My arts manifesto for our new king

    Your Majesty,

    Forgive the early hour of this missive. The butler may not have had a chance yet to brush the royal teeth and the new crown is still perched, I imagine, on the bedside table, next to the royal reading glasses. But there’s an old Polish saying that advises, “Kick your horse at the start of the race, not the end,” so here I am already, knock, knock, knocking on the royal door, proffering unbidden advice.

    I take this risk for an important reason. Your Majesty, I know your secret. I also know why you must be fretting about the tabloid press remembering it, too, and using it to whip up the populace against you. So I write this missive in an effort to awaken your ancestral German courage. There’s no point being coy: you are a man of the arts. It’s as clear as the Koh-i-noor. And just as dangerous.

    In the past it was made obvious in serpentine ways. Remember the watercolours? The ones you showed at Hampton Court in 1998? They were surprisingly good. I particularly enjoyed your Scottish views of desolate stretches of empty heath. To my trained eye they were the works of an artist in love with solitude, a lonely soul fully in tune with the tearful roar of the rutting stag.

    Then there were your battles with the modernists. Remember how your complaints about St Paul’s Cathedral being obliterated from the London skyline by ruler-designed skyscrapers led to fisticuffs at dawn with Richard Rogers and Norman Foster? Your Majesty, in my youth I too was one of the gigglers. Now, with modernism’s star so conspicuously on the wane in art, and The Repair Shop doing so well on the telly, it is apparent you were more right than wrong.

    How marvellous, too, that you commissioned all that new music for your coronation. At a time when our national broadcaster is threatening its choirs with the chop, how heartening to see our King striding in the opposite direction, hand in hand with, er, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

    So yes, Your Majesty, you are a man of the arts. Like me. Unlike me you may be tempted not to trumpet it. Britain being what it is, I fear your courtiers may actively be advising you to keep your culture undercover and perhaps even to feign a lack of interest in it. In the corridors and kitchens of Buckingham Palace many will be remembering what happened the last time a king called Charles made the mistake of revealing his fondness for the arts.

    We became a republic and cut off his head.

    Of course, the Cromwellians, then and now, will argue that Charles I was beheaded for many reasons. Being an art lover wasn’t his only fault. But it was certainly the one that tipped the scales. Think of all the awful, undemocratic, despotic rulers this nation has had — the wife-slayers, the nutcases — who managed to hang on to their heads while Charles did not. Why? Because none of them made it as obvious as he did that they loved the arts.

    The worst king we have had, Henry VIII, a satanic monster who decapitated his wives and destroyed a thousand years of national culture when he cavalierly switched religions, was a bit of a secret art lover too. If Henry had not brought Holbein over from Switzerland to immortalise him as an extra-wide Sid James lookalike, the Tudor age would have remained largely unimagined. And all those Booker prizes would have been unwon.

    Henry, though, was too cunning and undemocratic to allow the populace to become fully aware of his love of the arts. You, Your Majesty, are in a trickier position. Declaring your passion today is risky. One flash of a sensitive watercolour and the dogs of war will be sent to bite you. Which is why I am writing on this first morning, begging you to throw caution to the wind and to go full steam ahead with the ambitious cultural programme I know in your heart of hearts you crave. I’ve even drawn up some ideas to help you.

    1. Most evidently, you need to build a whopping great art gallery and fill it with works from the royal collection. As an art critic who has often had cause to tramp through the royal residences, counting the treasures scattered about them, genning up on what’s in the stores, I know how stupendous your art riches are. Many do not.

    Frankly, the Queen’s Gallery, that tiny alcove appended to Buckingham Palace where bits of the royal collection are occasionally displayed, is far too small to do the collection justice. It’s basically a gift shop with a small art gallery attached. What you need is something along the lines of the Louvre in Paris. Somewhere huge and central with a big space in the front where you can build a giant pyramid. I know just the spot — Buckingham Palace! Turn the whole caboodle into an art gallery!

    You’ve said that you wish to live more modestly. So convert the Queen’s Gallery into a living space, move in there with Queen Camilla, and fill Buckingham Palace with all the Rembrandts, Rubenses, Van Dycks and Canalettos we so rarely get to see.

    Imagine walking up The Mall and there, looming up in front of you, is Britain’s greatest and grandest repository of artistic treasures. With somewhere big in the garden for Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar. And countless twilit rooms for the huge stash of Leonardo drawings. I’ve even got the perfect name for it: the King’s Gallery.

    2. Something else you should do is find a decent artist to do your portrait. Henry VIII found Holbein. Charles I found Van Dyck. But so far, Your Majesty, you have had to make do with the dreadful Bryan Organ, who makes you look like a magazine illustration in a lifestyle pullout. You need to aim higher. Think, perhaps, outside the box. What about the wonderful Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who has just had a superb show at Tate Britain and who generally paints angsty young black men looking mysterious. She’s excitingly skilled, so I’m sure she can be persuaded to try something different.

    3. You already have an art school: The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. But it, too, is a bit pokey. And, since we are now living in the age of The Repair Shop, I suggest it could profit from expansion.

    4. Finally, a more personal plea. As you must know, because your son William studied the subject when he did art history at St Andrews, Charles I had two great royal painters. One was Van Dyck, who has always been royally fêted. The other was William Dobson, who has largely been forgotten.

    Yet it was Dobson who can justly claim to be the first great English artist. Dobson who painted the most poignant of all portraits of Charles I and immortalised the Cavalier court in the short and tragic years it decamped to Oxford. Without him, the darkest moment in the nation’s story, the English Civil War, would have no face.

    Why not put up a statue to him next to the new pyramid? Failing that, how about a stamp?