Five extraordinary masterpieces from the Royal Collection

Art historian and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon fronts a new BBC4 series about the largest private art collection in the world

Royal Collection, BBC Pictures, SL

Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard c1595—1600

Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard c1595—1600 (Royal Collection Trust, EH)
Royal Collection Trust

Queen Elizabeth I must have liked Hilliard’s work. He clearly participated with her in the creation of these royal images, which had a very specific political purpose. The Catholic veneration of saints and other religious images had been done away with by the Reformation and with this portrait Elizabeth is very cunningly saying, “If you are going to have an image of anybody it has to be me”. This tiny image, painted on a piece of vellum the size of a baby’s hand, is very powerful. If you were in Elizabeth’s circle it might be helpful if you were to bow to the queen and your shirt were to fall open to reveal an image of her based on this portrait.

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Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger c1526—27

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger c1526—27
Royal Collection Trust

Is there a better drawing than Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chancellor? It’s as if we are looking through a glass into a piece of history and holding our breath. More and his circle brought the Flemish artist to England and then Henry took him up. Things certainly went wrong for More [he was beheaded in 1535] and Holbein displeased the king when he painted Anne of Cleves before her marriage to Henry and made her look better than she did in real life. But Holbein redeemed himself with his great portraits of the king – he created brand Henry.

The Prince of Wales’s Phaeton by George Stubbs 1793

The Prince of Wales’s Phaeton by George Stubbs 1793 (Royal Collection Trust, EH)
Royal Collection Trust

I think of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, as a Toad of Toad Hall character, tearing around country lanes going, “Poop-poop!” This is simply George saying to Stubbs: paint me a picture of, as it were, my wonderful car. In the classical world phaeton was the chariot of the sun, so it was code for an extremely fast vehicle – George is driving the Ferrari California of the day. But what I really enjoy about the picture is George’s absence. The grooms are waiting for him to turn up, like F1 mechanics in the pit waiting for the driver to arrive; the difference being that the driver is actually the Prince Regent – the big boss – and they’ve got to be on their best behaviour.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1633

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1633 (Royal Collection Trust, EH)
Royal Collection Trust

Charles’s father, James I of England and VI of Scotland, wrote a memo to his young son, “You are a little God. Rule over other men like a God,” and when Charles became king, he took that memo completely seriously. In this extraordinary equestrian portrait, Charles wants to be portrayed as a great European monarch. The horse stands for the people that the ruler controls and Charles is accompanied by his equerry, who’s helped him to master this type of riding. Of course, we know what is going to happen – Civil War, Cromwell, execution – but Charles believed in Van Dyck’s picture, just as he believed his father’s memo, and that was his tragedy.

Queen Victoria by Prince Albert c1840

Queen Victoria by Prince Albert c1840 (Royal Collection Trust, EH)
Royal Collection Trust

This is a very touching pencil sketch of Victoria by Albert that dates from the year they were married. More than any other royal couple, as far as we know, they really did love each other. They let each other know that fact, and this picture lets us know it as well. For some monarchs, like Henry, Elizabeth and Charles, art was a way of expressing their power, but for Albert and Victoria art, and talking and thinking about art, was really how they fell in love in the first place. In one of her letters Victoria remarks how they sat on a sofa and talked about painting. Victoria would even give Albert rather risqué pictures of lots of naked ladies. As if to say, “I want to keep you in touch with your sexy side, Albert.”

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Art, Passion and Power: the Story of the Royal Collection is on Tuesday 16th January at 9pm on BBC4