Survey to record Queen’s colossal art collection
Royal Collection’s unprecedented study will check, clean and photograph all 7,564 oil paintings
By Martin Bailey. Conservation, Issue 258, June 2014
Published online: 25 June 2014
Britain’s Royal Collection is to undergo the most ambitious condition survey ever carried out on a major group of paintings. On the eve of the conservation project, The Art Newspaper can give the precise number of paintings for which the collection is responsible: 7,564 works in oil. This is the first time that the number has been confirmed in the past 500 years. The works will all be condition-checked and properly photographed, and images of most of the paintings will be published online, revealing for the first time the extent of the world’s greatest private collection.
The Painting Condition Survey is due to begin this summer with the “lesser” palaces—Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Sandringham in Norfolk and Balmoral in Scotland. A team of four conservators and frame technicians will move systematically through each of the royal residences, room by room. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, says that the paintings will be taken off the wall, one by one, and removed from their frames. This will be a complex logistical exercise, since the pictures hang in 13 royal residences throughout the UK.
This is the first time that the Royal Collection will be fully photographed. Around 750 of the paintings belong to the personal collections of members of the royal family, such as the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. A further 300 or so are modern works that were given to the Queen and are of marginal importance.
This leaves around 6,500 paintings of artistic significance, including works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Of these, 5,399 are already recorded on the collection’s website; 4,230 are accompanied by images, but a number of these are low-quality, black-and-white photographs, many taken decades ago. So far, 3,840 have been catalogued in detail in a series of scholarly volumes.
It is estimated that there are colour photographs of only around 3,000 paintings in the collection. These tend to be the important works, many of which are on public view. This means that thousands of pictures have only been photographed in the form of black-and-white reproductions and are virtually unknown to the public.
In the event of a disaster, there is a chance that a proper visual record of a destroyed work may not exist. William Beechey’s George III on Horseback, 1798, was the only painting to be lost in the fire that engulfed Windsor Castle in 1992; the work had not been photographed in colour.
After the survey is completed, new images will be posted on the Royal Collection’s website. They will not be put on the Public Catalogue Foundation’s Your Paintings website, which contains more than 200,000 paintings from public collections in the UK, because the Queen’s pictures are not publicly owned, but are “private” and held in trust by the monarch for her successors and the nation.
The condition of all 7,564 paintings will be thoroughly examined and the findings recorded, including all inscriptions or markings found on the reverse or sides of the canvases, stretchers and frames. In most cases, the surface of the painting will then be cleaned, along with minor or urgent in situ remedial repairs. Some pictures will be earmarked for more thorough work in the conservation studio. The full extent of this task will become apparent only when the survey gets under way.
The project will initially be funded for three years, but it could take around a decade to complete; this equates to examining roughly three paintings a day. Altogether, the survey will cost many millions of pounds, which will have to come from the income of the Royal Collection Trust. The trust’s earnings primarily come from visitors’ admission fees for the main palaces.
Until now, conservation efforts have concentrated on paintings requiring urgent attention, those considered to be masterpieces and works due to go on loan. The new survey will adopt a broader perspective and will focus on the collection as a whole.
Asked whether there are likely to be any surprises, in terms of discoveries, Shawe-Taylor says: “I would hope so.” The major pictures in the larger palaces have been well-studied, but this is less true of minor works in the back corridors of the lesser palaces. Around 1,700 pictures—nearly a quarter of the collection—are in storage. This is where the real surprises may come, in terms of attributions and subject matter. Shawe-Taylor stresses that even if there are no dramatic reattributions, the task of examining thousands of paintings and creating a database will reveal more about the collecting habits of generations of monarchs.
The Queen’s rivals
With 7,564 paintings, the Queen has by far the largest private collection in the world, and one that rivals the biggest public collections. It is much larger than either of the UK’s most important public collections—those of the Tate (5,300) and the National Gallery (2,300). The three major European collections that are similar to the Royal Collection in terms of size are the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid (7,600) and the Louvre in Paris (9,000). Only the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, with its 16,900-strong collection assembled by the tsars, is larger. No American galleries rival the Royal Collection in terms of size. Precise comparisons are difficult, however, because of different definitions of “paintings”.
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