what really appeals to the Lowry buyer monarch who once said “I have no taste”?
When the heavy crown of England weighed upon her on that coronation day in 1953, Elizabeth Windsor was transfigured into a dynastic icon. As with its Elizabethan namesake, a sphinx-like inscrutability has cloaked it ever since. We know no more of his private tastes or aesthetic preferences than the horses and scarves and Balmoral heather, electric heaters and crimson rugs spotted in photographs and television appearances.
The superb royal collection of paintings, sculptures and palaces forms the backdrop and fabric of its daily life. Most of the more than 5,550 acquisitions made during his reign and listed in the trust’s archives consist of gifts and random presentations from foreign and British dignitaries: a basket from Tonga in 1954, a jar of grain from Canada. The Queen reportedly said that, while the Prince of Wales bemoans their quantity and quality, “I have no taste so I’m delighted.” But his own purchases remain almost completely uncharted territory.
“If everything you’ve heard is true, you’d think the culmination of his artistic desire should be Stubbs, but maybe it’s Sir Alfred Munnings?” speculates style commentator Peter York
“If everything you’ve heard is true, you’d think the culmination of his artistic desire should be Stubbs, but maybe it’s Sir Alfred Munnings?” speculates style commentator Peter York. Her beloved royal servant “Crawfie” (Marion Crawford) tells us that Princess Elizabeth played horses obsessively and has been preoccupied with racing, herding and riding ever since. Thus, New Zealand, America and Canada offered him small equestrian bronzes. Slovenia did too, pairing their gift with a live Lipizzaner stallion in 2008. Munnings designed miniatures for the dining room of Queen Mary’s Dollhouse in the 1930s, and two of his magnificent Stubbs form the backdrop to a rather fine oil painting of the Queen lunching at Windsor painted by Prince Philip in 1965. But his own purchase that year – discovered by Arnold Machin after she asked him with casually her opinion of the artist during a seated portrait for the Royal Mint – was a Lowry, almost the only clue that we must collect her.
The houses arrived ready-made with her work, the first a two-storey cottage the size of Wendy’s house when she was six, a gift from the people of Wales. The throne meant a life split between Buckingham Palace and the slightly more private Windsor Castle (she had hoped to live at Clarence House with the palace as her office). Chatsworth felt like home – she complimented her hostess on one visit – but much cozier.
But on most matters of taste, she delegates. Just as the Prince Consort had done a century before, Philip took charge of their accommodation, starting with the floating palace which was to be the royal yacht. Brittany. The royal couple recruited architect and designer Hugh Casson, the impresario behind the Festival of Britain, with the modernist – if not modernist – agenda of reworking their formal, Edwardian designs for something progressive, relaxed and contemporary, their “home”.
A far cry from his state palaces, the Norfolk mansion of Sandringham and Balmoral Castle in Scotland may represent his unassuming ideal, with brown furnishings, Edwardian field sports and a full complement of servants
“The Queen is a meticulous observer with very precise views on everything from doorknobs to the shape of lampshades,” Casson noted. He became their interior designer of choice, ushering in a lighter, classic country house style at Buckingham Palace, Windsor and Sandringham, which included a guest suite in the Edward III Tower at Windsor showcasing works of contemporary British designers such as ceramicist Lucie Rie. But while the Queen was officially the final arbiter of taste here, everything had been pre-selected by Queen’s Pictures surveyor Philip and Anthony Blunt, while Windsor’s 1992-97 fire restoration was run by a committee that Philip has also chaired. .
A far cry from his state palaces, the Norfolk Manor of Sandringham and Balmoral Castle in Scotland may represent his unassuming ideal, with brown furnishings, Edwardian field sports and a full complement of servants. At Balmoral, a nervous Windsor clergyman recalls a lunch of macaroni and cheese and ground meat, and when Machin took her portrait there, he saw her knitting after supper, surrounded by her friends and Scottish cousins. A silver tin of dog biscuits sat in front of his plate; at royal picnics, lady-in-waiting Anne Glenconner would watch her prepare the salad and do the dishes.
A tray full of tiaras
Instead, the Queen exercises her royal prerogative in the areas where she is most expert: regalia and portraiture. Princess Margaret’s marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon provided her with a superb image maker and photographer, modern medieval pageantry (Prince Charles’ investiture at Caernarvon Castle) and industrial design.
She understands jewelry, crowns and how to style them. Machin recalls trying on a tray of tiaras before her portrait, and she complained to Noël Coward that the overly large investiture crown Garter King of Arms commissioned looked like a candle snuffer on Charles’s head. Cecil Beaton had been her mother’s photographer of choice, but the Queen recognized the genius of Tony Snowdon, retaining his services from the 1950s until long after his divorce.
Machin’s relief portrait for the Royal Mint and his subsequent adaptation for his likeness on postage stamps also appealed to him, as did his sinuous 1970s cameo of Prince Charles and other royal portraits for Wedgwood. But the stamps, with their miniaturized heraldry amounting to a royal logo, have been important since the days of her philatelist grandfather George V. When Tony Benn was her postmaster, she refused the artist and illustrator’s attempt David Gentleman to remove his head entirely from their design. When Gentleman simplified his resemblance to Machin’s profile, Benn spread his designs on the Buckingham Palace carpet for his approval. These are the icon-images that she chooses and thinks about, rather than those created by Lucian Freud, Rolf Harris or Chris Levine.
She complained to Noël Coward that the overly large investiture crown ordered by Garter King of Arms looked like a snuffer on Charles’s head.
Beyond that, those in the know are unwilling or unable to tell – John Betjeman, Hugh Casson, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, all dead, the custodians of her works of art and the waiting intimates who maintain its secrets. Loaded and weighed down by her queen’s ghostly, pompous furnishings and appliances, her designs by Leonardo, Holbeins and Van Dycks, she nevertheless seems an incarnate creature with perfect common sense, both apologetic and “above” taste. We know her as we are allowed to know her, on TV and the coins in our pockets, or fall for the brilliant fantasy figure in Alan Bennett’s dramatic homage, A question of attributionthe queen who only exposes her expert discretion in front of Blunt, her surveyor of images.