Pictures from the Queen Mother's collection

IAN COLLINS Pictures from the collection of the late Queen Mother sparkle with an amused love of life. Ian Collins previews an exhibition about to open in Norwich.


Picture this scene from 1961. Two esteemed ladies, close personal friends with a fateful bond in the future, are visiting the annual London exhibition of the Royal Watercolour Society.

One is the Queen Mother and the other is Norfolk's Ruth, Lady Fermoy. This is just the sort of event that the two women, each with a passionate patronage of the arts, love.

Two life-affirming spirits may also feel added cause for celebration. For Lady Fermoy has just been presented with her latest grand-daughter - Lady Diana Spencer, who will first meet Prince Charles during a childhood spent on the Sandringham Estate.

The pair examine the pictures very carefully, but pause longest beside an evocative little study of domestic harmony called The Lamp.

It's by a hugely gifted artist called Lionel Bulmer, and it shows the interior of an ancient hall house near Stowmarket - a wreck that he and soul-mate Margaret Green have lately bought for a song.

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The watercolour depicts a table set for tea and lit by an oil lamp. Patterned curtains are closed against a darkened wilderness which will soon be turned into a wonderful garden running down to the River Rat.

Lady Fermoy buys this image of a very private rural idyll. But the Queen Mother must admire it, because it will later enter her collection as a gift.

Many other pictures will be given as presents for the Queen Mum during August birthday and New Year holidays spent at Sandringham - with two a year from Edward Seago, who will regularly make the trip from his home in Ludham, often giving advice on painting to the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, until his death in 1974.

The art collection formed over almost a century by the royal matriarch, who lived from 1900 to 2002, reflects her warm friendships with artists and a very individual response to a quality in varied works of art that she called “the effect of magic”.

Having already toured to the Queen's Gallery beside Buckingham Palace, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, 73 watercolours and drawings are now coming to the Norwich Castle Museum as a posthumous tribute.

Lent by the Royal Collection, and chosen by Susan Owens, the sample ranges from a Mabel Hankey portrait of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at the age of seven to watercolours celebrating her 2000 centenary.

Dr Owens says: “The Queen Mother had a lively and open-minded response to pictures, and as a result her collection is fascinatingly diverse - and also very personal.

“As a collector she had a good eye and a delight in unusual and unconventional pictures. She collected in quite a spontaneous way - occasionally making a commission but more often buying from auctions, or exhibitions, or whenever she came across an interesting work that had resonance for her.”

The curator continues: “Queen Elizabeth broke with a rather dutiful royal tradition of acquiring - or reacquiring - objects with a family connection, which had been fostered by Queen Victoria and which reached its apogee with Queen Mary.

“Her keen interest and involvement with the contemporary art world coupled with her friendships with artists resulted in a collection which is particularly strong in 20th century British art.”

The collecting bug bites in peculiar ways, and in the royal line often seems to skip a generation. The profligate gene of George IV, biggest spendthrift/patron in royal history, who enriched our cultural heritage but almost brought down the monarchy in the costly process, bypassed his frugal father, George III.

Queen Victoria's prudence was not shared by her son Edward VII - whose wild spending rarely extended to art (and whose lack of aesthetic taste was proven early on when he preferred Sandringham House to Houghton Hall as his Norfolk retreat).

Edward's long-suffering wife, Queen Alexandra, did buy art but was far more likely to give it away - so much so that a courtier was discreetly appointed to claim royal treasures back for the family.

And the acquisitive zeal of their daughter-in-law, Queen Mary, remains rather controversial, though hers was undoubtedly an expert and curatorial eye.

With the Royal Collection at her disposal, plus an unparalleled pile of personal treasures presented and inherited, the current monarch has built up an immunity to impulse purchases or impassioned acquisitions. Not carrying money may have helped.

Certainly the Prince of Wales spends liberally on beautiful things - as did his grandmother before him.

The Queen Mother's art collection was both a model of aesthetic appreciation and a lesson in not worrying unduly about ensuing bills.

The Monet oil she bought fairly early in life might have seemed to many at the time a rash purchase, but it turned out to be a brilliant bargain. The Lowry was a jolly good idea, too.

Lucky were the couple given charcoal likenesses by John Singer Sargent on their wedding in 1923, but good taste was married to good fortune in the bride's long life as a collector.

Not surprisingly, her finest moment came during the war, when the queen who refused escape for herself and her daughters to Canada, and who was unfairly scathing of continental royals fleeing Nazi armies, was dubbed by Hitler “the most dangerous woman in Europe”. What a tribute.

Between 1941 and 1944 John Piper created his best work at her behest, with stupendous watercolour views of Windsor Castle. Brooding drama summed up the trauma and heroism of the time.

The point was rather lost on George VI, who famously remarked to the artist: “You seem to have very bad luck with your weather.”

The consort who had rallied Londoners throughout the Blitz treasured records of those darkest years. Two 1945 pictures by Norma Bull in the Castle selection show a late rocket bomb exploding over the capital and St Paul's Cathedral miraculously intact on Victory in Europe Night.

The royal collector had a special fondness for pictures of her own residences - her childhood home, Glamis Castle; Birkhall in Aberdeenshire; Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park, her home as Duchess of York and later as Queen Mother; Windsor Castle; the Castle of Mey in Caithness; Clarence House in London, and, of course, Sandringham.

An abstract artist in the 1930s, John Piper had been spurred by the threat of war into depicting Britain's architecture and landscapes, both grand and workaday, before they were lost forever. Given the development dangers of peace-time, his recording mission never ceased.

In 1970 Piper presented his patron with an exquisite drawing of Sandringham's house and garden. He'd made it while working on a programme design for a concert by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, to be held in the Norfolk mansion that summer for the Queen Mum's 70th birthday.

Artists were usually among the guests at such gatherings. Sir Hugh Casson gave the QM many informal watercolours of her sociable life at home. One was called Tea time, Sandringham.

A small but perfectly formed collection of 18th and 19th century British watercolours and drawings included choice works by Gainsborough, Sandby and Varley. Again the collector was drawn to favourite places - as in a glorious Michael “Angelo” Rooker study of Norfolk's Castle Acre Priory.

Other antique pictures appealed to a sense of fun - with Max Beerbohm's caricatures of Edward VII ageing into an obese angel more than balancing respectful Wilkie sketches of the young Queen Victoria.

Sitting for official portraits must be a tortuous process - and at times pure torture (with Pietro Annigoni alone investing our present queen with anything like majesty). But the Queen Mum made friends with many of her painters, from Augustus John to John Bratby.

The Bohemian Mr John painted some of the most ravishing portraits of the 20th century, whereas the mercenary Mr Bratby produced some of the most raucous and ravaged.

Both took their place in a collection sparkling with an amused love of life.

Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother are at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from October 6 to January 6. Open Monday-Friday 10am-4.30pm, Saturday 10am-5pm, October half-term Monday-Saturday 10am-5.30pm. All Sundays 1pm-5pm. Adult admission £4.45 art and exhibitions zone, all museum £6.50.

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