Jewel in the crown

The Royal Collection is a treasure trove of Old Masters, bought with taxpayers' money. So why does t

Next time you walk up Whitehall in London, take a look at the statue of Charles I that stands at the entrance to Trafalgar Square. Often overlooked in favour of the more imposing Nelson's Column, it is one of the great forgotten monuments to the collapse of the English Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. During the civil war it was discovered in a church in Covent Garden by the republican authorities, who sold it off for next to nothing on condition that it be melted down. But the royalists had the last laugh. John Rivet bought the statue and buried it in his back garden. When Charles II returned from exile in 1660, he reclaimed the statue and erected it in its current location: the site where those who had signed his father's death warrant were publicly executed.

The statue's history is a microcosm of the story of the Royal Collection of art. Under the English Commonwealth from 1649 to 1660, more than 1,200 Old Masters by Raphael, Leonardo, Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck were sold off to the public. They were then hastily reassembled as a sign of the resurrection of the monarchy following the return of Charles II. The collection has remained firmly in royal hands ever since, bolstered by the Georgian and Victorian acquisition of works by Canaletto and Vermeer, and drawings by Leonardo. It now stands, astonishingly, at 7,000 paintings, 500,000 prints and 30,000 drawings. The implicit attitude of the Windsors is the same as that of Charles I and II: possession of the collection is an enduring symbol of the monarchy's centrality to English cultural life.

However, over the past five years, as I undertook the research for a book on the history of the sale of Charles I's art collection, I began to have serious misgivings about this royal stranglehold over what is in effect our national art collection.

The main problem is the sheer anomaly of the collection's status. Most of the great European caches of public art - the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna - emerged in response to the revolutionary upheavals that swept through Europe (apart, of course, from England) during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Habsburgs quickly realised the wisdom of responding to middle-class demands for wider public access to art collections, which were seen as national, rather than royal. However, throughout the same period, the English monarchs resisted calls for greater public access to the Royal Collection; to give it away to "the mob" would be tantamount to capitulating to the rising tide of republicanism.

Ironically, many radicals of the Georgian period held far more progressive views on the Royal Collection than we find today. The MP John Wilkes attacked the monarchy's disregard for Raphael's celebrated cartoons Acts of the Apostles, which were bought by Charles I. "At present," he thundered, "they are perishing in a late baronet's smoky house [Buckingham Palace] where they are entirely secreted from the public eye." Wilkes contrasted George III's behaviour with that of his European cousins: "The Kings of France and Spain permit their subjects and strangers the view of all the pictures in their collections; and sure, Sir, an equal compliment is due to a generous and free nation, who give their prince an income of above a million a year."

By the 1830s, as calls grew for the creation of a national art gallery, the Art Union magazine echoed Wilkes's criticism of the condition of the Raphael cartoons, asking: "Why are they allow ed to moulder on the walls of Hampton Court, useless and unproductive in their effects, when, if re moved to the National Gallery, they would produce better results upon Art than the El gin Marbles?"

The controversy surrounding the carto ons was resolved only when, in 1864, Queen Victoria offered them on permanent loan to the South Kensington Museum - the institution that we know as the Victo ria and Albert Museum, where they remain to this day. Nevertheless, the National Gallery is now in the absurd situation of own ing 2,500 pictures, a mere third of the number held in the Royal Collection.

The only other occasion that the ownership of the collection raised its head was following the Second World War. The incumbent Surveyor of the King's Pictures, none other than Anthony Blunt, conceded that the collection was "inefficient, out of date, badly shown, understaffed and underpaid". Blunt was not alone in believing that, in line with the prevailing culture of the Clement Attlee administration, the collection should ultimately be nationalised. However, just as today, there was no political appetite to reclaim the pictures and the matter was quietly dropped.

In 1993, in response to demands for greater financial accountability, the Royal Collections Trust was established under the chairmanship of Prince Charles. As a charity, the trust receives no government subsidy; it maintains the collection using the income generated by visitors to the palaces. The wider public is therefore denied a continuing stake in a collection that was bought with public money. The trust's stated position is that the collection "is held in trust by the Queen as Sovereign for her successors and the nation, and is not owned by her as a private individual". However, until very recently, the Royal Collection website claimed that it was a private col lection. Off the record, even those curators well disposed towards the Royal Collection worry about the trust's lack of money and the impact this has on conservation. But few will speak out, fearing that the collection will subsequently refuse requests for precious loans.

So who does own the Royal Collection? The ambiguity of its position is a clever fudge on the part of the royal family, a way of deflecting awkward questions. I am not alone in having such questions deftly flicked away, or greeted with stony silence. One former journalist wrote to me following the publication of my book. He claimed that in the 1980s he persuaded Harold Evans, then editor of the Times, to let him investigate ownership of the collection. The Surveyor asked Evans to desist from this unpleasant inquiry. The journalist involved concluded that "the establishment looks after its own".

My concerns are as much intellectual as political. There is no complete public inventory of the collection - which is staggering, considering that, even in 1639, Charles I managed to have one compiled. What would happen if there were another fire? It would be very difficult to ascertain locations and details for all the paintings affected. Likewise, the claim sometimes made by supporters of the Royal Collection, that the pictures are shown in the historic settings for which they were originally commissioned, is misleading; I have found no evidence that Charles I thought it a good idea to show off Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar in their current location, a greenhouse at Hampton Court. To date, representatives of the collection have refused to respond to my book or to address my criticisms.

Why doesn't Prince Charles make a truly brave gesture, and offer the Mantegnas or the drawings by Leonardo to the National Gallery? It would give a huge boost to public interest in the Old Masters, and silence republican criticism of the collection. But, bearing in mind the monarchy's history of resistance on this matter, I won't be holding my breath.

"The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and his art collection" by Jerry Brotton is published by Macmillan (£25)

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: Better off without us?