A sparkling exhibition that’s fit for a queen

Deborah Clarke holds a jewel box and in front of a portrait of Prince Albert's pet greyhound
Deborah Clarke holds a jewel box and in front of a portrait of Prince Albert's pet greyhound
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NOT even Mastercard could cover it ... the new exhibition about to open at the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood Palace is, quite literally, priceless.

From diamond encrusted Fabergé eggs and precious jewellery, to works of art by Rubens, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, the collection of works – some never seen in Scotland before – represents a celebration of the arts for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

While the pieces have been brought together from across the centuries, the exhibition itself has taken three years to conceive, plan and finally hang in the blue-walled gallery.

And while there are marvellous portraits, miniatures, clocks and candelabra, ornaments and jewellery, it is the odd items which capture the eye and imagination. Objects such as a silver-gilt nautilus shell, a chair made from the beams of Robert Burns’ parish church in Alloway inlaid with brass and etched with the words of his famous poem “Tam O’Shanter”, and – most strikingly – a marble bust of a William III’s black manservant.

But it’s a miniature of Prince Alfred wearing a black tie – on display for the first time – which has been arousing the greatest interest. Queen Victoria’s second son, later to become Duke of Edinburgh after she recreated the title specifically for him, was painted by Kenneth MacLeay 148 years ago.

But according to correspondence between artist and monarch, she was unamused that his tie was initially white and asked for it to be changed. She also didn’t like the Prince’s pale complexion and also considered his eyelashes to have been painted too lightly.

MacLeay at first overruled the queen’s request writing to Victoria: “The Queen will observe that I have done the miniature in a black handkerchief at Her Majesty’s command, but on again seeing the large picture (as it was painted in a white tie by the Queen’s desire at first, and all the arrangements in accordance & with reference to the white) that it would quite spoil it to put it in a black handkerchief – in which opinion the president & all the members of the Royal Scottish Academy who have seen it, entirely concur, I have left it white.”

The Queen was not for turning. Her response, written in pencil on the reverse of the artist’s note, said: “The Queen does not like this miniature as well as the original and she wishes Mr MacLeay to alter it by and large.”

The pieces, selected by gallery curator Deborah Clarke for the exhibition “Treasures from The Queen’s Palaces”, span the reigns of every monarch from Charles I to Queen Elizabeth II as well as nine royal residences, and she admits that choosing just what should be displayed to mark the Jubilee – and the gallery’s tenth birthday – has been a fascinating, if mammoth, task. Only yesterday the final touches were being made to the lighting before the doors open to the public this Friday.

“We first thought about it three years ago, and it’s taken this length of time for it all to come together,” says Deborah. “People always come in to galleries, take a look, and then leave and never realise the work that’s involved. But this has been a fantastic exhibition to pull together – it was like being a child in a sweet shop, there are just so many marvellous works from which to choose.

“We wanted to cover the full breadth of the collection, all the different kinds of work – not just paintings. At the same time we wanted to cover some of the major collectors like Charles I, George IV and Queen Victoria ... it reflects the tastes of members of the Royal Family over the generations. And, of course, we wanted to show works which had never been seen in Scotland before. People might know some of them if they’ve been to Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace, but they’ve never been together like this in one place before.”

As well as the miniature of Alfred, there’s one of Mary Queen of Scots, along with a brooch said to have been owned by the unfortunate monarch as well as a necklace and earrings which she is believed to have given to her lady-in-waiting Mary Seton, which was later acquired by Queen Mary, wife of King George V. Then there’s the “embroidered” Fabergé mosaic egg – decorated with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, topaz, garnets and of course gold and platinum.

Originally an Easter gift to the wife of Tsar Nicholas – and containing a rare miniature of their five children (later executed during the Russian Revolution) – the egg came to the Royal Collection as a birthday present, again for Queen Mary.

In fact, a whole case is stuffed with works by Fabergé, including a notebook in which Victoria recorded guests at her diamond jubilee celebrations in 1897 as well as their signatures, and yet another glass case is full of jewelled swords from India while the crown of the last Indian Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, sits in splendid, solid gold, isolation.

Among the most celebrated of portraits in the Royal Collection is Rembrandt’s “Agatha Bas”, painted in 1641, which was bought, says Deborah, by the most prolific collector in British royal history – George IV.

“Charles I started the whole collection and he was a real connoisseur of art, of older and contemporary artists of his day, which is why we have Rubens and Van Dyck. But when he was executed the collection was dispersed. Many other monarchs, most specifically Charles II, started to buy pieces back.

“But George IV was a big collector across the board. He loved fine jewellery, French and German porcelain and French furniture.

“He had a real all-consuming passion for collecting and interior decoration, and his additions to the collection at all levels and in all areas completely transformed the Royal Collection.”

These days the Royal Collection concerns itself with acquiring pieces which fill a historical gap in the story of the British monarchy, but Deborah says, it is the current Queen who has done most to make the works more accessible to the public.

“While past monarchs collected, the present Queen has been more interested in showing what has been collected,” she says. “Which is why this gallery exists in the first place and why very few works are hidden from view.

“They will all be on show at a Royal residence somewhere – bringing the best together like this just shows the breadth of the collection.”

• Treasures from The Queen’s Palaces opens at the Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood Palace on March 16 and runs until November 4. Tickets cost £6/£5.50 conc/£3 for under 17/under fives go free. For more information visit www.royalcollection.org.uk or call 0131 556 5100

A decade of art

AS well as celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the exhibition also marks the tenth anniversary of the Queens’ Gallery itself.

Built in the shell of the former Holyrood Free Church and Duchess of Gordon’s School, the £3m Gallery was built to celebrate the Golden Jubilee back in 2002.

It provides purpose-built, state-of-the-art facilities to enable a programme of changing exhibitions of the most delicate works of art from the Royal Collection to be shown in Scotland — many for the first time.

The first exhibition to be held there saw the biggest-ever collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s work on display in Edinburgh, while the Faberge collection has also previously been a major exhibition.