It concentrates on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's shared passion for collecting, and displays more than 400 assorted items from the Royal Collection, starting from the time of their engagement in 1839 until Albert's death in 1861. Of course it shows Victoria as a passionate, sensual woman, as keen on sex as on music, art, jewellery, clothes and food - but we knew that from reading Lytton Strachey's splendid biography of her. This exhibition, though, challenges the view of her as a melancholy old frump during her 40 years as a widow, and shows her instead as fairly open-minded and still able to take pleasure in art and music.
Of course the big question is taste - did Victoria and Albert have any? Well, of course, this is royal bling. Albert never lost touch with his native land. On 24 May 1843 Victoria wrote in her Journal that "My beloved one had the immense kindness of giving me, what I had so long wished for 12 statuettes, copied in small from Schwantahler's gilt statues in the Throne Room at Munich." Thank goodness he didn't go the whole hog and get full-size replicas. As it is you'll want to wear dark glasses to shield your eyes from the glitter. Her jewellery is also something else. The Timur Ruby Necklace made by R & S Garrard and Sons from about 1853 (and later) has a socking great golf-ball of a pendant ruby cabochon (352.5), flanked by two more ( actually spinels) bigger than a giant's thumb. The big one was sometimes replaced by the Koh-i-nûr diamond, when she was feeling particularly flash.
When it comes to paintings, the organizers say the "the Queen's tastes were more mainstream than her husband's." This is evidences in the Friths, the Winterhalters, some of the Landseers, her own (competent) watercolours, and the hilarious Lord Leighton gargantuan painting of Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession, 1853-5, which Prince Albert bought for her on the opening day of the Royal Academy show of 1855.
Albert's own taste is the revelation of this exhibition. Influenced by his ancestry and by his student days in Florence and Rome, he actually led the revival of interest in "primitive" German and Italian painting. He bought the first Duccio to enter an English collection - his Triptych (1302-8) and he bought the Lucas Cranach the Elder Apollo and Diana (c.1526). The Fra Angelico Madonna of Humility with Angels (c.1440-50) he acquired is now attributed to Zanobi Strozzi (1412-1468), but it's still a lovely piece, and buying it was a coup.
On the other hand, when Albert had a kitsch fit he really went for it. It's worth going to the show if only to see his Italian Renaissance-style centerpiece made by Garrards. It stands 78.5 cm tall and is almost as wide, it is silver gilt with heraldic devices, and every sort of ornamentation; but perched on it, in a platinum hue, are - and you can't believe this when you first see it - four of their pet dogs, most prominently Albert's "devoted" greyhound bitch, Eos. There is much, much more in this vein, but also some exquisite things - on the same right royal scale, such as the beautiful, enormous Indian Throne (c.1850), which seemed to swallow up the tiny Victoria, when she was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877 and chose to be photographed sitting on it.
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