Exhibition | Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 17, 2021

Installation of the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, at The Queen’s Gallery In London.

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Now on view at The Queen’s Gallery:

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, 17 May 2021 — 13 February 2022

Curated by Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Isabella Manning

Masterpieces from the Royal Collection have been displayed in Buckingham Palace since the residence was acquired by George III and Queen Charlotte in 1762. The painting displays were reinvented during the reign of their son, George IV, who commissioned the architect John Nash to renovate the palace in the 1820s. A Picture Gallery was included to display the monarch’s exceptional collection of paintings. Since then, the Picture Gallery has remained the focus for some of the most treasured Italian, Dutch, and Flemish paintings from the Royal Collection.

The Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace (typically open to visitors only during the summer) is currently being renovated–creating an opportunity to display the paintings normally installed there in other contexts.

Palace displays are often imbued with dynastic meaning; the Picture Gallery was one of the few spaces intended for the enjoyment of art, pure and simple. It is in this same spirit that we have mounted this exhibition: for the first time the paintings are displayed together in modern gallery conditions, allowing us to look at them afresh.

In general these paintings are securely dated and attributed; mostly we know which monarch bought them. We are providing this information here, but we are also asking a different, more subjective question—what makes them important? What do they have to offer? In the exhibition catalogue we have suggested qualities that were valued by the makers of these works and can still be appreciated today: the imitation of nature; the sensuous use of materials; the creation of beautiful design; and the ability to express human emotion. But are we missing something? We hope that visitors will make up their own minds about what there is to enjoy in these paintings and find reasons to believe that they are still worth exploring.

Dou to Vermeer

The paintings in this room were all created in the Low Countries between 1630 and 1680, the heyday of the so-called Dutch Golden Age. They are modest in scale, the majority scenes of everyday life, with figures in landscapes or in homes, taverns and shops. These artists didn’t set up their easels in the market place; they worked from drawings, memory and imagination, but they depicted the familiar everyday world around them. The people they painted were of the same kind that bought their paintings: we can see examples in simple ebony frames on the walls of the interiors of de Hooch and Vermeer.

All but two of these paintings were acquired by George IV to hang in the sumptuous interiors of Carlton House, his London residence when Prince of Wales. Like their original purchasers, he admired them for their comedy, their brilliant technique and their truth to life. They continue to fascinate through their minute detail, tactile surfaces and ability to suggest spaces filled with light and air.

Canaletto, The Piazza Looking North-West with the Narthex of San Marco, ca. 1723–24, oil on canvas, 172 × 134 cm (London: Royal Collectin Trust, RCIN 401037). The painting is one of a set of six views of the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta.

Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck

The artists in this room all come from the Low Countries, as in the previous section. There are some comic scenes of everyday life, but the majority of works belong to the more prestigious branches of art—narrative painting, commissioned portraits, and ambitious landscapes with a symbolic or religious meaning.

This room is dominated by three artists of very different character: Rubens, a diplomat and land-owner; van Dyck, a courtier; and Rembrandt, a professional serving the merchants of Amsterdam. In other ways they are similar, especially in their enthusiasm for the type of Venetian painting that can be seen in the next section.

Painting in Italy, 1510–1740

The paintings in this room were created in Italy, in various artistic centres and over a period of two hundred years. Bringing together this great range of painting evokes something of the first displays at Buckingham Palace, during the reign of George III.

Several strands of Italian art are here on show. There are sober male portraits, often painted with a bare minimum of detail and colour range, but conveying great psychological intensity. There are ideal female figures, derived from the study of antique sculpture, their beauty impassive however dramatic the narrative. There are expressive landscapes, ranging from a cataclysmic storm to the unruffled stillness of a sunset. Then there are Canaletto’s boldly expressive views of Venice, where the imposing monuments of the city are spiced with a hint of picturesque shabbiness.

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In the United States, the catalogue is distributed by The University of Chicago Press:

Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Isabella Manning, Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2021), 160 pages, ISBN: ‎978-1909741737, £20 / $25.

In this beautifully designed book, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, and Assistant Curator of Paintings, Isabella Manning, examine 65 of the most celebrated paintings from the Picture Gallery, which sits at the heart of Buckingham Palace. With masterpieces by such artists as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, Titian, Jan Steen, Claude, and Canaletto, this publication offers new insights into these world-famous works of art. The authors encourage readers to look at the works in a new way and to consider how Claude paints a sky; how Rubens models the landscape through his use of color; and how Titian uses contrast to add gravitas to a portrait. Rather than re-treading the old boards of provenance and attribution, the authors seek to engage with different, perhaps riskier and more subjective, questions: asking not when were they painted and by whom, but why should we concern ourselves with them? A short introduction gives an account of the creation of the Picture Gallery and tells the story of the monarchs who curated this extraordinary collection of paintings and how the works entered the Collection.


A History of Old Master Paintings at Buckingham Palace
Looking at the Old Masters
The Pictures

Further Reading

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Desmond Shawe-Taylor’s very productive fifteen-year tenure as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures came to an end in December 2020, as reported by the BBC, in response to £64m of lost income related to the pandemic. Indeed, the historic Surveyor position—first filled in 1625 during the reign of Charles I—is for now “lost and held in abeyance.” Royal Collection Director, Tim Knox, has taken on “overall responsibility for the curatorial sections, supported by the Deputy Surveyors of Pictures and Works of Art.”



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