Excuse me, ma'am, they're our pictures

The Royal Collection is not the Queen's art; it belongs to the state, which means you and me
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The Independent Culture
THINGS ARE changing down at Buckingham Palace. The latest news in the long-running saga of the loosening of relations between the court and the public came this week. The Queen's collection of art is to be made more accessible to the general public, with the construction of a new gallery, twice the size of the present one, to be opened in 2002. The new gallery will allow visitors to see many more of the highlights of the collection than before, at a cost of "between pounds 4 and pounds 8 a head".

Well, cor, chase my aunt Fanny round a mulberry bush. Is this supposed to be good news? A few more examples of the colossal royal collection, grudgingly offered to the view for a startlingly steep entrance charge, and we are expected to be grateful?

The Queen's collection of art is a truly astonishing affair; tens of thousands of drawings, paintings, sculptures, objets, treasures from every corner of the world and every imaginable school of art. There are spectacular and famous highlights of the vast hoard - the drawings are a particularly celebrated collection - but it is absolutely stuffed with recondite treasures. It is of incalculable interest and value, but, like an iceberg, remains largely unseen; the small parts of the royal palaces that the public can visit, and the small exhibitions that the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace puts on, can hardly begin to suggest the riches of the collection.

We are always expected to be grateful that the Queen puts any of her art on public display at all. There is no obligation, it is suggested, for a private owner even of a Titian or a Rembrandt to let the public gawp at it, and it is good of the Queen to let us see her private possessions.

And, for most private owners, this would be the case. But the Queen is not a private citizen, and the Royal Collection is not a private collection. For every reasonable purpose, it is a public collection; not the possession of a family, but something belonging to the head of state. It is frankly deplorable that things that have been acquired by, or given to, a head of state solely by virtue of that position should be treated as private property, to be seen in public rarely or not at all.

Take a single example. Last year, the Queen's Gallery exhibited one of the masterpieces of Mogul painting, the Padshahnama. It was being seen more or less for the first time in public; it was possible to exhibit the cycle of paintings because a decision had been made to rebind the volume that contains the work. The volume having been taken apart, the paintings could be separately displayed. I very much doubt whether anyone much, even people quite interested in Mogul painting, had seen the Padshahnama before, and, since it is shortly to be rebound and shoved back on to a shelf in Windsor Castle, whether they will do so again.

But how did the Padshahnama come to be in the possession of the Queen? Well, it was given to George III by the Nawab of Oudh in 1799. I dare say George III was jolly pleased to be given such a nice book, but the idea that he was given it because he was particularly interested in Mogul painting is completely absurd. He was given the fabulous treasure because he was head of a powerful state, and the treasure properly belongs not to his descendants, but to the state itself.

And this is true even when we look at things that were acquired, and not simply donated. In almost every case, the monarch, if he had a taste for art, was in a position to acquire things solely by means of his position. The magnificent collection amassed by Charles I is certainly evidence of his good taste and judgement. But he was still not a private collector, and his powers of acquisition must be put down to the eagerness of others to get paintings into the collection of the King of England, Scotland and Ireland.

There is, frankly, not very much in the Royal Collection that can be regarded as a private possession; not the Faberge jewels; not the Old Master drawings; not the Titian or the Rembrandt; not even the Gainsborough portraits of the children of George III. The present lot are famously uninterested in art, and, really, the present position should be reversed; they should be able to borrow individual items from the collection for their houses, and everything else should be publicly accessible.

This is not the Queen's art, in any rational sense; it belongs to the state, which means it belongs to you. We shouldn't put up with the grudging concession that permits us to see a tiny fragment of these treasures; the whole lot should be in the British Museum or the National Gallery. And then, at any rate, we shouldn't have to pay "between pounds 4 and pounds 8" to have a glimpse of something that was always ours.

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