A secret of mine, which I spill reluctantly, is that I love to pop into the Queen’s Gallery. I know how uncool this is. I can’t help it. Usually, I stride first into the jewellery alcove off the main room, where I stare at the Diamond Diadem, the one worn by Her Majesty on our stamps. Is there anything in existence that sparkles more? Then I take in the unfeasibly large chunks of the Cullinan diamond, the biggest ever found, which the South Africans gave to Victoria, the fools. Sometimes the Coronation Service of George III comes next. You know how it is with gold. Sometimes I risk the belt donated by the Maharaja of Lahore, the one made out of emeralds the size of kiwi fruit. If I were a royal, I’d ask HM if I could use it to hold up my jeans. Now that would be cool.
Astonishingly, I am often the only person seeking this manner of uplift during these surreptitious visits of mine. For entirely mysterious reasons, whatever the season, the Queen’s Gallery is never crowded. I also like the way the staff out-number the visitors, and that fawning thing they attempt that distinguishes them from all the other paramilitaries patrolling the nation’s museums. A man is treated like a king in here, by footmen and bootgirls with decades of experience at bowing and scraping, and a tang to them of unusually vicious resentment. This isn’t just a gallery visit, it’s an expedition into the dark heart of the class system.
Most of all, I like the paintings. Uniquely among the great art collections open to all comers in London, the royal one is simultaneously magnificent and magnificently flawed. It has so many superb things in it, balanced by so many duds. The fascinating face-off between masterpieces and duds always repays a detour. It’s unique. It’s revealing. It’s so Windsor. Even the title of the gallery’s current selection is so superbly naff. Enchanting the Eye, the show is showily called, with the yeomanish subtitle bolted on: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age. I get pleasure from imagining agonising courtiers locking themselves away in the Tower for months before coming up with that. “I believe we might call it Enchanting the Eye, Ma’am.” “I believe we might, Jeeves.”
What’s hilarious is that this falsely poetic and utterly ingratiating cliché masquerading as a useful exhibition title is undermined thoroughly from within by the show’s labels and catalogue entries. Look up Jan Steen’s delightful peep into the dishevelled bedroom of a stripping whore, from 1663, and you read that the Dutch slang for a chamber pot is piespot, while the Dutch word for a stocking is kous, and that the two were sometimes combined to give us pieskous, a popular term of abuse for women that’s particularly unenchanting, wouldn’t you say? Thus, Enchanting the Eye promises banality, but delivers outrage; under the cover of its vacuous title, it sneaks a coachload of thoroughly subversive insights into the Queen’s Gallery. Adding constant frisson to the journey is the delicious thought that, at some point, some royal bought this.
The proceedings commence with a sad display of fragility and fearfulness and insecurity and doubt. I don’t suppose anyone meant it to be so, but it is. The opening room has a particularly stern Rembrandt at its helm, a portrait of his mother, joined by a pair of poignant flower paintings by Maria van Oosterwyck, a sea scene of Charles II fleeing from Cromwell by boat, and a decrepit toper drinking wine, his face fixed into a grimace of determined enjoyment that’s so successfully trapped by the great Hendrick Ter Brugghen. Fate has conspired to make every one of these paintings a lament on the ceaseless pressing of time and the cruel unreliability of earthly pleasures. The fine flower pieces by van Oosterwyck, an artist I haven’t encountered before, but will now actively seek out, have such a sweet tearfulness to them. The tulips droop so perfectly. The butterflies flutter so weakly. The number of fallen petals is just so.
I found myself spending less time in front of the Rembrandt, partly because I knew it already, but also because it says what it says from the off. Rembrandt’s blasts of maternal sadness are fired from both barrels at once, and are conspicuously un-Dutch in their emotional directness. For most of this show, you are in the hands of snipers, observational assassins, sneak thieves and peeping toms, saying what they want to say with nudges, hints and winks, a symbol here, an allusion there. It’s all so fiendishly well observed. That’s why Dutch art of the 17th century, this golden age they so rightly claim for themselves, is incapable of being uninteresting. A couple of the show’s sea pieces, by the tedious van de Velde, manage it, because, as Sinatra and Kelly once sang, when you join the navy, you see the sea. The hawking scenes didn’t detain me, either, because the sight of wastrels chasing animals around the countryside was as boring then as it is now. For the rest, however, it’s one wicked insight after another, as this furtive and fascinating investigation steals through the back yards and cellars of the 17th-century Dutch psyche, and, I suggest, every superficially respectable psyche everywhere.
Also in the opening room is a sad little painting of Charles I and Henrietta Maria dining in public in 1635. It’s set in a draughty stretch of palace, around which lots of little people rattle like tiny teaspoons in a huge kitchen drawer. I got as close to it as I dared before I could make out Charles and Henrietta Maria, surrounded by a scrum of royalist voyeurs, arranged three deep behind them, all craning their necks, trying to see the royal couple eating. Apparently, it used to be the custom for the royal dining to be observed as often as three times a week. The occasion was particularly fraught for Charles, staring here so glumly at his plate, because the saying of grace involved such a loaded choice: he was a Protestant, his wife a Catholic. Gerrit Houckgeest, who painted this royal dining nightmare, is no Rembrandt — he’s a journeyman, with no magic at all in his fingers — but the sheer truthfulness he brings to his seeing is something Rembrandt would not have sunk to. I recommend the new Duchess of Cornwall take a long look at this mournful dining record, to understand more fully what she has got herself into and to know her own sad Charlie that little better.
This is the truly fine thing about art. It’s such an accurate barometer of taste. The British monarchy may successfully have spent all those centuries hiding their real selves behind ornate ceremony and pompous etiquette, but the choices involved in buying their art leave them as naked before us as the legs of Steen’s whore removing her stockings. Most of these feverishly collected Dutch paintings are inescapably lowbrow, often vulgar, sometimes coarse. George IV, the royal Benny Hill, acquired his preferences in bulk. His obsession with furtive sex and spicy innuendo is palpable. He’s the one with the taste for kitchen maids, sprinkled so liberally about these proceedings, fondling phallic vegetables and being pointed at by all manner of spouts and sprouts. A particularly young girl, frying aphrodisiac onions, has been captured with sublime clarity by Gerrit Dou, and stares out at us so knowingly. At least a third of the show is spent in the kitchen or the tavern. Picture after picture has love on its mind.
Even the smallness of most of the paintings strikes me as revealing. Where a French king would have got in Charles Le Brun to paint wall-sized allegories of the royal apotheosis, our Georges preferred modest Dutch reminders of life’s essential sadness — in Dou’s case, no bigger than an envelope. Thus, the show can be read as an allegory of royal insecurity. The famous painters gathered here, the lonely Vermeer, the dark triptych of Rembrandts, the superb Frans Hals of a portly cavalier, as ready to burst as an October grape, join in readily with the disquiet. On this evidence, you wouldn’t want to be a royal. There’s too much to fear.