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Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace: a Glimpse into the Royal Artistic Taste

Updated: Feb 18

In the world where folks are constantly looking for the next big thing and seeking guidance from hip influencers it might be a rebellious act to pause and simply admire what was left behind by the history-defining monarchs. I'm not a traditionalist (quite the opposite) but my visit to the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace infused respect for the old times and the Old Masters who tirelessly worked to please their patrons and at the same time to express their individual voices in the societies where anything beyond idealism and modesty used to be inappropriate.

Not amongst the British monarchs though who had a taste for rather bold and even amusing works of art. Current exhibition "Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace" is packed with Italian, Dutch and Flemish paintings acquired by the rulers who considered art to be a form of entertainment, not just a tool for shaping public opinions. In other words, the exhibition is formed of the artworks from the private collection of the palace.

Among other stunning artworks I decided to explore a few pieces that depict natural and supernatural powers in the context of life and death – the subjects that steer the world to this day.

Peter Paul Rubens "Summer: Peasants Going to Market", The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Exhibition review: Peter Paul Rubens "Summer: Peasants Going to Market" (1618)

Colours of the rising sun pull my attention into the painting "Summer: Peasants Going to Market" created by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. I wander through the peaceful landscape and the rolling hills which create an impression of blissful awakening. It would have stayed this way if not for the cattle in action right in the centre of the painting. Indeed, a huge portion of abundant daily life is unfolding in front of the viewer's eyes: not only the animals but also the peasants are moving with purpose.

Impeccably mastered meticulous imitation, even idealisation of the natural world must have attracted Frederick, Prince of Wales's eye as he purchased the artwork in 1747. Who could argue that the rebel of the royal family didn't have a good taste in art bursting with vibrant energy of life?

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens "Summer: Peasants Going to Market", The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Detail of Peter Paul Rubens "Summer: Peasants Going to Market" (1618)

A more private, intimate moment is captured by the Dutch painter Jan Steen in the painting titled "Woman at Her Toilet". The socks have been recently pulled off. The imprints on the calves and distinguished flame of the candle indicate about a long night walk (or is it already dawn outside?).

Clearly, the woman stepped out of her shoes the second she entered her room and the viewer is just a passer-by whose curiosity is slightly intrusive. I wouldn't describe her eyes as alluring – more like directly asking "Why are you staring?". Whoever thinks her gaze is inviting the viewer in, might be looking at her breast which, however, is not exactly a clue to enter.

Jan Steen "Woman at her Toilet", The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Jan Steen "Woman at her Toilet" (1663)

Well, if one cannot resist to peeking at the forbidden fruits, the symbols of mortality – the skull and the broken string – will vividly remind about the inevitable destination of every sinful human being. On the other hand, no matter how a life is spent, eventually there will always be notes left unsung. So why hold yourself back?

Evidently, King George IV did not. That promiscuous noble gentlemen was a slave to beauty, or, to be more accurate, to women, paintings and architecture. If not for George IV's passion for gorgeous buildings, today Buckingham Palace might still be a plain house as he was the one who commissioned the transformation.

"Woman at Her Toilet" was added to the list of his possessions in 1821 and to this day it reminds residents and guests of the Buckingham Palace about the temporality of every urge, of every way of life, no matter how lavish it might be.

Old Masters: Detail of Jan Steen "Woman at her Toilet", The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace
Detail of Jan Steen "Woman at her Toilet" (1663)

Human temporality is almost a purposeless term to those whose next destination is heaven, a better level of life off the Earth, away from the sunrise over the meadows, street markets and animal farms.

I wonder if George IV, the king of hedonism, eventually reached that divine destination and is now up there with Virgin Mary saving the humanity. He must have believed in the power of God and eternal life that transcends any sculls and broken strings. After all, he purchased Rubens's "The Assumption of the Virgin" in 1816, a few years before the addition of Steen's sultry "Woman at Her Toilet".

It stuns me that a man known for his extravagant behaviour and excessive partying cherished grand religious scenes. But then again, the two facets are perfectly reconcilable if one lives by the classic rule that it's easier to act as you please and then plead for salvation.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace: Peter Paul Rubens "The Assumption of the Virgin"
Peter Paul Rubens "The Assumption of the Virgin" (1611-12)

Although blinding with glory, Rubens's "The Assumption of the Virgin" made me giggle a little as it's hanging next to the "Summer: Peasants Going to Market" which, in contrast, explores a very earthy, natural subject. A few steps aside and I'm witnessing a Christian miracle where Virgin Mary's physical, also earthy body is assumed into heaven. Both the paintings are bursting with action, only the skies convey a different meaning. Which one gives more hope – the dawn or the Virgin?


"Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace"

The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Open till January 2022

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