The marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle means many things to many people, but, while loyalists are bagging their picnic spots and unpacking the union-jack party plates, some hard-pressed arts organisations will be taking a longer view.

Once the party is over, reality strikes: a royal wedding means the admittance of a new member into “the firm” – and for them, a lifetime of public patronage. It has already been announced that Markle will become a partner in the Royal Foundation, set up by Princes William and Harry in 2009 as an umbrella for a clutch of charities. Besides youth work, the foundation’s portfolio is dominated by the princes’ preoccupations with the armed forces and conservation, while the charities that will be picked for Markle’s individual support will – in Palace parlance – “reflect Miss Markle’s own interests”.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visit a drawing class at City & Guilds of London Art School.
Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visit a drawing class at City & Guilds of London Art School. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The National Portrait Gallery and the art therapy organisation, Art Room, were among the first four charities to be chosen for her future sister-in-law, Kate. A clue as to where Markle’s interests might lead her – as a cosmopolitan mixed-race TV actor, with avowedly feminist views – lies in the couple’s second official engagement in January. It took them (on their own request) to the “youth-led” radio station Reprezent FM, in Brixton, south London, which is credited with launching the careers of a galaxy of DJs and grime stars, including this year’s Brit award-winner Stormzy.

But what does royal patronage actually mean for the arts? For Reprezent, which was saved from closure three years ago by a crowd-funding appeal, even a one-off visit has been an overwhelming experience. “To be honest, we’re hunkered down. We’ve been inundated with requests, and there’s been a three-line whip across the board not to talk to the press about anything at all,” said their phone operator.

The Queen meets Ashleigh and her performing dog Pudsey at the Royal Variety Performance.
The Queen meets Ashleigh and her performing dog Pudsey at the Royal Variety Performance. Photograph: Getty Images

On the other side of London, a few weeks later, a quieter connection was made as Prince Charles took over from the Duke of Edinburgh as “royal visitor” at the Royal College of Art – an association that, it is hoped, may help as the 180-year-old institution struggles to meet the formidable challenges of a period that has seen its state funding fall from 65% to 26% since 2011.

Over the next four years, the specialist graduate college – whose alumni include Sylvia Pankhurst, Ian Dury, David Hockney and Tracey Emin – will expand to a new campus in Battersea and increase its student numbers from 1,900 to 3,000. It already recruits from 74 countries and the rapid growth both in numbers and costs will increasingly involve looking overseas, where the word “royal” is an invaluable calling card.

“The royal connection has always been hugely beneficial when being seen on the international stage,” said a spokeswoman, “so we are no different from other great institutions such as the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Rada, Royal Opera House or Royal Shakespeare Company.”

As Andy Hillier, editor of the charity sector magazine Third Sector, points out, the two great advantages of a royal association are publicity and trust. “For smaller organisations, the biggest advantage is publicity because it can be very difficult to draw attention to yourself. For larger organisations, the publicity benefit might not be so obvious unless you’re staging a big event, but trust is a big issue at the moment, and if you have a royal patron there is an assumption that there’s a royal stamp of approval and that you will have been thoroughly vetted.”

The twists and turns of royal support are as bewildering as the Hampton Court maze. Presidencies and patronships come with varying, and not always consistent, levels of commitment. As a “royal visitor” Prince Charles is unlikely to visit the RCA much, though it hopes to profit from a hook-up with the Royal Drawing School, which he co-founded in 2000 as the Prince’s Drawing School, but which only went on to earn its “Royal” appellation in 2014.

The Duchess of Cornwall presents George Saunders with the 2017 Man Booker prize for fiction.
The Duchess of Cornwall presents George Saunders with the 2017 Man Booker prize for fiction. Photograph: Chris Jackson/AFP/Getty Images

The announcement of this upgrade, by an institution that could be seen as the result of a hobbyist’s anachronistic obsession with “observational drawing”, is revealing: “With this name change, the Royal Drawing School joins the Royal Academy (1768), the Royal College of Music (1882), the Royal College of Art (1896) the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1920) and the Royal Ballet School (1956), as a member of the small circle of prestigious, world-renowned arts education institutions to bear the Royal title. It is the first such institution to be granted the name since the Royal Ballet School, which received its title in 1956 – the fourth year of the reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II.”

The Royal College of Art’s headquarters – along with the Royal College of Music – are in an area of London once known as Albertopolis, in memory of the royal spouse who played a bigger role than others in the development of the UK’s enduring cultural capital.

Prince Albert was the driving force behind the Great Exhibition, staged in a custom-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851 with the not inconsiderable ambition, according to Queen Victoria, “to promote among nations the cultivation of all those arts which are fostered by peace, and which in their turn contribute to maintain the peace of the world”.

Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane in Suits.
Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane in Suits. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Despite the disapproval of critics including Karl Marx, who deplored it as an “emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities”, the self-financing extravaganza, which is said to have been visited by six million people, turned in a profit big enough to buy a swath of land in South Kensington for a new cultural quarter that would include the three great national museums on Exhibition Road and the Royal Albert Hall.

It’s a mark of the decline of royal power that, while Albert could influence the shape of a city, Prince Charles has had to content himself with a model village, incarnating his ardent architectural philosophy in the Beatrix Potter cottages and Disneyland castles of Poundbury, a new town that was planned and developed at his command on 400 acres of Dorset land from 1989.

But, though the capacities of this century’s royal patrons might be reduced, their credibility has greatly improved since the late 1980s, when National Theatre director Richard Eyre fought a valiant rearguard action against being landed with a royal charter. “The ‘Royal National’ nonsense has burst like a fat blister,” he wrote in his diary in June 1988. “I haven’t yet had to publicly defend it, and am not looking forward to having to lie in public … Neal Ascherson writes to me that ‘everyone is looking to you to stop this royal nonsense’.”

No thanks … Richard Eyre fought against the National Theatre being landed with a royal charter.
No thanks … Richard Eyre fought against the National Theatre being landed with a royal charter. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Thirty years on, Ascherson – a leading Scottish author and academic – feels just as strongly. “I’m not a fanatical anti-monarchist,” he says. “What I fancy is a country with republican institutions which, if people wanted, could have an ornamental bobble-king on top, like the royal republic of Norway.”

Ironically, given her propaganda wars with “the firm”, the change in public opinion was partly due to Princess Diana’s touchy-feely support of charities working in previously stigmatised fields such as support for people with Aids and leprosy. Hillier points out that the younger generation have continued that tradition by extending royal patronage into mental health, “which is not an area the royal family has supported in the past”.

He cites their support for the Heads Together campaign – encouraging people to be more open about mental illness – which involves a partnership with existing charities to challenge this social taboo. In today’s celebrity culture, part of their value is their ability to pull in showbiz stars – as Prince William did for Heads Together with Lady Gaga last year. Their four-minute Facetime chat, filmed in Kensington Palace and Lady Gaga’s Hollywood kitchen, was part of a series of celebrity heart-to-hearts that are now on YouTube.

Lady Gaga and Prince William discuss mental health on Facetime

But to what extent do these enthusiasms extend beyond celebrity to the arts themselves? Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has concentrated on reading charities, with patronages including the National Literacy Trust and Book Trust. At the more glitzy end she’s become a regular at the Man Booker prize dinner, and will be hosting its 50th anniversary celebrations in July with a champagne reception at Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles – who has never sold himself as a great reader, though he’s known to love a spot of Shakespeare – discreetly backs (and personally attends) the Boswell book festival in the Scottish countryside. The boutique fiesta of biography and memoir takes place in Dumfries House – a Palladian mansion in Ayrshire that he rescued and restored, and which recently joined his School of Traditional Arts as part of the Prince’s Foundation.

Prince Charles has never been one for public displays of emotion, but it won’t have escaped fans of Markle’s best-known TV role – paralegal Rachel in the series Suits – that one of her strongest suits is a capacity to emote to order. Social deprivation is likely to feature in her charity choices, with the arts as enablers. While Dumfries House is at the Chippendale end of royal patronages, it’s a fair bet that Markle’s furnishings will be more street than five-star suite.


Claire Armitstead

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