It is one of those situations in which the preposterousness of the suggestion takes your breath away, even as you find yourself mildly surprised that what is being proposed hasn’t already happened.
On the one hand, there’s the sheer unlikeliness of the idea that the serene corridors of Buckingham Palace with their slightly fusty elegance will one day be filled with paintings supported on balls of elephant dung or life-size images of children with penises projecting from their foreheads.
On the other, you can’t help feeling that in an era when everyone is supposedly “into art”, the Royal family must surely have a quasi-official collection of contemporary art stashed away somewhere – even if they’re unaware they’ve got it.
The suggestion by Tessa Murdoch, curator of a new exhibition of Tudor and Stuart court art at the Victoria & Albert Museum, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge should be buying cutting-edge modern art – to “engage with the contemporary” and encourage the wealth of young artistic talent that exists in this country – is being treated as though it is something outrageously novel. Yet isn’t it in some ways almost wearyingly predictable?
Public interest in art has expanded massively over the past two decades, which can only be a good thing. The David and Victoria Beckhams of this world like to think of themselves as mavens of contemporary art, which is probably also in the wider scheme of things not an entirely bad thing. More than that, there seems to be barely a public-funded project in this country that doesn’t attempt to “add value” through art – the Olympics being only the most visible recent example of this. Private views of “difficult” contemporary art, which 30 years ago would have been attended only by a scruffy huddle of the cognoscenti, now rival film premieres and society parties in terms of paparazzi-pulling power.
And if the Royal family were to embroil themselves in the rackety super-bling of the contemporary art scene, it certainly wouldn’t be setting a precedent. The royals of the past didn’t buy great works of art just because they liked them – though some undoubtedly did – but because art was an inescapable aspect of grandeur. Now, art is an inescapable aspect of cool. And cool is arguably of considerably more value to the Royal family than grandeur.
The House of Windsor has done an extraordinary job of maintaining a dignified distance (in the face of hugely publicised setbacks) while hanging in with increasingly informal times. Say what you like about William and Kate, they are refreshingly unstuffy in comparison with their forebears. Aligning themselves with contemporary art – the new rock’n’roll, as it’s been referred to for nearly two decades – feels an astute piece of brand management. Indeed, given their age and the fact that Kate has a degree in art history, it would seem rather odd if it didn’t happen purely of its own accord.
Yet if William and Kate do get involved in buying contemporary art, it certainly won’t be under the aegis of that magnificent institution the Royal Art Collection – that great hoard of painting, sculpture and objets d’art amassed by William’s ancestors which ranks as one of the world’s great collections.
While it’s tempting to imagine the members of the Royal family going out with the royal cheque book to make acquisitions that will stamp their taste on the collection, they don’t own it. The Royal Collection is held in trust for the nation and administered by a charitable trust. Acquisitions, such as they are these days, are made by the trustees, the latest being a suite of Warhol prints of, unsurprisingly, the Queen.
While Tessa Murdoch talks of the Duke and Duchess encouraging great portraiture, royals have little say in the commissioning of official portraits. If they wish to become contemporary art collectors, the Cambridges will have to spend their own money on their own entirely private collection to be housed in their own apartments. The last royal to do this on any scale was the Queen Mother, who bought mid-20th-century Neo-Romantic painters such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper – then at the cutting edge of British art – on the advice of Kenneth Clark, the hugely influential director of the National Gallery.
But what would William and Kate buy that would immediately identify them with the taste of their time, and which current art grandee would advise them? Charles Saatchi? The YBA generation – Hirst, Emin et al – whom Saatchi helped to fame may be associated with youthful bravado, but they are old enough to be the Cambridges’ parents and well past their sell-by date from an artistic point of view.
The fact is that there is nothing in contemporary art that screams now the way Warhol and Lichtenstein did in the Sixties, or Hirst and Emin arguably did in the Nineties. The young artists of today are a rather well-mannered, studious bunch comfortably absorbed in refining and tweaking the developments of previous decades in an art world where the barriers have long been comfortably set.
A cynic such as, well, Hilary Mantel might say that made them and the Cambridges well-suited to each other. Indeed, royal patronage might seem the last nail in the coffin for modern art as a subversive, anti-establishment force. Yet in all honesty, that old chestnut really bit the dust long before William and Kate were even born.
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