Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood

IT’S nice to know, as the cost of living crisis bites with ever-increasing savagery, that there’s one pensioner, at least, who owns so many great and highly valuable artworks that she can afford to send a batch of them up to Edinburgh so that mere plebs (er, I mean “loyal subjects”) can have a wee look at them.

As part of the celebrations of her Platinum Jubilee as monarch of the United Kingdom and its rapidly diminishing dominions, Elizabeth Windsor, née Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (aka Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) is holding the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace at the Queen’s Gallery at Holyroodhouse.

The exhibition was originally installed in the Queen’s Gallery at Buck House in 2020-21. Now, a reduced version of the show (reflecting the smaller size of the Holyrood gallery) is on display in Edinburgh.

Even without Canaletto’s glorious, panoramic painting The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, which was one of the headline artworks of the London exhibition, there is no question that the Holyrood show is a very palpable hit. A late addition to the exhibition, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (“La Pittura”), by the great Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, is, surely, one of the show’s star attractions.

The piece is a self-depiction of one of the most important and accomplished female painters of all time. It shows Gentileschi in the act of painting, her right arm raised to the canvas, brush in hand. Her hair is loose, her body is caught, it seems, in dynamic motion, and her face is a picture of concentration. In its honesty, physicality and its use of light and shade, the painting speaks to Gentileschi’s intense study of her great Italian predecessor, Caravaggio.

In 1638-9, that the art of painting was represented as female, and with the specific features of the painter herself, was a rare, if not revolutionary, event in the history of art. Wonderful though Gentileschi’s self-portrait is, this exhibition will be best remembered for its considerable number of paintings from the Low Countries. Brilliantly detailed pictures such as A Girl Chopping Onions (1646) and The Grocer’s Shop (1672), both by Gerrit Dou, reflect the interest of many of the Dutch masters in portraying the labour and the conditions of life of working people (making them intriguing acquisitions for the British monarchy).

In a similar vein is A Kermis on St George’s Day (1649), a tremendous comic painting by David Teniers the Younger. Depicting a village’s revels following a saint’s day mass, complete with a repulsed lecher and a drunkard slouched over a beer keg, the picture shares with the great Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder a delight in the humour of the peasantry at play.

Inevitably, however, the finest works on show here are by the supreme Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn. The great artist’s 1635 painting A Rabbi With a Cap is both an outstanding work of art and, in its seeming sympathy for its Jewish subject, a fascinating window onto the relatively liberal Dutch society of the day.

The elderly religious leader is painted with an honesty and expressiveness that is similar to the style in which Rembrandt painted himself in the remarkable Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap (1642), in which the painter exhibits his wealth and success, while eschewing any physical self-flattery.

In both paintings, Rembrandt displays a remarkable talent for creating the illusion of shimmering jewellery. In the self-portrait, one could swear that the small golden ball at the end of his earring has been depicted using a piece of actual gold.

Arguably the greatest painting in the exhibition, however, is Rembrandt’s astonishing Portrait of Agatha Bas (1641). Representing the daughter of a director of the Dutch East India Company, the picture is striking in its depiction of Bas’s direct and confident gaze (which was unusual in the depiction of a female subject).

Rembrandt presents Bas within an illusionistic arched wooden frame, which she appears to grasp with her left hand, her fingers protruding on the outside. The open fan in her right hand seems to be outside the frame, creating an extraordinary sense of the subject in movement towards us.

A truly exceptional work, this painting – like the exhibition of which it is a part – stands as testimony to the extraordinary riches (both artistic and monetary) that are held by the British Crown.

Masterpieces From Buckingham Palace runs until September 25.

Visit to find out more about the exhibition