Art has played an important role in both affirming and glorifying the dynastic heritage and ambitions of the Monarchy. From portraits to porcelain, the artistic legacy of the British Monarchy is cared for by the staff of the Royal Collection who strive to make it accessible to the widest possible audiences.
The Head of Leda
In the years around 1505 Leonardo worked on two distinct versions of a composition of Leda and the Swan, depicting the myth of Leda, who was seduced by Jupiter in the form of a swan and bore two eggs, from which hatched Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, and Castor and Pollux. Leonardo made a number of studies for his painting, including four surviving drawings of the head of Leda. In this example particular attention is focused on the intricate and highly decorative hairstyle which serves to enhance Leda’s beauty. In contrast, relatively little attention is afforded to Leda’s facial expression. She does not engage the viewer’s gaze; instead she looks down, making her appear modest and demure. Leonardo’s finished painting, which shows a standing figure of Leda embraced by the swan, entered the French royal collection shortly after it was completed c.1515. However, the painting was destroyed in around 1700, and today is known through copies.
Richard III (1452-85)
Recent dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating of this portrait sets its creation date as c.1500-1520. Consequently it was probably either commissioned by Henry VII or Henry VIII.
Not painted from the life, this portrait is thought to follow an original drawing or painting. It seems that the artist followed the original line of the sitter’s right-hand shoulder from an original drawing/pattern, and then added paint above this line to create a higher shoulder – perhaps intending to make the sitter look hunch-backed. The artist also appears to have turned the corners of the sitter’s mouth downwards to make the facial expression seem severe.
The Royal Collection portrait of Richard III served as the prototype for many copies of the portrait which became popular in the later sixteenth-century (when long galleries became fashionable in private houses which were adorned with sets of royal portraits). These later portraits include the hunched back and a tracing from the NPG example indicates that it derived directly from the Royal Collection version.
This portrait was part of a set of early portraits recorded in Henry VIII’s collection (including Henry V, Henry VI and Edward IV). These served as illustrations of Henry’s predecessors. The visual defamation of Richard III ties in with the Tudor tarnishing of the Yorkist king’s reputation. Sir Thomas More’s ‘History of King Richard III’ written in 1513 described Richard III as ‘crook-backed’ and ‘hard favoured of visage’. This popular slander was continued more famously by Shakespeare in his history play ‘Richard III’ (c.1591).
This print marks the Hanoverian succession to the British throne. It shows the current monarch George II and his consort Queen Caroline beneath a portrait of George I, the first Hanoverian King of Britain, who had died in 1727. Beneath the King and Queen are oval portraits of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife Augusta, Princess of Wales and their children, Augusta, George, Edward, Elizabeth, William and Henry. To the left is a portrait of William, Duke of Cumberland, Frederick’s brother and an important military commander.
The portraits are surrounded by allegorical figures among them Britannia, Liberty, Plenty and Justice. Liberty tramples on the Pope, to represent the Protestant nature of the succession. To the bottom left are attributes indicating the virtues of the Hanoverians, among them a lute for music and a painter’s palette for art. The inscription reinforces the print’s status as a promoter of the Hanoverian cause: ‘To all true Britons, Lovers of Liberty, and the present Succession, This Plate is Dedicated’.
The print was first issued in 1748. This reissue of 1752 reflects the changes to the succession after the death of the heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1751. After Frederick’s death, his son George became Prince of Wales, succeeding to the throne as George III in 1760.
Technically one of the most sophisticated and extraordinary of Fabergé’s series of fifty Easter Eggs made for the last two Tsars of Russia to present to their consorts on Easter Day, the Mosaic Egg retains its ‘surprise’. The ‘surprise’ takes of the form of a medallion, surmounted by the Russian Imperial Crown, painted on ivory with the portraits of the five children of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra on one side and a basket of flowers and their names on the other. The medallion is mounted on a stand and is held within the egg by gold clips.
The egg was the Tsar’s Easter gift to his wife in 1914 and the Tsarina’s monogram and the date 1914 are set beneath a moonstone at the apex of the egg. The egg comprises a platinum mesh into which the tiny precious stones are perfectly cut, polished and calibrated to fill the spaces. This extraordinary technical feat is all the more impressive because the platinum is not welded but cut. The five oval panels around the centre of the egg feature a stylised floral motif, replicating the technique of petit point. The designer, Alma Pihl, was inspired to produce the needlework motif when watching her mother-in-law working at her embroidery by the fire.
The egg was confiscated in 1917 and sold by the Antikvariat (the state run sales organisation created to sell treasures to the West for hard currency) in 1933 for 5,000 roubles. It was purchased by King George V from Cameo Corner in London on 22 May 1933 for £250 ‘half-cost’ (this indicates that it was a joint purchase with the Queen) probably for Queen Mary’s birthday on 26 May.
This is one of three Imperial Easter eggs purchased by King George V and Queen Mary in the early 1930s.
This work and its pair (with the figures of Mercury and the infant Bacchus) were the largest and most magnificent candelabra in George IV's splendid Grand Service of banqueting plate. The sculptural group around the stem depicts an episode from the last of the Twelve Labours of Hercules, and was designed by John Flaxman for the royal goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell. The candelabra, along with much of the Grand Service, remains in use to this day. They are always used on The Queen’s table at the State Banquets. Standing at over 4ft tall, the parts of the candelabra must be assembled in situ for the banquets by the Yeomen of the Pantries.
This bowl is the earliest known Asian ceramic in the Royal Collection. It was made at Lonquan, Zhejiang province, China during the fifteenth century (Ming dynasty). The magnificent gilt bronze mounts were added in France in the early eighteenth century, which thus combine the exotic dish with fashionable European mounts. By adding mounts, the plain, serene forms of Chinese porcelain such as this bowl could sit more easily within the lavish interiors favoured in eighteenth century France.
The bowl was probably acquired by the future George IV before 1812. George IV was a passionate collector, with a particular eye for porcelain of both European and Far Eastern manufacture. In Europe Chinese and Japanese porcelain was often embellished with gilt-bronze, or silver, mounts to reflect and enhance its high status in the luxury goods market of the day. Although this bowl was already mounted when George IV acquired it (along with many other French decorative arts in the wake of the French revolution), it is a tradition he upheld with many other pieces in the collection.
Chinese and Japanese Works of Art in the collection of Her Majesty The Queen is currently the subject of extensive research, to be published as a catalogue raisonne. The removal of the mounts was necessary for cleaning and conservation but also allows a more in depth examination of the individual components of the piece.
A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, 'The Music Lesson'
A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman entered the Royal Collection in 1762 as a work by Frans van Mieris the Elder owing to a misreading of the signature. Indeed, the name of the artist was not correctly identified until 1866 by Théophile Thoré. During the late seventeenth century the picture had been in collections in Delft, Vermeer’s home town, including that eventually sold on 16 May 1696 by Jacob Dissous which had twenty-one paintings by the artist - the largest group of such works assembled by a single individual. A lady at the virginal was subsequently acquired by the Venetian artist, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, in 1718 either in Amsterdam or The Hague. Pellegrini’s collection was bought by Consul Joseph Smith, who in turn sold his own collection to George III. By such a route did one of the greatest Dutch pictures in the Royal Collection arrive and to a certain extent the initial oversight regarding its importance has been more than adequately compensated for by the amount of scholarly attention that it now receives.
Paintings by Vermeer - of which there are only thirty-four - are difficult to date and any chronology has to be based on an interpretation of style and complexity of composition. A lady at the virginal was undoubtedly painted during the 1660s, but it is not possible to be more specific although there is at present a consensus of c.1662-4. The composition is characterised by the rigorous use of perspective to draw the eye towards the back of the room where the figures are situated - the young woman rather surprisingly seen from the back. The viewer is at first more aware of the jutting corner of the table, the chair and the bass viol than of the figures themselves, whose privacy is thereby protected. The back of the room, dominated by the virginal comparable with those made by Andreas Ruckers the Elder, is like a grid of verticals and horizontals into which the figures are carefully locked. Light is admitted through the windows on the left and fills the room, casting only soft, subtle shadows. A striking feature of the composition in this part is the mirror on the wall where the slightly blurred reflections include the young woman’s face, part of the table and the legs of an artist’s easel. The implication of this glimpsed easel is that Vermeer shares the same space as the figures he is depicting, but as a result of this artifice he is also, like the viewer, standing outside that space. In fact, as Alpers has observed, Vermeer’s composition is based on exclusion. Many of the elements, particularly at the back of the room, are seen only partially, as though indicating ‘the appearance of the world as ungraspable’.
The inscription on the lid of the virginal, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’ It suggests that it is the relationship between the man and the young woman that is being explored by the artist, but what stage that relationship has reached is impossible to say. The fact that there are two musical instruments implies shared pleasures and a potential harmony, which is also indicated by the rapt expression on the man’s face as he listens to the young woman or sings as she plays on the virginal.
The mood of the present interior by Vermeer is created as much by the careful selection of so few objects as by the confrontation of the two figures in whose plight, in the words of Lawrence Gowing, ‘there rests, as gentle as the air itself, an allegory of liberty and bondage, an allegory, as the inscription informs us, of the pleasure and melancholy of love’.
Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour
This small painting was copied by the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput for Charles II from the life-size mural on the wall of the Privy Chamber in Whitehall which was painted by Holbein for Henry VIII in 1537. The wall-painting was destroyed by the fire at Whitehall Palace on 4 January 1698 and this painting is the only complete record of the mural. Holbein's original cartoon for the left half of the composition is in the National Portrait Gallery.
The mural aimed to show Henry VIII’s right to hold the throne by emphasising his line of descent. Henry’s father, Henry VII, had won the throne in battle in 1485, so Henry was only the second king of the new Tudor dynasty and his position was far from secure. In this painting, Holbein set out the King’s claim to the throne. Henry VIII is shown at the far left of the picture, standing confidently with his hand on his hip and facing the viewer. Behind him stands his father, Henry VII, from whom he inherited the crown. To the right can be seen Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, emphasising Henry VIII’s descent from the rival Yorkist line and presenting him as the uniter of the two dynasties. To the right foreground can be seen Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who was probably, when the painting was made, pregnant with Henry’s son Edward VI. At the centre of the picture is not another figure, but a monument, inscribed with text. This proclaims Henry VII to have been a great king, but Henry VIII to be greater still.
The original wall painting was commissioned by Henry VIII from his court artist Hans Holbein the Younger in 1537. It was painted in his palace of Whitehall in central London. The Holbein painting was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall in 1698 but its appearance is recorded in an oil painting made by Remigius van Leemput for Charles II (also in the Royal Collection), and in this early eighteenth-century watercolour, a copy after van Leemput’s piece. One of Holbein’s cartoons for the mural, for the figure of Henry VIII, is in the National Portrait Gallery.
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