Canalettos go on show at Palace: Masterpieces that escaped the Windsor Castle fire are to be exhibited. Dalya Alberge reports

Dalya Alberge
Thursday 04 March 1993 00:02
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CANALETTO masterpieces that narrowly escaped the fire at Windsor Castle last November go on show tomorrow in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

Although the debate about improving access to the Royal Collection continues to rage, with one source estimating that 80 per cent of the paintings have not been seen by the public (beyond photographic reproductions), the exhibition is not a response to the criticisms.

It is the latest in a series of annual displays which have been held at the Queen's Gallery since the early 1960s and visited by 4.9 million people. However, Jane Roberts, a curator of the Royal Collection, pointed out the irony of the art world's criticism. With some 10,000 pictures, enamels and miniatures, 20,000 drawings, 30,000 watercolours and 500,000 prints, she asked, how much does the public want to see? She said that even though Leonardo and Michelangelo were among Italian Old Master drawings exhibited between August and December, less than 100 people visited each day.

She said that loans were seldom turned down. Christopher Lloyd, surveyor of the Queen's pictures, added that Vermeer's Lady at the Virginals, included in the latest display, 'goes in and out' for loans so often, 'Buckingham Palace is like its hotel'.

The exhibition focuses on some of the finest paintings and drawings purchased by George III in 1762 from Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, who befriended Canaletto, Sebastiano Ricci and many of the great Venetian artists of the day.

Smith was so active in supplying English and European collectors with works of art, he was dubbed the 'Merchant of Venice' by Horace Walpole.

Although London newspapers of 1762 could not have been more accurate when they reported that the purchase would 'make the finest Collection in Europe', George III was less interested in Canaletto, Carracci and Castiglione than in Smith's library of tens of thousands of books and manuscripts. The pictures came with the pounds 20,000 deal.

Although George III sold a few of them in the 1790s, and much of the library was given to the British Museum, in 1823 by George IV, the bulk of Smith's pictures remained in the Royal Collection.

The Palace has emphasised on many occasions that the Queen would not be able to follow their example: she is curator and trustee of the Royal Collection.

A jewel-like miniature, once thought to be a portrait of Shakespeare, sold at Christie's yesterday for pounds 177,500 - more than pounds 100,000 over its top estimate. It broke the record for the artist, Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619). It was bought by a private buyer.

(Photograph omitted)

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