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Queen Mother's art collection revealed

PUBLISHED: 11:45 02 November 2007 | UPDATED: 18:16 26 February 2010

John Piper's Sandringham House

John Piper's Sandringham House

East Anglian art lovers will gain a rare chance to see The Queen Mother's private art collection in a temporary exhibition being staged at Norwich Castle Museum.

John Sargent's Lady Elizabeth

East Anglian art lovers will gain a rare chance to see The Queen Mother's private art collection in a temporary exhibition being staged at Norwich Castle Museum. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Lady Roberts, the Queen's Librarian, who has curated the exhibition.

Some of the greatest artists of the 20th century are currently on display in an exclusive and rare exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum - including work from some pioneering women artists. The exhibition has been drawn from The Queen Mother's private collection and is the first time it has been on public display.

The exhibition, which has only been on view in Holyroyd House in Scotland before now, has been put together by Lady Roberts, The Queen's Librarian and curator of The Print Room at Buckingham Palace Art Gallery.

Hugh Buchanan's Desks in the Royal Lodge

The 73 pictures in the exhibition have been put together to display the breadth of the Queen Mother's collection which she assembled during her life-time - the majority of which were collected during her time as Queen to George VI.

Lady Roberts said that the show concentrates on works on paper to keep the scale of the exhibition manageable. Although The Queen Mother also collected oils, Lady Roberts said that they could include many more and a wider selection of artists and styles if they select the exhibits from water-colours and drawings.

The exhibition was drawn together from the contents of Royal Lodge and Clarence House which were emptied following her death in 2002. “It was a steep learning curve for all of us because we had never seen the collection brought together and various strands emerged like the portraits and records of her various residences, records of her life and the King's life and finally things that she acquired.”

She said that the Queen Mother regularly bought artworks from galleries in London and in Kings Lynn as well as commissioning work. Although much of her collection dated from 1936-52, she continued to acquire works on a smaller scale in later years and received several substantial additions as 100th birthday presents.

Norma Bull's Rocket bomb exploding in the air over London

The exhibition starts with a collection of portraits of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and her family, including portraits of her mother and herself as a seven year old as well portraits of the current Queen and Princess Margaret as youngsters.

The three stand-out portraits which launch you into the exhibition are three, almost life-size, pencil portraits of The Queen Mother and George VI by John Singer Sargeant commissioned when the pair had just become engaged.

Two of the portraits were a wedding present and the third portrait was inherited from her mother and added to the collection. “What I think is wonderful is that we have Sargeant's notes from the sitting and he says: 'Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the only completely unselfconscious sitter I have ever had.'

With a Royal art collection, you almost expect portraits but one of the recurrent themes of the exhibition is that the Queen Mother was an enthusiastic collector of paintings which captured the many residences that she either lived in or visited frequently.

She had them captured at many different stages of their existence and during different times of year, so the viewer can develop a picture of how these Royal residences have changed over time. John Piper was a favoured artist who was entrusted with capturing her homes on paper.

He also was commissioned during the dark days of World War II with turning out a series of six brooding views of Windsor Castle, to act as a record not only of war-time scenes, but as a record of how the castle looked in case it was destroyed during an invasion.

“These works decorated the walls of the various houses in which she lived. She commissioned works of places and views that she knew and loved. Like all collectors you buy things because it means something to you and so naturally this would include her homes.” During her life-time she lived at Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, Glamis Castle, Sandringham, as well as Clarence House, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

“She came to love Norfolk a great deal. During the King's reign, Sandringham was their private country retreat and she visited it frequently and came to love Norfolk and East Anglia in general.”

In contrast Glamis Castle, in Scotland, where she was brought up, was painted to remind her of her younger, more carefree days. There is also an atmospheric sun-lit portrait of her study at Royal Lodge which was presented to her as a 100th birthday present. It brings across the sense of tranquillity that was to be found there.

John Piper was a favoured artist who was entrusted with capturing her homes on paper.

He also was commissioned during the dark days of World War II with turning out a series of six brooding views of Windsor Castle, to act as a record not only of war-time scenes, but as a record of how the castle looked in case it was destroyed during an invasion.

In addition to the family portraits and the views of various Royal residences there is also a smattering of works she picked up either at auction or in galleries including a chalk study by Gainsborough and studies by David Wilkie as well as works by Augustus John and Topolski.

She also befriended leading local artists including Edward Seago, who became a close personal friend. “He would regularly give her birthday and Christmas presents which were little drawings and watercolours. In fact, I believe that they got on so well that the King and Queen went to Seago very shortly before the King died. It was one of his last trips out. They got on very well.”

But the most surprising element of the exhibition is the revelation that The Queen Mother was a keen supporter of women artists at a time when the vast majority of art-makers who enjoyed royal patronage were men.

Lady Roberts said: “She was a great supporter of an Australian artist called Norma Bull. She bought several paintings from her during the war. Norma was working as an official war artist, recording views of London during The Blitz. She had come over to Britain during the late 1930s while travelling and stayed as war broke out and became an official war artist.

“The Queen Mother was the last person to be described as a feminist but when she saw a good female artist she went out of her way to support them.”

She said that the Queen Mother also had a rather wicked sense of humour which led her to purchasing eight satirical caricatures of Edward VII after they had become rather scandalous. They had been exhibited in the 1920s and a number of critics had distinct sense of humour failures and had written that it was shocking that anyone should mock our former King. They came up for sale and the dealer offered them to then Queen and she said 'Let's have them.' The portraits show his love of fine living and the importance of pretty girls.”

In contrast one of the most moving pictures was by Earl Haig, of prisoners of war putting together a concert band with a motley collection of second and third hand instruments delivered by The Red Cross. It captures the spirit and resilience of the prisoners who were banged up who were able to put an orchestra together, beg, steal and borrow instruments and make a bit of happiness.”

The exhibition ends with some more contemporary artists which showed that even in later life, The Queen Mother kept in touch with what was happening in the art world. “I think many people are surprised to find a David Jones here. He was almost certainly introduced to Queen Elizabeth by Kenneth Clark and its such a lively vibrant painting, it's easy to see why she enjoyed it so much. It's a lovely picture of a spring day with the windows thrown open and what appears to be a Union flag outside fluttering in the breeze.”

Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is on display at Norwich Castle Art Gallery until January 6.

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