The Artful Royals
at Buckingham Palace

by Ilona Kauremszky
Special to mycompass

London, ENGLAND — Who said the Royals are old school anyway? Royal Watchers and techno geeks take note.

Despite the Old World pomp and circumstance surrounding the British monarchy, the New World with its sublime slices of modernity is what the Royals like to nibble on.

These days you can watch them on their Royal Channel on youtube, catch blogs posted daily from their favourite charitable foundations, become a FBF of Queen Elizabeth and post comments on her facebook page, and for eight short weeks shuffle along with the rest of the crowd touring the Queen’s official residence all the while using a touch-tone digital audio guide that pipes in the voices of the actual staff who work at Buckingham Palace, discussing all things royal of course.

To boot, Buckingham Palace is hosting a celebration this summer. In the heat of August and September when the Royal Family flees to their countryside retreat in Scotland, Buckingham Palace will open its doors to public tours as it has since 1993. However, this time visitors can expect a double dose of Lizzie. Not only will the regal State Rooms that usually are open for summer tours be on display but the British Monarch is also toasting a 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Commonwealth. That’s when the Queen’s father, King George VI in 1949 issued the London Declaration at St. James’s Palace which recognized the British Sovereign as the Head of the modern Commonwealth.

While many of us might be too young to remember this formal proclamation, the Buckingham Palace staff and curators from the Royal Collection are promising to create a time capsule showcasing some of the extraordinary events that Her Royal Highness attended during her reign.

Called Queen & Commonwealth: The Royal Tour, the exclusive exhibition will display stylish dresses and gowns worn on her official visits, jewels, photographs, newsreels and gifts presented to Her Majesty by the people of the Commonwealth. A bonafide jet setter, the Queen is the most well travelled royal in history with over 170 official visits to the Commonwealth countries.

As one insider says, this place is not only a home but a working palace. So if you were to have a private tour, the Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art would be a perfect choice.

I was lucky enough to be a part of a small group who managed to scratch the surface to this enchanting palace that has viewed history pass through its long storied corridors. A young Queen Victoria was the first Royal to move into the 775-room home upon her ascension in 1837 and ever since Buckingham Palace has remained the British Monarch’s official residence.

The State Rooms were regal and even the hallways had plenty of pomp and pageantry. “See this happy image of a young Queen Victoria with her husband Prince Albert. Everybody is used to her as the older queen as the grandmother. But for 21 years they were married, this place was the most lively and exciting place. They were forming their art collection and enjoying their family. They had nine children. This is the image we like to think about,” notes Jonathan Marsden, the Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art for the Royal Collection, describing the portrait of the Royal Family depicted by the seaside at their wonderful house on the Isle of White. The magnificent painting is simply titled, The Family of Queen Victoria, by German master, Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

“And this, this is one of my favourites, a Rubens,” motions Mr. Marsden, “This is the self-portrait he gave to Charles I as a present.” It is that portrait of a hat-wearing bearded painter stone-faced with somber, clear eyes watching you that stared back at me.

The vast history of the British Empire can no doubt be observed through the countless paintings which account for the largest and oldest art collection in Britain. The British Royal Collection holds over 7,000 paintings and 3,000 miniatures, and is considered one of the most important holdings of Western pictorial art in the world. Through this Royal Collection the tastes and fashion of kings and queens span over 500 years dating back as early as the Tudor Dynasty.

So who really started the art collection?

Try Charles I of England. During his reign from 1625 to 1649, he was the greatest art collector who ever lived. “The Royal Collection really began in the early 17th century. So we’ve been in the picture collecting business for a very long time,” explained Mr. Marsden of an equestrian poised art-loving king created by his official court painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck.

“If you go to any museum in the world such as The Met or the Louvre, you will have a masterpiece that used to belong to Charles I. The reason it’s all there is that when he was executed in 1649 all his possessions were sold. However after the Restoration some things did come back so we didn’t entirely have to start from scratch.”

Most of the collection on view at Buckingham Palace is since the 17the century. “The people who formed this collection were preeminently King George III. He bought large collections, 50 paintings from Canaletto from the man for whom Canaletto painted, a man named Joseph Smith. Accidentally he bought this Vermeer (The Music Lesson). No one knew who Vermeer was at the time.”

Other painters from the Renaissance and Dutch masters like Rembrandt hang effortlessly, as colourful as the day these priceless pieces were painted. “This really is a masterpiece purchased by King George VI,” reflects Mr. Marsden. It is a portrait of Jan Rijcksen and his wife, Griet Jans also known as The shipbuilder and his wife. “He’s busy with his draft and his wife enters the room with a fax of the day, a note. He almost looks annoyed and she seems to be in a rush, almost excited.” The viewer is left with a mystery.

In July 1962 a young Queen Elizabeth II opened The Queen’s Gallery housed in a former private chapel in Buckingham Palace. Ever since its debut this paragon is among the great picture galleries of the Western world.

To Know:

Buckingham Palace is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth so expect plenty of special rare collections many of which will be on display for the first time.
Ticket Sales and Information Office
The Official Residences of The Queen
London SW1A 1AA
Telephone (+44) (0)20 7766 7300
Fax (+44) (0)20 7930 9625
Royal Collection

Opening hours
26 July - 30 September 2009
09:45 - 18:00 (last admission 15:45)
Admission is by timed ticket with entry every 15 minutes throughout the day. Tickets are valid only on the date and at the entrance time specified on the ticket.

Timing your visit
A typical visit lasts between 2 and 2½ hours.

Cheap eats and accommodations
You can snag rooms virtually from hostels right up to luxury hotels, and currently many properties across London are offering bargain discounts.

City Inn Westminster has an “Always Exceptional Value” summer promotion ongoing every weekend till September 6th. A double or twin room at this London property is priced from 99 pounds ($200) which includes breakfast, the VAT and plenty of amenities like complimentary CDs, DVDs, Internet and power showers. Lunch menus at the hotel’s stylish City Cafe have a fresh seasonal menu with a special two course lunch priced for £9.95 (about CDN$20).

One Aldwych over by Covent Garden walking distance to 15 theatres is a hotbed for after-hours fun. Indulge at the chi-chi Lobby Bar with summer cocktails called G&T martinis, the first ever gin and tonic martini with Beefeater 24; and Pimms at One, a colourful ensemble of summer fruit and Pimms Number One finished off with a splash of Beefeater London Gin and some chilled Elderflower tea.

Afterwards try the delectable cuisine at the hotel’s highly sought after resto, Axis. Fixed price menus are the big deal to be had here. Inquire about their two course or three course fixed price menus. Prices are 16.75 pounds (about CDN$31) for the former and 19.75 pounds (about CDN$40) for the latter.

Budget hotel chains like Travelodge are also running summer discounts. I recently saw a Travelodge advertisement price an average room rate in Central London for 64 pounds (about CDN$121). For Travelodge bookings, if you book seven days in advance you can find rooms from just 29 pounds (about CDN $60) per night across the United Kingdom.

For more accommodation bookings, visit the London Tourism office online at Visit London and click on the “unbeatable travel deals” for hotels on the home page.

Cheap Air
Airlines are offering cheap summer deals. Check out Roundtrip airfare Calgary to London Gatwick costs $199 plus taxes extra. British Airways and Royal Bank Visa have ongoing special offers like the Companion Offer. You receive a ticket for a companion when you purchase a qualifying round-trip full-fare ticket from the US to any British Airways destination using your RBC Royal Bank British Airways Visa* credit card.

Getting Around Use public transit and pick up the Oyster Card, the fastest and easiest way to get around London. Cards are available for purchase at London Travel Information Centres, Tube stations and at over 2,200 Oyster Ticket Stops. If you find you don’t use the remaining cash on your card, don’t worry, the Oyster Card has no expiry date and will be good the next time you return to London. For more details, visit them online at


Photo: Derry Moore - White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace, Courtesy VisitBritain

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