The State of the Art: Royal Privilege Gone Riot

Rosemary Evans asks whether the monarchy should still be entitled to the assets of the Royal Collection

Image: Wikipedia

The publication date of this edition of Nouse marks 369 years and exactly 5 weeks since Charles I was executed by his people after a failed reign that saw widespread discontent prompt several bloody civil wars. Following the regicide in 1649, the British monarchy was temporarily dismantled, witnessing a period of Republican rule before the restoration of monarchy in 1660 on the return of Charles’ son, Charles II. With the brief abolition of monarchy, the vast array of its royal assets were sold off by the new government, headed by Oliver Cromwell, to finance the new regime.

Central to these assets was Charles’ vast collection of art, which was sold off and scattered across Europe. A current Royal Academy exhibition reunites this collection for the first time since Charles was alive, bringing together a remarkable display of artwork. In tandem with the Royal Academy’s exhibition, a Royal Collection exhibition showcasing the‘material world’ of Charles II’s court is also ongoing at the Queen’s Gallery over the spring. The exhibition celebrates ‘the resurgence of arts’ in Restoration England after years of ‘austere Cromwellian rule’ following Charles I’s execution.

The common theme of these exhibitions, of the strong relationship between art and monarchy, is striking. It is a theme that reveals, and more significantly, reinforces the way we are fascinated by, and maybe even enamoured with monarchy. The irony is that as a figure upon which to focus our royalist obsession, Charles I, as the only monarch to be beheaded by his subjects, is particularly ill-suited. However, if this exhibition is anything to go by, it seems his lasting legacy is not as a stubborn, incompetent ruler whose determination to have his own way led the country into a series of severely disruptive civil wars. No, Charles I is remembered as a benevolent art collector with good taste in classical sculptures.

A large proportion of artwork In the Royal Academy’s exhibition, and the entirety of the Queen’s Gallery exhibition, is sourced from the Royal Collection, a vast array of assets that, with its 1 million objects, 7,000 paintings and 500,000 prints, constitutes the largest private art collection in the world. In the same way that the Stuart Kings possessed masses of valuable artwork, the Royal Collection is owned entirely by the royal family.

Considering all the changes the monarchy has seen since 1649, with the steady erosion of royal power and emergence of a weaker, constitutional monarchy, it seems odd and shockingly archaic for the monarchy to still hold such a monopoly on art.

However, their archaism is part of the reason we are so enamoured with the royal family: modern society laps up the old-fashioned practices associated with traditional monarchy, and among them seems to be their unchallenged right to a vast collection of artwork. In between binge-watching The Crown on Netflix, people obsess over rituals and ceremonies like the royal weddings and the state opening of parliament as if they contribute enormously to British identity, as if a system in which the royal family didn’t own billions of pounds worth of art would somehow remove our national character. We like the tradition and the antiquity that underlies the royal family; something about their ornate, old-fashioned style holds great appeal for us. And given the royal family is virtually impotent in politics, their power lies in maintaining that appeal.

The descriptions of both exhibitions create the impression that the two Stuart kings were particular art enthusiasts, with the Royal Academy promoting Charles I as ‘King and Collector’ who ‘amassed one of the most extraordinary art collections of his age’, while the Royal Collection tells us the court of Charles II became ‘the centre for the patronage of leading artists and the collecting of great works of art’. Given art was (and still apparently is) the reserve of monarchs, is it any wonder they had so much of it? Does Elizabeth II care about art? She would probably say so, but so would anyone who was born owning 7,000 paintings. For the Stuart kings, art was a symbol of wealth and power; the more artwork a king accumulated, or the more eminent the portraitist he could hire, the more wealthy and powerful he appeared. Art was less of a hobby and more of a political tool.

Identical to the days of the Stuart rule, all this art and the Queen’s ownership of it is purely symbolic. She couldn’t sell or destroy the 1 million objects in the Royal Collection, nor could she remove them entirely from the public eye. But then what is the point in her owning all of it? Admittedly, it can hardly be described as a victory for art to see it sold off by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s to finance what was arguably a totalitarian regime. However, while the regicide and the events since have awarded us with a political system in which the monarch is comfortably powerless to reproduce the tyrannical reign of Charles I,  the survival of the Royal Collection shows us that over the course of 369 years, some things haven’t changed. With regards to the monarch holding a monopoly on art for the sake of maintaining power, it might be true to say that we haven’t come very far.

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