the pietra dura cabinets of almost absurd intricacy collected by George IV, who also commissioned the so-called Grand Service, designed by John Flaxman among others, 30 years in the making: not so much a dinner service, more a vast sculptural bacchanalia in silver gilt, complete with table ornaments that crawl with writhing monsters and intertwined gods and goddesses, all still brought out today to impress visiting dignitaries. There are the clocks with mindbogglingly complex workings commissioned by George III; the mirrors with frames of beaten silver commissioned by Charles II in an attempt to rival the magnificence of Louis XIV at Versailles; and enough finely worked cabinets of curiosity to exhaust anyone’s curiosity about the skills of the cabinetmaker in ages gone by.
Yet despite the splendours of the collection, the nicknames given to one or two items by the staff hint at an almost blasé attitude to the riches that surround them: at Windsor, a beautiful piece that once belonged to Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, is known to staff as ‘the McDonald’s Cabinet’, because of the similarity between the repeated patterning of its rare hardwood marquetry and the golden arches of the burger restaurant chain’s logo.
The Royal Collection also houses one of the world’s greatest collections of arms and armour, including a blued-steel suit created for the ill-fated Henry Prince of Wales in the time of Shakespeare: the royal armourer, Simon Metcalf, explained to me as he revealed its subtle interlockings and the various parts that might be fitted to it for combat on foot or by horse, that having it made would be like having a Ferrari created by hand nowadays.
So rich is the Royal Collection in the field of the applied and decorative arts that many of its treasures are kept in store, periodically to be rediscovered and re-appreciated through the efforts of the curatorial staff. I was struck by a particularly brilliant example of this while we were making our films. Curator Kajal Meghani had just been going through one particular group of objects in the collection with the aim of creating a touring display of some of the best of them, which has been shown in Bradford and Leicester and will move to Holyroodhouse in December.
What were they? A treasure trove of mostly Indian masterworks of craftsmanship, all of them presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and the future Edward VII, during a four-month tour that he made of the subcontinent in 1875–76. With typical Victorian energy, the prince travelled some 7,600 miles by land and 2,300 miles by sea during his trip, visiting nearly every major Indian city and court, while also finding time to travel to Nepal and Ceylon. Wary of the Indian habit of extravagant gift-giving, his advisers sent advance notice that Durbar-type present exchanges were not to be countenanced: the prince would be handing out Purdey shotguns, swords made by Wilkinson and specially struck medals, and expected appropriately moderate gifts in return.
But as Kajal Meghani’s exhibition of the objects that he actually received amply proves (its title, Splendours of the Subcontinent, is not guilty of hyperbole), the Indian princes, rulers and other dignitaries who received him paid not a blind bit of notice to the instruction. Among other things, he was given: a turban ornament decorated with diamonds, rubies and emeralds; a crown completely encrusted with precious stones; a solid-gold opium box; a pair of ceremonial staffs in ivory carved with lions’ heads; an enamelled perfume holder from Jaipur embellished with images of the main palaces of that city, which reputedly required five firings and took an entire team of craftsmen five years to make; a pair of gold bottles with the so-called ‘shawl patterning’ that would inspire many a Liberty design.
Perhaps most magnificent of all is an 18-piece writing set in the form of a ceremonial barge, its mast a pen, its cabins inkwells, all made of solid gold inlaid with jewels, a peacock at its prow. It is, truly, something to write home about, an object of such craftsmanship and playful brilliance that its maker might have given Fabergé himself a run for his money.
What is so rare and wonderful about this collection within the Royal Collection is that all the objects it contains were accumulated within a very short space of time, the period dictated by the royal visit. So what it offers to the eye and the imagination is an unrivalled snapshot of the finest decorative work — from jewellery and goldsmithery to arms, armour and beyond — being created in the Indian subcontinent at a single moment in time. The collection has been rather forgotten, although the fact that it has now been made the subject of an exhibition raises the hope that it will be rediscovered anew.
The evidence suggests that Prince Albert Edward himself knew just how special these things were. Immediately on his return, he ordered the whole collection to be put on display in the old India Museum at South Kensington. From there it was sent for display in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, and then on to northern England and Scotland. More than two million people saw it, and the resulting funds were used, among other things, to found Aberdeen Art Gallery.
It was the prince’s hope that these objects from far-off India might spark a revival in handicraft and the decorative arts in Great Britain, where it was already feared that such skills might be endangered by the rise of new technology and the Industrial Revolution; in the words of a catalogue written to accompany the display of these objects in York in 1881, the Indian designs ‘may serve to bring home to Englishmen in this city, the natural capital of all the great manufacturing industries of Central and North-Eastern England... an intelligent sense of their shortcomings as manufacturers, and of the ways and means for their correction’. These emotions are liable to be felt all the more strongly in our own age of digital technology. Will such things ever again be made by human hands? Will such care ever again be taken in the making of objects?
Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-76 is at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 15 December-15 April 2018