Spread among 13 occupied and historic royal residences in the United Kingdom, the collection is owned by King Charles III and overseen by the Royal Collection Trust. The British monarch owns some of the collection in right of the Crown and some as a private individual. It is made up of over one million objects, including 7,000 paintings, over 150,000 works on paper, this including 30,000 watercolours and drawings, and about 450,000 photographs, as well as around 700,000 works of art, including tapestries, furniture, ceramics, textiles, carriages, weapons, armour, jewellery, clocks, musical instruments, tableware, plants, manuscripts, books, and sculptures.
About 3,000 objects are on loan to museums throughout the world, and many others are lent on a temporary basis to exhibitions.
Few items from before Henry VIII survive. The most important additions were made by Charles I, a passionate collector of Italian paintings and a major patron of Van Dyck and other Flemish artists. He purchased the bulk of the Gonzaga collection from the Duchy of Mantua. The entire Royal Collection, which included 1,500 paintings and 500 statues, was sold after Charles's execution in 1649. The 'Sale of the Late King's Goods' at Somerset House raised £185,000 for the English Republic. Other items were given away in lieu of payment to settle the king's debts. A number of pieces were recovered by Charles II after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and they form the basis for the collection today. The Dutch Republic also presented Charles with the Dutch Gift of 28 paintings, 12 sculptures, and a selection of furniture. He went on to buy many paintings and other works.
George III was mainly responsible for forming the collection's outstanding holdings of Old Master drawings; large numbers of these, and many Venetian paintings including over 40 Canalettos, joined the collection when he bought the collection of Joseph "Consul Smith", which also included a large number of books. Many other drawings were bought from Alessandro Albani, cardinal and art dealer in Rome.
George IV shared Charles I's enthusiasm for collecting, buying up large numbers of Dutch Golden Age paintings and their Flemish contemporaries. Like other English collectors, he took advantage of the great quantities of French decorative art on the London market after the French Revolution, and is mostly responsible for the collection's outstanding holdings of 18th-century French furniture and porcelain, especially Sèvres. He also bought much contemporary English silver, and many recent and contemporary English paintings.Queen Victoria and her husband Albert were keen collectors of contemporary and old master paintings.
Throughout the reign of Elizabeth II (1952–2022), there were significant additions to the collection through judicious purchases, bequests, and gifts from nation states and official bodies. According to guidelines drawn up in 1995 and updated in 2003, gifts given to the royal family by foreign heads of state and dignitaries in an official capacity cannot be sold or traded and automatically become part of the Royal Collection. Since 1952, approximately 2,500 works have been added to the Royal Collection. The Commonwealth is strongly represented in this manner: an example is 75 contemporary Canadian watercolours that entered the collection between 1985 and 2001 as a gift from the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. Modern art acquired by Elizabeth II includes pieces by Sir Anish Kapoor, Lucian Freud, and Andy Warhol. In 2002 it was revealed that 20 paintings (excluding works on paper) were acquired by the Queen in the first 50 years of her reign, mostly portraits of previous monarchs or their close relatives. Eight were purchased at auction, six bought from dealers, three commissioned, two donated or bequeathed, and one was a purchase from Winchester Cathedral.
In 1987 a new department of the Royal Household was established to oversee the Royal Collection, and it was financed by the commercial activities of Royal Collection Enterprises, a limited company. Before then, it was maintained using the monarch's official income paid by the Civil List. Since 1993 the collection has been funded by entrance fees to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
A computerised inventory of the collection was started in early 1991, and it was completed in December 1997. The full inventory is not available to the public, though catalogues of parts of the collection – especially paintings – have been published, and a searchable database on the Royal Collection website is increasingly comprehensive, with "271,697 items found" by late 2020.
The collection's holdings of Western fine art are among the largest and most important assemblages in existence, with works of the highest quality, and, in many cases, artists' oeuvres cannot be fully understood without a study of the holdings contained within the Royal Collection. There are over 7,000 paintings, spread across the Royal residences and palaces. The collection does not claim to provide a comprehensive, chronological survey of Western fine art but it has been shaped by the individual tastes of kings, queens and their families over the last 500 years.
Pontormo (Jacopo da Pontormo) – at least 1 painting
Raphael – at least 8 paintings, as well as an extensive collection of drawings. There are seven full-size cartoons for the tapestries designed to hang in the Sistine Chapel. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Raphael attained the zenith of his reputation. Consequently, the Raphael Cartoons have become some of the most famous, and widely imitated, paintings in the world. Since 1865 they have been on loan from the Royal Collection to the V&A.
Numbering over 300 items, the Royal Collection holds one of the greatest and most important collections of French furniture ever assembled. The collection is noted for its encyclopedic range as well as counting the greatest cabinet-makers of the Ancien Régime.
Pierre-Antoine Bellangé – at least 13 items, including:
Deux paire de Pedestals, inset with porcelain plaques, c. 1820
Paire de pier table, c. 1823–1824 (The Blue Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Paire de petit pier table, c. 1823–24 (The Blue Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Side table, c. 1820
Paire de secretaire, c. 1827-28
Paire de cabinets, (see pietra dura section), c. 1820
André-Charles Boulle – at least 13 items, including:
Armoire, c. 1700 (The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle)
Armoire, c. 1700 (The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle)
Cabinet (en première-partie), c. 1700 (The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle)
Cabinet (en contre-partie), c. 1700 (The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle)
Cabinet, (without stand, similar to ones in the State Hermitage Museum and the collections of the Duke of Buccleuch)
Paire de bas d'armoire, (The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle)
Writing table, possibly delivered to Louis, the Grand Dauphin (1661–1711), c. 1680
Paire de torchère, c. 1700
Bureau Plat, c. 1710 (The Rubens Room, Windsor Castle)
Petit gaines, attributed to., early 18th century
Martin Carlin – at least 2 items:
Cabinet (commode à vantaux), (see pietra dura section), c. 1778
Cabinet, mounted with Sèvres plaques, c. 1783
Jacob Frères – at least 1 item:
Writing-table, c. 1805
Gérard-Jean Galle – at least 1 item:
Candelabra x2, early 19th century
Pierre Garnier – at least 2 items:
Paire de cabinets, c. 1770
Georges Jacob – at least 30 items, including:
Petit sofa, c. 1790
Tête-à-tête, c. 1790
Fauteuil, c. 1790
Lit à la Polonaise, c. 1790
Small armchairs and settees, suite of 20, c. 1786
Armchairs x4, c. 1786
Gilles Joubert – at least 2 items:
Pair of Pedestals, delivered for the bedroom of Louis XV at Versailles, c. 1762
Pierre Langlois – at least 5 items, including:
Commode, c. 1765
Deux paire de commode, c. 1763
Étienne Levasseur – at least 7 items:
Side-table, attributed to, c. 1770
Deux paire de gaines, attributed to, c. 1770
Deux secretaire, adapted from an Andre-Charles Boulle table en bureau, c. 1770
Jean Henri Riesener – at least 6 items:
Commode, delivered to Louis XVI's "Chambre du Roi" at Versailles, c. 1774;
Paire de encoignure, delivered to Louis XVI's "Chambre du Roi" at Versailles, c. 1774;
Jewel-cabinet, delivered to the Comtesse de Provence, c. 1787
Writing-table, c. 1785
Bureau à cylindre, c. 1775
Sèvres – at least 1 item:
Centre-table, 'The Table of the Grand Commanders', c. 1806–12 (The Blue Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Pierre-Philippe Thomire – at least 15 items, including:
Pedestal, c. 1813
Pedestal for the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, c. 1826
Paire de candelabra, 8 light, c. 1828
Torchères x11, c. 1814
Clock, mounts attributed to., 1803
Candelabra x2, early 19th century
Adam Weisweiler – at least 13 items:
Cabinet, inset with a Sèvres plaque, late 18th century
Cabinet, (see pietra dura section), 1780
Side Table, (see pietra dura section), c. 1780
Side Table, (see pietra dura section), c. 1785 (The Green Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Paire de pier-table, in chinoiserie style, c. 1787–1790
Commode, c. 1785
Console-table x4, c.1785
Paire de petit bas d'armoire, manner of. boulle, late 18th century
Other European furniture
Robert Hume (English) – at least 1 item:
Pair of cabinets, (see pietra dura section), c. 1820
Unknown (Flemish) – at least 2 items:
Cabinet-on-stand, c. 1660
Cabinet-on-stand, 17th century
Johann Daniel Sommer (German) – at least 2 items:
Pair of cabinets-on-stand, attributed to. (stands English), late 17th century
Melchior Baumgartner (German) – at least 2 items:
Organ Clock, 1664
Cabinet, (see Pietra Dura section), c. 1660
Unknown (Dutch) – at least 1 item:
Secretaire-cabinet, in boulle marquetry, c. 1700
Pietra Dura – at least 11 items:
Cabinet, Augsburg, attributed to Melchior Baumgartner, c. 1660
Cabinet, Italian, c. 1680
Cabinet, Adam Weisweiler – at least inset with pietra dura panels, 1780 (The Green Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Side Table, Adam Weisweiler – at least inset with pietra dura panels, c. 1780 (The Silk Tapestry Room, Buckingham Palace)
Cabinet (commode à vantaux), Martin Carlin – at least inset with pietra dura panels re-used from Louis XIVs great Florentine cabinets, c. 1778 (The Silk Tapestry Room, Buckingham Palace)
Casket, Italian: Florentine, c. 1720
Paire de cabinets, Martin-Eloy Lignereux – at least inset with Florentine plaques, c. 1803
Paire de cabinets, Pierre-Antoine Bellangé – at least inset with precious stones based on a Florentine design by Baccio del Bianco, c. 1820
Pair of cabinets, Robert Hume, c. 1820 (The Crimson Drawing Room, Windsor Castle)
Four Florentine pietra dura panels on 18th century cabinets, re-adapted, c. 1820s (The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Cabinet-on-stand, magnificent example composed of ebony, mid-17th century
Bureau, magnificent example similar to a version in both the V&A and the Getty Museum, 1690–95
Bureaux Mazarin x2, in Boulle style, late 17th century
Bureaux Mazarin x2, in Boulle style, c. 1700 (The Ballroom, Windsor Castle)
Bureaux Mazarin, late 17th century (The West Gallery, Buckingham Palace)
Deux paire de boulle bas d'cabinets
Sculpture and decorative arts
André-Charles Boulle – at least 4 items:
Mantle clock, c. 1710 (The Green Drawing Room, Windsor Castle)
Pedestal clock, (Similar to ones in Blenheim Palace, Chateau de Versailles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Frick Collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art)
Pedestal clock, late 17th century;
Pedestal clock, c. 1720
Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy – at least 1 item:
Clock, fitted with three porcelain figures, c. 1788 (The State Dining Room, Buckingham Palace)
Matthew Boulton – at least 4 items:
Two pairs of vases, c. late 18th century (The Marble Hall, Buckingham Palace)
Fabergé – at least 3 Imperial Eggs and 1 Easter Egg
Gérard-Jean Galle – at least 2 items:
Candelabra x2, in the form of cornucopias, c. early 19th century
François Rémond – at least 12 items:
Candelabra x8, 4 pairs, c. 1787 (The Blue Drawing Room & The Music Room, Buckingham Palace)
Candelabra x4, delivered to the comte d'Artois for the cabinet de Turc at Versailles, 1783 (The State Dining Room, Buckingham Palace)
Pierre-Philippe Thomire – at least 3 items:
Vase, c. early 19th century (The Music Room, Windsor Castle)
Candelabra x2, malachite and bronze, early 19th century (The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace)
Candelabra x2, malachite and bronze, c. 1828 (The State Dining Room, Buckingham Palace)
Candelabra x4, figures of patinated bronze, c. 1810 (The East Gallery, Buckingham Palace)
Antonio Canova – at least 3 items: Mars and Venus, c. 1815–1817 (The Ministers' Staircase, Buckingham Palace)
Fountain nymph, 1819 (The Marble Hall, Buckingham Palace)
Dirce, 1824 (The Marble Hall, Buckingham Palace)
François Girardon – at least 1 item:
Bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV, after Girardon, c. 1700
Louis-Claude Vassé – at least 1 item:
Equestrian statue of Louis XV, a small reduction copy after the original by Edmé Bouchardon, c. 1764
Antiquities – at least 2 items:
British Bronze Age - the Rillaton Gold Cup, on long-term loan to the British Museum. Lely Venus, a Hellenistic statue of the "crouching Venus" type, bought by Charles I, on long-term loan to the British Museum.
Gobelins – at least 36 items:
Tapestry, four (from a series of twenty-eight designs) from the 'History of Don Quixote' given by Louis XVI to Richard Cosway, by whom presented to George IV, c. 1788
Tapestry, eight from the series 'Les Portières des Dieux', c. 18th century
Tapestry, four from the series 'Les Amours des Dieux', c. late 18th century
Tapestry, eight from the series 'Jason and the Golden Fleece', 1776-1779
Tapestry, seven from the series 'History of Esther', 1783
Tapestry, three from the series 'Story of Daphnis and Chloë', 1754
Tapestry, two from the series 'Story of Meleager and Atalanta', 1844
The collection has a number of items of clothing, including those worn by members of the Royal family, especially female members, some going back to the early 19th century. These include ceremonial dress and several wedding dresses, including that of Queen Victoria which set the trend for white wedding dresses (1840). There are also servant's livery uniforms, and a number of exotic pieces presented over the years, going back to a "war coat" of Tipu Sultan (d. 1799). In recent years these have featured more prominently in displays and exhibitions, and are popular with the public.
Gems and Jewels
A collection of 277 cameos, intaglios, badges of insignia, snuff boxes and pieces of jewellery known as the Gems and Jewels are kept at Windsor Castle. Separate from Elizabeth II's jewels and the Crown Jewels, 24 pre-date the Renaissance and the rest were made in the 16th–19th centuries. In 1862, it was first shown publicly at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Several objects were removed and others added in the second half of the Victorian period. An inventory of the collection was made in 1872, and a catalogue, Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, was published in 2008 by the Royal Collection Trust.
The Royal Collection is privately owned, although some of the works are displayed in areas of palaces and other royal residences open to visitors for the public to enjoy. Some of the collection is owned by the monarch personally, and everything else is described as being held in trust by the monarch in right of the Crown. It is understood that works of art acquired by monarchs up to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 are heirlooms which fall into the latter category. Items the British royal family acquired later, including official gifts, can be added to that part of the collection by a monarch at their sole discretion. Ambiguity surrounds the status of objects that came into the possession of Elizabeth II during her 70-year reign. The Royal Collection Trust has confirmed that all pieces left to her by the Queen Mother, which included works by Monet, Nash, and Fabergé, belonged to her personally. It was also confirmed that she owned the Royal stamp collection, inherited from her father George VI, as a private individual.
Hypothetical questions have been asked in Parliament about what should happen to the collection if the UK ever becomes a republic. In other European countries, the art collections of deposed monarchies usually have been taken into state ownership or become part of other national collections held in trust for the public's enjoyment. Under the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into British law in 1998, the monarch may have to be compensated for the loss of any assets held in right of the Crown unless he or she agreed to surrender them voluntarily.
A registered charity, the Royal Collection Trust was set up in 1993 after the Windsor Castle fire with a mandate to conserve the works and enhance the public's appreciation and understanding of art. It employs around 500 staff and is one of the five departments of the Royal Household. Buildings do not come under its remit. In 2012, the team of curatorial staff numbered 29, and there were 32 conservationists. Income is raised by charging entrance fees to see the collection at various locations and selling books and merchandise to the public. The Trust is financially independent and receives no Government funding or public subsidy. A studio at Marlborough House is responsible for the conservation of furniture and decorative objects.
The Royal Collection Trust is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales, and a Registered Charity. On its website, the Trust describes its purpose as overseeing the "maintenance and conservation of the Royal Collection, subject to proper custodial control in the service of the Queen and the nation." It also deals with acquisitions for the Royal Collection, and the display of the Royal Collection to the public.
^Jerry Brotton (2 April 2006). "The great British art swindle". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 2 December 2016. Some people know that this is perhaps the finest, and certainly what the royal palaces website proudly calls "the largest private collection of art in the world".
^Lloyd, p. 11. "It is, therefore, a private collection, although its sheer size (some 7,000 pictures) and its display in palaces and royal residences (several of which are open to the public) give it a public dimension".
^"Royal Taxation". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Vol. 351. United Kingdom: House of Commons. 7 June 2000. col. 273W. There is a computerised inventory of the Royal Collection which identifies assets held by the Queen as Sovereign and as a private individual.