Some of the greatest paintings in Britain – and I mean works by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens – all hang in a single room, namely the Picture Gallery of Buckingham Palace. It must be quite something to visit, the kind of royal sanctum many of us only see via The Crown on Netflix. Except we don’t – because, obviously, they weren’t allowed to film there. (Everyone notices their own clangers on the show: I stopped watching when Anthony Blunt, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and a Soviet spy, explained art – and this collection – to HM using the term “early modern”. This old school art snob would no more have said “early modern” than he’d have said “taken to Twitter”. He’d have said “renaissance” or “baroque”.)
The Picture Gallery is having works done so its paintings are being shown at the Queen’s Gallery next door. So here they are, those early modern masterpieces, in a stunning revelation of the Royal Collection’s finest canvases. There is an entire wall of Rembrandts, each astonishing, some rarely seen out and about. I’ve never before looked into the eyes of Rembrandt’s rabbi. Always curious about his Jewish neighbours when he lived on Amsterdam’s Breestraat, the artist homes in on an old scholar’s anxious expression.
In another painting, overflowing with life, he depicts Jan Rijcksen, a shipbuilder, and his wife, Griet Jans. He is turning from his desk, where he’s studying ship designs, as she lunges in with a message. They’re consciously posing, playing themselves in a little drama of their lives together. Griet seems about to burst out laughing. But far from undermining the seriousness of the painting, this overt self-consciousness adds to its reality and depth by making us part of the game, and therefore part of a conversation with these people.
The most imposing of all is his portrait of Agatha Bas. This long-dead woman moves towards you, her gilded fan seeming to escape the canvas over a painted frame, her pale gaze formidable. If the Queen is ever in her Picture Gallery alone at night, I’ll bet this revenant spooks her. It spooked me.
The Rembrandts alone would make this an unmissable event. But he has rivals. It’s hard to be sure about Anthony van Dyck. Was he a great artist or just a very talented one? Here’s the answer. Right by the Rembrandts hangs his portrait of Thomas Killigrew, flaccidly resting his head on his hand beside a broken column as he slumps in grief. He’d recently lost his wife. A friend – thought to be William, Lord Crofts – is gently trying to distract him with work. The emotional punch and plain truth of this painting proves Van Dyck’s mettle. Then again, it is his very greatest work.
If portraits are not your thing, try Vermeer’s surreal frozen cinema. Light and shadow form an immense wall in the left part of A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, which was formerly called The Music Lesson. She stands at her baroque keyboard, with her back to us, face caught in a high mirror along with other objects in the room. A man gazes intently at her but probably not to supervise her playing. Colour seems to immerse and embrace them, as if the big room they’re in were a bath of luminescent fluid.
It goes on. Rubens, like Van Dyck, knew and worked for the greatest British royal art collector, Charles I. His Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape glistens as if painted yesterday, bulges with roly-poly life as Rubens tries to distil all the forces and freedom of nature into a carnival of breezy colour. The same appetite for life spills out of his Portrait of a Woman, whose bulging bosom is swathed in translucent lace that rises up to form her ruff collar. It’s either an insight into baroque fashion or Rubens’s personal fetish. What stops you, though, is the creamy iridescent colour.
One of the strengths of rambling old art collections is that they can hold onto forgotten works that later get recognised as masterpieces. There’s a terrific painting here by Paulus Potter of cows: their knobbly bodies, in a Dutch meadow, are like tree roots or turds. The Royal Collection has lent Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting to her sensational National Gallery show – she painted it for Charles I – and the Queen even found a Caravaggio up in the loft a while ago.
So I say this with respect for the Royal Collection’s virtues: this exhibition is disastrously brilliant. While I’m grateful that some of the royal family’s treasures are being revealed for a limited time, I object to them then going back to being decorations for state visits, royal audiences and part of the tourist spectacle of the annual summer opening. The universality of this magnificent art should not serve as a prop in the royal pageant. It’s hard to believe the 21st-century monarchy really depends on owning all these Rembrandts.
• At Queen’s Gallery, London, from 4 December to 31 January 2022.
• This article was amended on 3 December 2020 to make it clear that these paintings can be seen in the annual summer opening of Buckingham Palace.