Queen Elizabeth II has one of the world’s best art collections. Ten years ago Forbes estimated its value at £10 billion. Surely, it’s worth more now. Spread among 13 royal residences, some of them opened to the public, this collection is held in trust for her nation to enjoy. The total collection is over 1.000,000 objects, including the crown jewels; and Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is probably the most priceless painting among her 7,000.
English monarchs have been collectors for centuries. What they amassed before Charles I, however, is largely unknown. He doted on art, especially Italian, and started the collection that Elizabeth II inherited. She has added 2,500 works during her long reign and 3,000 objects belonging to her are on loan at any time. The collection cannot be sold.
Ruth and I have seen displays of her holdings twice, once in England and last week in Vancouver. The one in Canada is currently on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery but, unfortunately, only until February 4, 2018. It will not go elsewhere. This museum in an old building in downtown Vancouver is one of the best in North America. A new museum that looks like some cheap shipping boxes atop 3 or 4 irregular, glass-encircled levels is being built. It’s scheduled to open at the intersection of West Georgia and Cambie in 2021. The current museum always has 5 or more temporary shows, 2 or 3 of which are very interesting. The museum’s first level usually displays the best one, and, like “Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection”, their bests seldom travel to other museums.
One of VAG’s current 9 shows is “Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection”. In 5 sections, it focuses on self-portraits, paintings of artists by others, and the close relationship that people who paint have had with the British monarchy for hundreds of years. Exhibits like this are regularly shown at The Queen’s Galleries in London. The show at the Vancouver Art Gallery will not appear elsewhere, but you’ll surely have future opportunities to see what she owns.
This show explains that artists’ images began to appear regularly only from the 15th century on. How society viewed artists changed during the Renaissance when artists saw painting themselves as a way to both show their skill and improve their status as more than just artisans. Queen Elizabeth has a vast collection of honest artist images that were never intended to be seen by large audiences. The staring eyes at the top belong to artist David Hockney, the middle one shows The Queen sitting for a Lucian Freud portrait, and the bottom one is a Rembrandt self-portrait, one of 30 such etchings. My favorite of her paintings shows artist Johan Zoffany holding a work by Raphael and probably stifling a laugh as he listens to some well-connected men discussing it.