Friday, 26 April 2013

Royal Paintbox: The Artwork of the Royal Family

Royal Paintbox, the recent ITV documentary on the artists in the Royal Family, could well have been titled Pandora’s Box. Out of the depths of the royal archives came artworks of people you never knew had artistic inclinations: George III, Prince Rupert—even our own Queen made prints of horses as a youngster!

The documentary was very well made, with good production values and an increasingly adept TV host in the Prince of Wales. With him at the helm the documentary was as much about art itself as it was about royal artists, and we learned much about painting techniques, moods, as well as the Prince’s own view of what art should be: a ‘part of oneself that you leave behind.’ Charles also talked about when his interest in art was kindled, about the age of 14 when he began to notice all the artworks hung in the royal residences.

The programme was particularly good in exploring how art reflected the psychological state of royal artists, in particular Queen Victoria. A very good painter, it was interesting to hear that Victoria delighted in painting children all throughout her marriage but that after Albert’s death she retreated instead into empty landscapes, even signing her works with phrases like ‘done in the 3rd Year of my desolation.’ The children were also affected. Princess Louise, the most artistically gifted of Victoria’s children, painted as a teenager a touching picture of herself asleep in bed, dreaming of her parents getting reuniting in heaven. 

The documentary was designed to serve as a prelude to an exhibition that will open at Windsor Castle this summer called Royal Paintbox: Royal Artists Past and Present which will bring together much of the artwork seen in the programme. But in the larger sense, it also served as an introduction to the artistic talents in the history of the Royal Family, and with that in mind I have assembled a sample of works that have been produced by royal hands over the last 350 years. Some works were featured in the documentary while others were surprising little gems I found rummaging around cyberspace, particularly on the Royal Collection website.

Prince Rupert

As Royal Paintbox indicated, Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), nephew of Charles I, was one of the earliest members of the Royal Family to show artistic talents. As a true Cavalier he was skilled both in battle (he was a successful commander in the Civil War) and in the arts. He is actually credited with perfecting mezzotint, a printmaking technique that became very popular during the Restoration and was even taken up by Peter Lely. Rupert’s most famous mezzotint work, the Great Executioner (1658) has a sad tinge to it. The subject of the print, copied from an original painting by Spanish artist Jusepe De Ribera, is the execution of John the Baptist—but if you look closely to the head of the saint you will notice a resemblance to Rupert’s uncle, Charles I, who had been beheaded by another ‘great executioner’, Oliver Cromwell, nine years earlier.

King George III

Although it is thought that he had considerable help from a professional draughtsman, drawings like the one below did spring from the mind of George III (1738-1820). George was particularly fond of architectural drawing, done for its own artistic sake, and he also produced architectural vistas a la Piranesi, a style popular at the time. It is very intriguing that a man who would later suffer from madness was drawn to the ordered, proportioned art of architecture, particularly the classical kind. And it is also revealing that after his first bout of madness in 1788 he almost abandoned this pursuit. This drawing, from around 1760, is a design for a domed Corinthian building that shows George’s predilection for cupolas.

From the Royal Collection.

Princess Elizabeth

Princess Elizabeth (1770-1840) was the most vivacious and artistic of George III’s 6 daughters. Her accomplishments included decorating entire rooms at Frogmore House, one of the royal residences in Windsor Park. She was particularly fond of floral themes, as shown by the painting below, Flower Piece with Bird’s Nest (1792). Although Royal Paintbox implied that it was the original work of Elizabeth it was in fact a copy of a painting done by Margaret Meen, a botanical artist who worked for Queen Charlotte at Kew. That however does not take anything from the remarkable, limpid quality of Elizabeth’s work, especially its bold use of blue.

From the Royal Collection.

Prince Albert

Prince Albert (1819-1861) remains perhaps the most talented man in the history of the Royal Family. He wrote, composed music, dabbled in natural history, science and engineering, and had a keen understanding of politics. And of course he also painted, though his subject matters tended to be predictably German and stern. This painting below, The Death of Count Mansfield (1839) recalls an episode from the Thirty Years’ War when the Protestant commander chose to die heroically on his feet with a sword in his hand. Surprisingly, Albert sent it as a gift to Victoria during their engagement period and the lovestruck Queen thought it ‘so well painted and shows such talent.’

From the Royal Collection.

Luckily there was more to Albert’s artistry than stern dead soldiers. This tiny drawing depicts Victoria around the time the two were married in 1840. It shows Albert’s excellent drawing skills and attention to detail, especially in depicting Victoria’s hairdo and tiny jewelry.   

From the Royal Collection.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) might not have had as many talents as her husband but she certainly could match his artistic skills. She had been taught how to draw as a child and she became particularly good in capturing people (at least before her widowhood). This pencil sketch below was drawn from life in October 1836 by the still uncrowned 17-year-old Princess Victoria. It shows the daughter of the former Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Lady Catherine Jenkinson, who was one of Victoria’s ladies in waiting at the time. I particularly like Victoria’s attention to hairstyle and dress which looked very Dickensians in the 1830s. 

From the Royal Collection.

Victoria was particularly good at drawing children and this watercolour below from 1847 is, I think, one of the most touching things she painted. It depicts Anne Fleming, the young daughter of a shepherd in Osborne, near Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight. The sketch fully shows Victoria’s skills with paint and shadows.

From the Royal Collection.

Another adorable child portrait by Victoria, this time of her youngest daughter Beatrice, aged 3 years. The Queen was an accomplished amateur watercolourist and she kept sketchbooks for over 60 years. Interestingly she always drew from life and very rarely produced pictures of pure imagination as her husband did above. (read more about Victoria the artist here: )

From the Royal Collection.

Princess Louise

Princess Louise (1848-1939) inherited both her parents’ artistic talents and was skilled in both painting and sculpture. Her most famous work is the statue of her mother in coronation robes which still stands before Kensington Palace in London, but she also sculpted other members of her family. This bust below represents her 16-year-old brother Leopold and it is particularly faithful to his features.

From the Royal Collection.

Queen Alexandra

As shown in Royal Paintbox the future Edward VII was taught how to copy paintings and drawings but he was notoriously too impatient to take it up as a real hobby. His wife however, Princess Alexandra of Denmark (1844-1925), possessed artistic talents of her own and managed to fit very well into the artistic royal family. Like Victoria, Alexandra also kept a sketchbook where she copied works and painted watercolours. I particularly like this simple monk she drew with a serene, benighted face—perhaps a result from the open tankard in his arms. Alexandra signed the work in the right corner with her nickname, Alix.

From the Royal Collection.

Queen Mary

Most of the artwork shown in this post comes from the Royal Collection, the department of the Royal Household that manages all the artwork owned by the British monarchy. The person most responsible for bringing the collection together was Queen Mary (1867-1953), the consort of King George V. Despite her famously austere public face Mary had a passionate love of art, something she is said to have picked up during an extended stay in Florence, Italy, when she was a teenager. Her own artistic talents were no match to the art she collected but she was still capable of producing enjoyable pieces. This watercolour of hers was painted during her extended Florentine stay in 1884, and depicts a view of the city and river from a corner of the Ponte Vecchio.

From the Royal Collection.

Prince Philip

The tradition of royal consorts taking up the family hobby has continued with Prince Philip who has been painting, mostly watercolours, since the 1950s. His most famous painting by now, The Queen at Breakfast, had remained hidden from view in his private collection until it was made public in 2010. An impressionistic work, it was painted in 1965 at Windsor Castle and captures the monarch in a private everyday moment that only a spouse could capture. I particularly like that he included the precious George Stubbs’ paintings on the wall behind the Queen, together with ordinary touches like a knife sticking out of a jar and a clunky radio sitting on the breakfast table.
From the Royal Collection

Prince Charles

After the Royal Paintbox documentary aired the Prince of Wales published an online gallery of his watercolours which has drawn mixed reviews. Even the staunchly monarchist Daily Telegraph called his creations ‘torpor-inducing conventional’ (see here). I must confess, I had to scout long and wide on the internet to find one of his works that didn’t look…well…ok, let’s just say it, *Booorrriing*!! The issue is that while Queen Victoria delighted in capturing people, Prince Charles seems emotionally straight-jacketed to painting empty landscapes—something Victoria only did to convey her loneliness after Albert died. Is Charles existentially lonely? In any case, technically speaking the Prince of Wales is a skilled artist—even the Daily Telegraph admitted that—and I did manage to find this lovely, fairytale view of Balmoral he painted in 1991, interestingly at the same time his fairytale wedding was crumbling apart. It is apparently worth about $10,000 on the art market.

Sarah Armstrong-Jones

The last artist on this list—as in Royal Paintbox—is someone who has finally capitalized on centuries on royal artistic tradition to become a true professional artist. Sarah Armstrong-Jones, the Queen’s niece, seems to have inherited both Princess Margaret’s passion for art and her father’s wild artistic streak, and she developed her talents at the Royal Academy School where she later won a prize in the 1998 Summer Exhibition. Her work is currently exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in London and includes still lives and landscapes, both figurative and abstract. This colorful and convoluted work is entitled ‘Still Life, 2010’.

From the Redfern Gallery.

As Sarah’s art shows the vein of artistic talent in the British Royal Family is still pulsing strong after 300 years, and who knows which other artists will arise in the future, especially close to the throne. The future is promising for royal artistry: it is worth remembering that despite being known currently more for her clothes and present bump the Duchess of Cambridge, our future Queen, graduated with a top class History of Art degree, and she chose the National Portrait Gallery in London as one of her first patronages. Perhaps one of the first toys her new baby might get when they’re old enough to play might just be an Etch a Sketch…  

Watch Royal Paintbox online (for a limited time)

Learn more about the upcoming Royal Paintbox exhibition
at Windsor Castle.

See more royal artworks at the Royal Collection website
(use the advanced search facility).

See more of Queen Victoria’s artwork online

See more of Prince Charles’ paintings

Queen Victoria continued drawing and painting in her old age. This watercolour of her personal servant Abdul Karim was copied in 1889 from an original by Rudolph Swoboda. 

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