ART / Lifestyles of the rich and famous: A new show at the Queen's Gallery casts Gainsborough and Reynolds in a new light, and prompts republican thoughts

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The Independent Culture
THE CODE of the Windsors decrees that exhibitions taken from the royal collection are not attributed to the people responsible for them. Indeed, the catalogue of the show now at the Queen's Gallery, 'Gainsborough and Reynolds: Contrasts in Royal Patronage', comes with the inscription ' 1994, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II', as though the Queen herself had the idea, made the selection, compiled the scholarly entries, wrote the historical essay and supervised the hang.

In fact this show is the work of Christopher Lloyd, the excellent Surveyor of The Queen's Pictures. Lloyd has been in this post since 1988 and his position at Buckingham Palace is still a little odd. On the one hand he is a royalist and an anonymous servant of the Queen. On the other he is a respected scholar and an expert, among other things, on the republican and anarchist background of the Pissarro family. Lloyd wants to make the royal collection more accessible. Yet the more he puts the Queen's pictures before her subjects the more cries go up that such paintings ought to be permanently on view; preferably in the National Gallery and in rooms or a new extension donated by the Crown.

Such was the response to Lloyd's first major exhibition as Surveyor, 'The Queen's Pictures', held in the gloomy National Gallery basement three years ago. It was so obvious that here were great pictures, unknown to most of us, that ought to hang side by side with their counterparts in the national public collection. Now Lloyd has another presentational problem. The Gainsborough and Reynolds show emphasises the inadequacies of the Queen's Gallery. It is cramped, without daylight; and approached via a vulgar souvenir shop that feels quite as large as the art gallery itself.

The marketing enterprise is tawdry, like everything else the public sees of Buckingham Palace. But we are bound to be impressed by the exhibition. I left the show with more respect for Reynolds than I had felt for years. The big Reynolds exhibition at the RA in 1986 emphasised the ways in which we found him wanting. He appeared repetitious, no draftsman, a limited colourist (more than any other major painter, his palette is affected by the colours of furniture, gilt and velour), unable to paint a friend who had genuine personal nobility, Samuel Johnson, and all too attracted by the nobility of birth.

These criticisms still hold, but Lloyd now presents a somewhat different Reynolds, a painter whose dignity is spirited as much as stately. Perhaps the very proximity of royalty fired him. A man who had seen, and inadvertently proved, that the aristocracy was much of a muchness still felt within the aura of a special glory when working near to the Royal Family. And this could be so however much Reynolds felt uneasy about the character, tastes and political purpose of the monarch. All kings are symbols as well as people and when Reynolds was at court he felt himself in front of a symbolic eminence. He could paint at a supreme point in society and the history of the nation.

The monarchs behind this show are George III and George IV. The earlier king was, of course, patron of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768, but that did not make him more friendly towards Reynolds, the academy's first president. The king found the painter dislikeable. George and his German queen preferred Allan Ramsay and especially Gainsborough, who had no official position at court but was clever and charming while Reynolds was over-serious and perhaps aloof. Gainsborough recalled that he 'talked bawdy' with the king. Reynolds could never have done that.

Gainsborough's large twin portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte are the only paintings in the exhibition that show charm rather than a somewhat grandiose respect. They are quickly painted, clear and deft, with Gainsborough's best crispness of touch. The lighting is not theatrical, as happens in Reynolds's pictures, but natural, shimmering and changeful. The feminine painting is enchanting, that of the king slightly less easy. Charlotte was apparently not a comely woman, and note that her actual features occupy only a tiny part of this big canvas, and yet every flounce of dress, flutter of foliage or fall of drapery tends towards the enhancement of those features. Here is a social accomplishment in painting that Reynolds never equalled - not that he tried to compete with Gainsborough in such areas.

Superficially, Reynolds is closest to Gainsborough's light manner in his full-length portrait of Frederick, Duke of York, George III's younger son. Lloyd thinks that all the costume part of the picture might be the work of a talented assistant. I'm more curious about the way that court portraiture approached the top military brass of the time. Lloyd correctly mentions that there were other ways of looking at the Duke of York. Gillray's caricatures showed him as a libertine. And his name, resonant from childhood, makes one wonder about the ordinary soldiers in his command.

Reynolds was better with the Marquess of Granby. Here is a highly posed picture, but still it is super, and we feel the existence of his unfortunate but loyal men, veterans of the Seven Years' War. Poor lads they were, raised for Granby's regiment from Suffolk fields where they had scarcely heard of France. Off went Jack the Ploughboy with a shilling, to the noise of a whistle and with the thought of a scarlet uniform. Years later back comes to the village John the soldier, prematurely aged, sucking a clay pipe, not a penny better off and minus a leg - and then this John opens a little ale-house and calls it after his old commander, whose kindnesses to the infantry he remembers. So to this day we have the very many pubs dedicated to the marquess, and this is no bad thing.

I mention pubs and infantrymen for their own interest, also because this exhibition, fine though it is, cries out for light and air from the ordinary world. Not only is the Queen's Gallery oppressive, after a time one becomes stifled by the atmosphere of custom and convention within the art. So it's pleasant to consider paintings that had little connection with the court. One of them is Gainsborough's portrait of the musician Johann Christian Fischer, who was the artist's son-in-law. Another is Reynolds's picture of the actor David Garrick in a scene from a Ben Jonson play. This painting entered the royal collection not as a commission but because George IV bought it at a sale in 1812.

He purchased a lot of other pictures, too; and had done so since he was in his twenties and was Prince of Wales. As prince, regent and as king he gave Reynolds his fair dues - something his father had never done. I cannot, however, tell whether he truly had superior taste, and on the whole doubt it. In the exhibition are some curious and rather unpleasant enamel paintings by Henry Bone that are reduced copies of Reynolds's rare erotic subjects. These George IV hung in his private bedroom. Three other copies are of great interest, though not quite related to the main theme of the exhibition. They are an Etty after Reynolds, a Gainsborough after Rembrandt and a Reynolds after Van Dyck. Also on display are some high-quality mezzotints, books and manuscripts from the royal library and miscellaneous material relating to the early days of the Royal Academy.

Queen's Gallery, SW1, 071-799 2331, to 22 Dec.