Did you know that you can go to Buckingham Palace without an invitation? Most people don’t realize that The Queen’s Gallery is part of Buck House: you buys your ticket and they lets you in (the price of the ticket includes the use of the excellent loos, as well). And if you’re only going to the gift shop (the best in London – I’m told the dark marmalade is terrific) you don’t even need to buy a ticket. It’s probably the best tourist deal in London, especially until 31 October, as the entire Gallery is until then devoted to a special show called Victoria & Albert: Art & Love.
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.
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.
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.
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