All in the best possible taste?

They've given us Faberg trinkets and the Windsor knot, but not a lot else. Stephen Bayley regrets the decline of royal patronage
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The Independent Culture
There is an old saying whose abrupt coarseness rather suggests a fundamental correctness. "Why does a dog lick its balls? Because it can." Why would anyone collect Faberg? Well, there you are.

An understated, but sumptuous, exhibition of the Royal Collection's remarkable hoard of 500 or so examples of the jeweller Carl Faberg's exquisite objets de vertu will draw gasps of anile admiration from gawping grannies, but in all its insolent luxury the work itself has a horrible emptiness beneath its lustre. It shows an interest in technique for its own sake and trades on an exhausting expertise. It represents a false sophistication. Of course it is "difficult" to fabricate a mosaic egg of gold, platinum, enamel and precious stones. One only wishes it were impossible. What can be said of a six-inch-high dormouse made of chalcedony with cabochon sapphire eyes, platinum whiskers and gold straws (bought by Queen Alexandra from Faberg's London shop in 1911 for £33) except that it is a prototype for every hateful trinket that pollutes middle-class mantelpieces?

The display excites irreverent questions about the here-and-now of Royal taste. Faberg was the St Petersburg craftsman who, through his work for the Danish Royal and Russian Imperial families, became a darling of the House of Windsor which, over the generations, has collected his work energetically. Now that the Royal Collection no longer actively acquires, a new exhibition of this late Imperial luxury pulls into bright focus the curious position of the Royal Family with respect to art.

What has been the Royal Family's most distinctive contribution to taste this century? So far, probably the Windsor knot, the opulent double fastening for ties, developed by George V, which Edward VIII, popularised in the mid-Thirties. Somehow evocative of luxury and languor, the generous, relaxed character of the Windsor knot is a diagram of the Royal psyche: confident, assertive yet relaxed.

Not for British civilisation the Isfahan of Shah Abbas or Peter the Great's Baltic capital, nor the flashy Versailles. We do not even have a national dish, no dynastic equivalent of boeuf stroganoff. The virtues of our civilisation are smaller.

The astonishing truth is that, excepting the German Prince Albert, the last member of a British Royal family to exercise heroic gestures of taste in the national interest was Charles II, who oversaw Christopher Wren. Even then the architect's plans for the reconstruction of London, which included a vast central piazza with ambitious radiating roads, were abandoned. Instead we got St Paul's and 51 other churches, a pleasant consolation for the devastation of the Great Fire, but evidence none the less of a certain reluctance towards the grand gesture. Royal timidity in this area is only one expression of a dogged sense of practicality, not to say philistinism, which seems to affect British sensibilities. Our very first museum, the Ashmolean, grew out of a collection of natural history rather than fine art. The British Museum is based on Sir Hans Sloane's bizarre and eclectic collection of curios. Today, the Royal Family (and all the legions of headscarved, quilted jackets who would imitate them) remain more comfortable with animals than with ideas. The Faberg exhibition contains not only a dormouse, but countless elephants, chickens, cockatoos, frogs, pigeons and even a koala bear.

The House of Windsor, despite its vast wealth, has founded no universities, no libraries, no galleries. It has commissioned no great architecture. In fact it has commissioned no architecture of any sort, since the Prince of Wales's nascent scheme at Poundbury in Dorset, a cluster of twee carbuncles, can better be described as "building". Scarcely distinguishable from the lowest sort of "executive", tile-hung, two-car garage development, Poundbury trades on a national inclination towards kitsch.

Poundbury is curiously eloquent of royal taste, not in the sense of its superficial mimsiness, but in its fundamental triumph of content over form and in its escape from the present. It is, while a rare and welcome act of royal patronage, to use the sociologist Herbert Gans's expression, "low culture" and disappointing given the Prince of Wales's happily high- minded approach to the spiritual and moral side of life. But in a sense it is unreasonable to expect the Royal Family to have taste, something the Queen herself acknowledged in the decorator Nicky Haslam's anecdote. When Her Majesty was asked her opinion about taste, she said: "Taste? I don't think it helps." Taste is in fact a middle-class refinement, a development of the 19th century. Only when consumerism became an option for a huge middle class raised from subsistence by the industrial revolution did the exercise of choice or discretion become an issue.

For the Royal Family, consumer choice has, of course, never been an option. They are not, to adapt Alan Clark's comment on Michael Heseltine, the sort of people who buy their own furniture. On the contrary, the family has a tradition of redistributing heirlooms as wedding presents. For their 1973 wedding, Princess Anne and Capt Mark Phillips received a Chippendale desk from Prince Philip, a butler's table and a chest of drawers from the Duke of Gloucester and a cute little nest of tables from Prince Andrew. This hermetic ritualised system tends to enforce established taste by genetic drip. To be fair, some discrimination is exercised. For objects too hideous to be accommodated ashore, a new home is found at sea on the Royal yacht Britannia, a floating palace of kitsch with Ethiopian racing saddles, Yemeni dish-dashes, Moroccan bongos and aboriginal art.

With its splendid catalogue of ancient properties, it is perhaps unsurprising that the House of Windsor displays taste that is conservative where it is not lugubrious. Magnificent real estate tends to encourage aesthetic lethargy. Buckingham Palace is sumptuously Victorian and inhuman in scale, quite unsusceptible to exhilarating change; Windsor, a medievalist's fantasy; Sandringham an impossibly grand country house; Balmoral a Scottish castle and St James' Palace a close reproduction of the furniture floor of Peter Jones. No wonder that the single noteworthy building made with royal money this century, the Duchess of York's M4 hacienda at Sunninghill, was such an embarrassment.

It has always surprised me that the Prince of Wales does not more openly identify with his most distinguished ancestor, Prince Albert. Not in the sense of Arnold Bennett's wicked remark that "Albert had a lot of taste, all of it bad" (one imagines Bennett had seen the tartan linoleum that Albert specified for Balmoral), but that Victoria's husband was a man of vision and commitment, a genuine tastemaker not in his choice of tie- knot but in the way he used his ideas, energy and influence to change national destiny. You sense in Prince Charles's every recent pronouncement (including the notorious Mansion House speech of 1987, when he spoke of his desire for "an environment of character and charm"), a longing to be an arbiter of taste. It is clear that both in personal style, where he enjoys the robust masculinity of Turnbull & Asser shirts or Aston Martin cars, and in his own water-colours (which only the churlish would deny are extraordinarily proficient), Prince Charles is struggling to define an authentically personal taste.

The Bolsheviks shut Faberg's workshops, and it's not hard to see their point, since expensive ornaments offend the utilitarian mind. There is neither aesthetic nor practical justification for an agate cockatoo on a silver-gift perch, suspended on an enamelled green pole, with olivine eyes and gold claws. Art for the Bolsheviks had a social purpose, what Stalin described as "engineering of the soul". It is curious that Prince Charles' mission for social utility in art brings Royal Taste full circle.

I imagine he would be ashamed of Faberg. n The Faberg exhibition is at the Queen's Gallery, London SW1 to 7 Jan 1996. Entrance £3.50 (concs £2 / 2.50)

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