The British Royal Family’s Private Art Collection Holds a Lot of Freebies From Artists. See Who Has Gifted Works to Their Highnesses
The royal family's personal art collection contains gifts from the likes of Lucian Freud and Marc Chagall, among others.
The Royal Collection, amassed over three centuries by the British royal family, is by far the largest art collection in the world. Held in trust by the monarch for the nation, the trove numbers over one million objects—not limited to paintings, tapestries, photographs, and furniture—about 3,000 of which have been loaned to museums around the world.
But a recent report by the Guardian has found that there is a whole other royal collection, described by the outlet as a “much more elusive category… which the royals treat as their own.”
Not publicly registered, these roughly 400 artworks encompass objects that the royal family has personally acquired (often at bargain prices) and gifts it has received, whether privately or officially. These assets, which are not part of the Royal Collection, are valued in the tens of millions.
Indeed, a number of royal family members were voracious collectors. The Queen Mother’s personal collection, some of which adorns the royal residence Clarence House, is estimated to comprise 1,200 works; while Prince Philip, also a hobby painter, collected some 1,500 artworks in his lifetime.
But it’s the free gifts that make up a whole third of the Windsors’s personal collection, the Guardian found.
And it’s quite the eye-catching stash, ranging from personalized books to works on paper to wildlife paintings. Some were presented to the royal family during its tours of the colonies, including a Carol O’Connor watercolor given to Prince Philip in Perth in 1990 and a Robert Bateman acrylic he received during a visit to Canada in 1987.
Others were directly gifted to the royals by artists themselves. As Philip blithely recalled of Edward Seago’s multimillion-dollar gift to him: “He painted all these pictures and said: ‘You can have them.'”
Below, we’ve rounded up the notable artists who’ve dropped their works into the royals’s private collection.
Work Gifted: The Bible: Verve. Vol. VIII Nos 33 and 34 (1956), with bonus material
In 1960, Prince Philip was in Denmark attending the Erasmus prize ceremony, which that year bestowed a grant on Marc Chagall. On a tour of an accompanying exhibition, the French painter amused the royal with his “jocular attitude” before giving him a copy of The Bible: Verve. Vol. VIII Nos 33 and 34 (1956), a limited-edition volume compiling 17 lithographs he created based off biblical themes and stories.
“He gave me this Bible he has illustrated, just out of the blue,” Philip said. “He was a very strange man.”
Philip’s copy, though, came with a personal touch, namely two illustrations that Chagall had added in watercolor, chalk, and ink. According to the Guardian, these drawings could be worth some £60,000 ($74,582) today; by comparison, when a copy of Chagall’s Bible came up for auction in March, its high estimate was $3,000.
Work gifted: An etching and a personalized copy of his book
Philip’s adventures next took him to the South of France, where in 1972 he rubbed shoulders with the famed Surrealist. Not much has been recorded about their meeting, only that Dalí gifted the prince with an etching titled Hommage and a “special edition” of his book (presumably his 1942 autobiography), personalized with ballpoint sketches.
Philip included these objects, valued at £10,000 ($12,426), alongside other highlights from his private collection in the 1994 exhibition “Prince Phillip: A Personal Collection.”
Work Gifted: A series of 60 paintings (and more)
As the royals toured the world on state business, their artist friends were occasionally invited to tag along.
Most prominently, Philip had his close friend and landscape painter Edward Seago with him on an excursion to the Antarctic in 1956, following a state visit to Australia (what gifts must have awaited him there). It was on this trip that Seago would create 60 paintings that he gifted to the prince, adding to the many other works that the artist had already given to Philip and the Queen Mother. The entirety of Seago’s gift, the Guardian estimated, is now worth some £2.6 million ($3.2 million).
King Charles III, too, while he was visiting various countries as the Prince of Wales, had artists such as Robbie Wraith, John Ward, and Susannah Fiennes in his entourage. He called these joint outings “a good way of providing a record, adding to the Royal Collection.” According to the Guardian, about 25 works were created by artists on such trips with Charles, though none were found to have entered the Royal Collection.
Work Gifted: Queen Elizabeth II (2001)
Freud’s 2001 portrait of the queen was not a royal commission; the artist had to request her participation and over a 19-month period, undertook the work for free. The resulting oil was controversial for its small size and harsh depiction, not that it stopped the monarch from accepting the artwork as a gift from the painter.
Now in the collection of King Charles III, the painting was loaned to the National Gallery for its 2022 exhibition “New Perspectives.” But not before Charles loaned to the Garden Museum his other Freud oil, Small Fern (1967)—a painting he had received, of course, as a gift on his 50th birthday in 1998.
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