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The Royal Collection: An Exploration and Brief History

Spanning a vast range of media and movements, the Royal Collection is among the last great collections of European royalty to remain intact today. Boasting over a million objects, it is the largest collection of private art to be found anywhere in the world.  Under the management of the Royal Collection Trust, it is housed across fifteen historic and occupied royal residences, exhibited on a rotating basis in the Queen’s Gallery as part of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and loaned widely in the UK and overseas.

Charles II dancing at a ball at court, 1660 (oil on canvas), Hieronymus Janssens (1624-93) / © Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 / Bridgeman Images

The collection as we know it today started to take shape under Charles I, a passionate collector, but following his execution in 1649, his collection was sold by order of Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, however, after the Restoration of the monarchy, Charles II recovered a number of the works treasured by his father. These form the basis of today’s Royal Collection of paintings; a collection which has been added to by almost every subsequent British monarch, making it a unique record of their personal tastes. 

Charles I’s passion was for Italian and Flemish painters, and these works remain some of the best in the Royal Collection. Take, for example, Artemisia Gentileschi’s now iconic Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c.1638–9).

Self portrait as the allegory of Painting (La Pittura) 1638-39 (oil on canvas), Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-c.1651) / © Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 / Bridgeman Images

Around 1638, Artemisia Gentileschi joined her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in London, at the invitation of Charles I. There, she produced this intelligent, confident and refined self-portrait, in which she identifies herself as the female personification of painting. It is a jewel in the Royal Collection of paintings and remains as evocative as ever.

Artemisia cultivated her rare female celebrity, and an international base of important and affluent collectors, drawn to her artistic ability and unusual status. Today she is celebrated as the best female painter of the 17th century, known through her radical and powerful paintings in an era when few professional artistic opportunities existed for women.

Andrea Odoni, 1527 (oil on canvas), Lorenzo Lotto (c.1480-1556) / © Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 / Bridgeman Images

Charles II, on his return from exile in Europe, was eager to restore the British Crown to its past glories, and set about reinstating his father’s collection. Works such as Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Andrea Odoni (c.1527) and Anthony Van Dyck’s Portrait of Charles I with M. de St Antoine (1633) exemplify this urge, but no work demonstrates Charles II as the rightful King of England more obviously than John Michael Wright’s court portrait of him (c.1671–6). A powerful depiction of a ruler in full pomp, it is not only an outstanding example of the artist's work, but an enduring image of monarchy restored.

Charles II, c.1661-66 (oil on canvas), John Michael Wright (1617-94) / © Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 / Bridgeman Images

Though many contributions were made by subsequent monarchs, the passion for collecting shared by Charles I and his son was not recaptured until the days of George III and George IV. The former acquired many Old Master drawings by baroque artists, and the latter added a stellar collection of Dutch paintings to the Royal Collection. The eponymous work from this period is Vermeer’s Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (c.1660s). The misreading of the artist’s signature led to this painting being acquired in 1762 as a work by Frans van Mieris the Elder, and it was not correctly identified until 1866. Paintings by Vermeer – of which there are only thirty-four known examples world-wide – were then, and continue to be, sought-after for their rigorous use of perspective and exquisite depiction of the fall of light. This example bears all the hallmarks of his remarkable talent. 

A lady at the virginals with a gentleman ('The Music Lesson') c.1662-65 (oil on canvas), Johannes Vermeer,  (1632-75) / © Royal Collection / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2021 / Bridgeman Images

During the reign of Her Majesty The Queen, who next year celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, many works have been added to the Royal Collection, including contemporary pieces from Sir Anish Kapoor, Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol, which were presented to The Queen as part of the Diamond Jubilee Gift from the Members of the Royal Academy of Arts.

So, the Royal Collection lives on and evolves with the times. Today it is held in trust by the Sovereign for the nation and as such is made accessible to the public by being on view in the royal residences, through exhibitions at The Queen’s Galleries in London and Edinburgh and loans to museums and galleries all over the world.

Discover the Royal Collection on Bridgeman Images.

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