The Queen Mother has been the most important royal collector since the early years of Victoria’s reign. Although most of her art treasures are little known to outsiders, they are now unveiled in an important new book by John Cornforth. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at Clarence House published last month by Michael Joseph (£20), offers a tour of a palace that is never opened to the public.
For the first time, the full extent of The Queen Mother’s magnificent collection can be seen. Mr Cornforth’s book is “authorised”, and therefore suitably discreet. For our profile of The Queen Mother as a collector, we have supplemented his account with some additional research.
The story begins in 1908, when at the age of eight the young Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon acquired a pair of antique angels. She bought them in Bordighera, after bargaining and eventually getting them for three lire. The angels were later mounted on a Renaissance-style painted bedhead designed by Italian artist Riccardo Meacci for Elizabeth’s marriage in 1923 to the Duke of York. Although Cornforth does not say so, it seems that The Queen Mother still sleeps under the protective gaze of her two winged companions. In his book, the bedhead has been photographed against green-and-gold wallpaper, and the same paper is seen in another photo which shows a painting hanging in her bedroom.
Elizabeth first became interested in art during her visits to Florence before World War I. It was then that she would stay with her grandmother Caroline Scott and aunt Violet Cavendish-Bentinck at the Villa Capponi. These two cultured ladies opened her eyes to Italian Renaissance painting. According to Mr Cornforth, The Queen Mother “still talks of being taken by her aunt to look at pictures in the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace—with a thimble full of vermouth afterwards”.
The Queen Mother has two Italian Old Masters given by her grandmother. Raffaelino del Garbo’s tondo “The Madonna and Child with St John” hangs above the fireplace in her bedroom at Clarence House. “The Madonna and Child” of about 1460, by the Master of the Castello Nativity, is in the Garden Room.
It was not until Elizabeth’s husband became King George VI in 1937 that she really caught the collecting bug. It was then that she bought the only two Impressionist pictures ever acquired by a British royal collector. Sisley’s “The Seine at St Cloud” was purchased in 1939, and Monet’s “Study of rocks” was bought in 1945, on the recommendation of portrait painter Sir Gerald Kelly. Both works are believed to have come through Wildenstein. Her other important French picture is Fantin-Latour’s “Azaleas and pansies”, left to her in 1968 by a friend, Audrey Pleydell Bouverie.
But the main artists which the Queen bought were British. Sickert was a favourite. “Ennui”, an oil study for the picture now at the Tate, was acquired in 1941. “Conversation piece at Aintree”, depicting George V and his stud manager, had originally been turned down as a gift by Glasgow Art Gallery and the Tate, as well as by George VI, but it was finally bought by The Queen at Christie’s in 1951 (£105).
One of The Queen Mother’s most interesting pictures is Augustus John’s portrait of George Bernard Shaw, apparently asleep. Entitled “When Homer nods”, it was purchased in 1938. The Queen Mother also commissioned a portrait of herself which was begun the following year. John was very nervous at the sittings, and was able to work properly only after a stiff drink. Once The Queen realised this, she thoughtfully ensured that a bottle of brandy was kept in the cupboard where John stored his paints. Despite this lubrication, progress was slow and work was eventually halted by the Blitz. The unfinished portrait was then hidden away by the artist, and only rediscovered after his death in 1961. It was bought as a gift for The Queen Mother, and presented when she launched a ship on Tyneside.
With the onslaught of the Battle of Britain, and amidst fears that Windsor would be bombed, The Queen commissioned John Piper to paint a set of fifteen watercolours of the castle in 1941. The commission, for which Piper was paid £150, was organised with the encouragement of Sir Kenneth Clark, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. Some of the dramatically illuminated scenes of the castle and grounds still hang in the original utility mouldings used during the war.
The artist most widely represented at Clarence House is Edward Seago, who was introduced to The Queen in 1948. They soon became friends and he often gave her a picture for her birthday. His “Holkham Beach”, depicting the coast near Sandringham, now hangs in The Queen Mother’s bedroom. Seago also became a close friend of both the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, becoming their mentor and encouraging them to paint.
The Queen Mother’s greatest modern work is Nash’s majestic landscape “Vernal Equinox”, bought in 1943 at the Dudley Tooth gallery (see The Art Newspaper No.65, December 1996, p.18). It was acquired at the suggestion of Sir Jasper Ridley, a banker, art-lover, chairman of the Tate and personal friend.
Other twentieth-century purchases include Duncan Grant’s “Still life with Matisse”, Sir William Nicholson’s “Gold jug”, Lowry’s “A Fylde farm”, a John Bratby (unidentified, but described by Mr Cornforth as something of “a shock”) and watercolours by Sir Hugh Casson of royal picnics on Holkham Beach. The Queen Mother also has portraits of herself by Sargent, Gunn, Sorine and Sutherland.
Some of the Clarence House collection is particularly personal. Although not identified in Mr Cornforth’s book, a watercolour which appears to be by Prince Charles hangs next to the fireplace in her Sitting Room. Above it is a portrait of her grandson as a handsome teenager, posed against a stormy sky. Animals are another subject dear to the Queen Mother’s heart. Tucked away at the back of a table in her Sitting Room is a picture of half a dozen royal corgis. Horses get a special area of the house to themselves, the Horse Corridor, and many of the pictures depict the Queen Mother’s own animals and trainers.
The Queen Mother has also acquired historical pictures, although not in great numbers. In 1948, at the Earl of Home’s sale at Christie’s, she bought a studio version of Ramsay’s portrait of George III when Prince of Wales (£630). In 1963 she purchased an early seventeenth century portrait of her ancestor Lady Bowes. Two years later at Sotheby’s sale of the collection of her brother-in-law, Lord Elphinstone, she bought Largillière’s portrait of Prince James Francis Edward and his sister Princess Louisa Maria Theresa (£500).
The Queen Mother’s nineteenth century acquisitions include Winterhalter’s “The presentation of King Louis-Philippe’s grandsons to Queen Victoria”, sold at Sotheby’s in 1947 (£32). The following year she acquired two works by Wilkie. At Sotheby’s she bought an oil sketch for “The entry of George IV into Holyrood” (£48), acquired on the recommendation of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures Anthony Blunt. “The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria” was given to her by Captain Michael Wemyss (in 1964 she bought three studies for the painting). Also in 1948, the Queen purchased Landseer’s unfinished equestrian portrait of Queen Victoria at Christie’s (£399).
“The Eve of St Agnes” by Millais, bought at Christie’s in 1942 (£630), is the only important Pre-Raphaelite painting owned by the royal family. In 1977 The Queen Mother was able to acquire a sketch for the figure in the picture, when it too came up at Christie’s (£2,600).
After her daughter Elizabeth succeeded George VI and moved into Buckingham Palace in 1952, The Queen Mother retired to Clarence House, just across The Mall. Built in 1828 by John Nash, it now has a homely atmosphere created by a mass of accumulated objects, both works of art and more mundane items. Although our profile has focused on pictures, The Queen Mother’s collection includes antique furniture, ceramics, silver, sculptures and antiquities. A typical mark of the Queen Mother’s cosy style is the way she keeps her papers in order: around her desk are a series of quaint wicker baskets which serve as filing trays.
The Queen Mother’s collecting slowed down after the death of George VI, although she continued to buy until the 1960s and has made exceptional purchases since then. As Mr Cornforth explains, “unfortunately prices were rising and the chase was becoming less enjoyable” for her.
Despite this The Queen Mother has already made her mark as the greatest royal collector of paintings for over a century. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria bought relatively little. Edward VII and George V added few pictures to the Royal Collection, and the only contemporary acquisitions were portraits. George VI was never as interested in art as his wife, Queen Elizabeth. In more recent times, their daughter Elizabeth has seldom added paintings to the Royal Collection, although she and Prince Philip make private acquisitions.
The Queen Mother’s significance as a royal collector is underlined by the fact that in her lifetime she has acquired considerably more contemporary British art than the Royal Collection has added in nearly a century and a half. What makes this achievement all the more impressive is that most of her purchases were made between the late 1930s and the late 40s, a relatively short period in her long and full life.
Although The Queen Mother is in remarkably good health for her age, she turns ninety-seven this year and questions inevitably arise about the ultimate fate of her pictures. Although she has occasionally bought a work for the Royal Collection (such as Edward Bower’s “Charles I at his trial”, purchased at Christie’s in 1951), nearly all her paintings have been private acquisitions.
This means that it is therefore entirely up to The Queen Mother what she decides to do. She could leave her pictures to the Royal Collection, bequeath them to museums, give them to family members or friends or, if she so wished, have them sold. If she were, however, to decide to enrich the Royal Collection, it would go a long way towards making up for its neglect of British art in the twentieth century.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘A top collector revealed'