Jonathan Marsden: Royal Celebration

Published 1 June 2012

To mark the Diamond Jubilee of the Art Fund's Patron, Her Majesty The Queen, Art Quarterly spoke to Jonathan Marsden, who is Director of the Royal Collection as well as an Art Fund Trustee.

AQ: The Art Fund has worked for over a hundred years to help museums and galleries buy art for everyone to enjoy. The Royal Collection has been in existence far longer. It holds a unique position in British cultural life, as a collection of international importance that is neither entirely private nor entirely public. What is its exact status?

JM: The Royal Collection comprises the entire contents of the royal palaces, including those palaces that are used by the sovereign for official purposes and those that are no longer used in this way, such as Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Osborne, or the Tower of London, and it includes almost every category of art, from antiquities to the work of Lucian Freud. The Collection is held by The Queen in trust for her successors and the nation, and this status has ensured its survival as an entity for longer than any comparable collection.

AQ: The Royal Collection has been accumulated over several centuries and reflects the tastes and interests of successive monarchs. How would you characterise the present reign against that historical background?

JM: It has been one of the most significant reigns in the history of the Collection. The Queen’s Gallery itself is 50 this year. It was founded by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh in July 1962 as a place where people could come and see great works of art from the Collection without the protocol then associated with visiting Buckingham Palace. Of course the Palace itself was opened to the public in 1993, and since then seven million people have been to see the State Rooms.

By 2002, the year of The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, it was time to modernise the Gallery, and the remodelling effectively tripled its size. In the same year an entirely new Queen’s Gallery was inaugurated at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. This year we are staging 18 exhibitions in ten separate locations around the UK.

In this special year, loans from the Royal Collection can be found in unprecedented numbers in exhibitions around the country. We’ve worked over the past two years to prepare some 60 loans for the celebratory exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Royal River, and equally heavy commitments have been made in support of the new presentations at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court.

AQ: In the recent Radio 4 series The Art of Monarchy you described the Royal Collection as existing ‘in its natural habitat’. Do you see a conflict between the approach to displaying the Collection in what are essentially museum or gallery modes - and via the web - with the traditional furnished interiors of the palaces themselves?

JM: There is no doubt that we have a challenge here. What I was seeking to describe in the programme was the value of seeing great works of art that were created for princes still hanging today in the palaces for which they were created, or for which they were collected, and I would even suggest that something is lost when a work is removed from such a setting to a museum. But for this value to be realised the work must be properly visible.

What has been achieved by Historic Royal Palaces at Hampton Court in the last 20 years is exemplary. The rooms have an authenticity and logic that were largely absent in former times. At Windsor Castle we have the challenge of presenting a much older site. As well as functioning as a palace of state, the Castle has been open pretty well every day since 1845, and now receives over a million visitors a year.

AQ: Is the Collection growing to embrace and reflect the art of our time?

JM: I am not as anxious about this as perhaps the curator of a publicly funded museum might be. This is because the Royal Collection has never been formed as a representative collection with examples of every style or period. Many other great institutions have this mission, and the Art Fund has been involved in some hugely enlightened and prescient acquisitions.

The character of the Royal Collection is linked directly to the interests and tastes of its owners at every period in history, and the greatest royal collectors - Charles I and George IV for example - formed their collections not out of duty but through a genuine passion. Museum directors - and the Art Fund of course - are right to prioritise acquisitions as a source of energy and inspiration, but breakthroughs and discoveries by curators and the brilliant work of conservators can be equally energising. To give a striking example: in 1952 the Royal Collection had no recognised works by Caravaggio or Cellini, but there are now respectively two and one, and it seems likely that none of the three re-attributed works arrived in the Collection more recently than the 17th century.

For details of all current and forthcoming Royal Collection exhibitions visit the Royal Collection website.

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