Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

 Some of “the greatest paintings in Britain” hang within the confines of a single room, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. This is Buckingham Palace’s hallowed Picture Gallery, a space which boasts dozens of Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces by the likes of Vermeer, Rubens and Titian, not to mention “an entire wall of Rembrandts”. Without even factoring in the rest of the royal family’s vast holdings of art, its contents constitute one of the world’s most astonishing collections. 

Now that the gallery itself is undergoing renovations, some of its “finest canvases” have been moved to the nearby Queen’s Gallery for a display that allows us to delight in a treasure trove normally on public view only when the Palace hosts its annual summer opening. Bringing together 65 deathless works amassed over the centuries, the show brims with “magnificent art” from Venetian canal scenes to Dutch portraiture to van Dyck’s “greatest work”, his portrait of a grieving Thomas Killigrew (1638). It’s disgraceful, actually, that we don’t get to see these masterpieces more often. 

The “sheer volume of knockout paintings” here is extraordinary, said Nancy Durrant in the London Evening Standard. The works are hung “unconventionally low”, allowing for a wonderfully intimate viewing experience. It allows you to get close to the “intricacy of the shiny, discarded armour” in David Teniers the Younger’s The Drummer (1647), and the “exquisite” rendering of light in Vermeer’s timeless The Music Lesson (c.1660); and to witness the “energy” of the children depicted at play in Gonzales Coques’s The Family of Jan-Baptista Anthoine (1664). I have never seen Canaletto’s views of Venice – a whole wall of them – “look this good”. And that’s before you get to the Rembrandts. His “sensational” 1642 Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap is so viscerally realised that you could swear the artist’s likeness was “breathing”. We learn much about the tastes of the various monarchs who built up this hoard, said Jackie Wullschläger in the FT. Oddly, there seems to be an “inverse relationship between statesmanship and collecting”. 

While Queen Victoria, a “revered ruler”, displayed “awful” taste, the legendarily “incompetent” Charles I had a wonderful eye, acquiring treasures like Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613). Similarly, the “extravagant, feckless sensualist” George IV was a brilliant collector, acquiring Dutch Golden Age paintings including Jan Steen’s A Woman at her Toilet (1663) and Pieter de Hooch’s Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room (1658). Best of all are his five Rembrandts: The Shipbuilder and his Wife (1633) has its eponymous spouse “bursting in on her irritated husband”, while his 1641 likeness of merchant’s wife Agatha Bas is a “radical psychological portrayal” of an “energetic, independent middleclass woman”. They are highlights of a stunning exhibition in which “every work is the best of its kind”.