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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Why the Queen is no culture vulture
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

She's not a fan of classical music, has bought only 20 paintings during her reign and is an avid reader of the Racing Post. When it comes to the arts, the Queen, it seems, is not a huge fan.

She prefers sweet German wine to the classic dry reds and whites of France, has been known to choose a gin and Dubonnet over a glass of fine champagne and likes nothing better than to retire to her quarters in the evening to work on a jigsaw puzzle.

Such are the tastes of Her Majesty.

The Queen may be patron of such distinguished institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra, but culture, at least in the traditional sense, is not one of her greatest loves.

When the Queen takes her seat at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday night for a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her coronation, it will be only the second time she has been to the Proms in her reign, the first time being in 1994.

One might also include last year's Prom at the Palace, staged as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. But the fact that, two nights later, she also sat through performances by the likes of Atomic Kitten, Emma Bunton and Ozzy Osbourne, only muddies the picture of what Ma'am likes and dislikes.

Royal Train decor designed with the help of Sir Hugh Casson, former Royal Academy of Art president
Said by Palace officials to be 'very Homebase or B&Q'
Includes net curtains and lots of Formica

Norman Lebrecht, music critic of London's Evening Standard, is unambiguous about Her Majesty's attitude to classical music.

"She doesn't like it at all - the Queen Mother was the classical music fan," says Lebrecht. "Even in those orchestras of which she is patron, she would become patron on the condition that she would never have to attend, or at least not more than once every couple of years."

Whether it is an aversion or, as some believe, mere indifference, it marks her out from many of her forebears on the throne, who passionately supported new compositions and composers.

Henry VIII's love of music was legendary, and he was known to be handy with lute, harpsichord, harp and recorder. The Chapel Royal, which is considered to be the cradle of English Church music, has seen many noted organists and composers, including William Byrd and Henry Purcell.

Handel's Water Music was composed for George I; his Firework Music and great anthem Zadok the Priest, for George II.

Malcolm Williamson
Malcolm Williamson died an almost forgotten figure
But when Malcolm Williamson, the current Queen's Master of Music, died earlier this year, his passing was not widely noticed. A successor to the sponsored post - the musical equivalent of Poet Laureate - has yet to be chosen.

It's not only music where the Queen's cultural credentials have been questioned. Last year it was revealed that in her 50 years on the throne, she has purchased just 20 new works of art for the prestigious Royal Collection. The collection comprises 7,000 paintings.

At times, critics have painted her attitude to high art as a neglect of her potential powers of patronage.

Scorn of critics

"The Queen is a vulgarian. She could be the most important patron of the arts. Instead she collects glass animals," said the writer and critic Germaine Greer some years ago.

You have succeeded in adopting the tastes and textures of a Blackpool landlady
Waldemar Januszczak, critic

And writing in the Sunday Times last year, critic Waldemar Januszczak, said she would "be remembered as a monarch with next to no aesthetic sense. You have succeeded in adopting the tastes and textures of a Blackpool landlady."

But the picture is more complicated, says classical music writer Andrew Stewart.

The Queen's reign has been a missed opportunity for those who believe it's the monarch's role to push the cultural boundaries.

"But those with more traditional tastes in classical music will perhaps be pleased that she has not taken this opportunity," he says.

Despite it all, and in times of increased financial pressure on the monarchy, she maintains the tradition of the Chapel Royal, while both St James's and Buckingham Palace are given over to gala fundraising concerts, says Stewart.

Queen with Bryan Adams
Soft rock fan? Her Majesty with Bryan Adams
The Malcolm Williamson episode is instructive, Stewart believes, in revealing a more complex story behind the Queen's relationship with creativity.

As Master of the Queen's Music (a post once held by Edward Elgar, among others) from 1975, Williamson died an almost forgotten figure. But his abilities were stifled by ill health, says Stewart.

The fact that his predecessor, Arthur Bliss, also served under Queen Elizabeth, and produced notable work, is sometimes forgotten.

The decline in musical patronage under the Queen has coincided with a less deferential attitude to royalty and a yearning for them to be more "normal", says Andrew Stewart.

Spirit of openness

"Now, the majority of people's exposure to music is through pop or rock," says Stewart. So, would we rather the monarch commissioned an album from Robbie Williams?

Queen's Gallery
The Queen's Gallery - fine artworks and some oddball items
In this spirit of greater accountability, the Queen has put an emphasis on public access and conservation, at least for the collection of royal art works.

Last year saw the opening of the 20m revamped Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace and another at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

Both house a collection of art works and antiquities amassed by the royals over the past 500 years. In addition to the more celebrated works at Buck House are a Faberge aardvark, snapped up for 18 by George V, a pig scratching its ear, fashioned out of agate and diamonds, and a dormouse, comprising chalcedony, platinum, gold and sapphires, tugging its whiskers.

The mere thought of which may lead any arbiter of the high arts to quietly praise the current Queen for sticking to her jigsaw puzzles.


Some of your comments so far:

How nice to hear for once that the Queen is in touch with her people and generally likes the same things most British people like instead of what the critics believe a monarch really ought to appreciate!
Peter Leeson, Milton Keynes, UK

If the Queen was seen to be buying highly expensive art works, commissioning music and poems en-mass, the press would say the Monarchy had too much money and that she seems to spend willy-nilly.
Richard, Canterbury

We should all respect the Queen for not dabbling in areas she neither cares for or knows little about (tis a pity the same cannot be said for her sons). I instinctively like a woman who sticks to riding horses and having a flutter at the races.
Jo Denton, Essex

It would be wonderful to have a bit more emphasis on the arts in Britain. We have so much to be proud of, and are so capable of adopting other cultures in a very British way. A bit more style and sophistication from the Royal Family would go down a treat.
Mark Roberts, Cambridge

I think it is great that she is compared to a Blackpool landlady. Maybe Her Majesty is more in touch with the people than we thought.
Lauren, London

Why should the Queen have to like classical music? If she prefers German wine to French, or gin to champagne so what? Surely its a matter of personal taste rather than an integral part of monarchy. Personally I'm with the Queen on the wine choice if nothing else.
Martin, Loughborough

I am sorry to say so, but the Queen is a complete Philistine when it comes to the arts. It would be so much better if she weren't, as the arts needs support and patronage badly. On the other hand, better she does nothing than to promote pop music in the mistaken impression that it is the high art of the present day. Culture is not a strong attribute in the Windsors and we just have to accept that. They do have other strengths.
John, London

If The Queen already has 7,000 works of art she must be wondering where anything else could go. And with her social obligations, why would she want to give up her limited "free" time? Sounds to me as if The Queen is only guilty of "ownlife", as Orwell might have said.
Nick, London

"Great" artists and composers were contemporary to the reigning monarchs. Classical was modern for them. What current stuff can inspire, when in place of the Shakespeares we have the Greers? A pickled sheep doesn't offer the same art experience as a Constable either does it. The fault lies in what is on offer rather than royal taste.
Dave, Basildon

At 75, it is hardly surprising HM likes to curl up with a good jigsaw, rather than sit ceremonially at the opera for hours on end. She is clearly much more the normal granny than we may have thought. The question is, what is on that jigsaw? Whistler's Mother or Justin Timberlake?
P Wells, Bucharest

The Queen's tastes seems to be similar to the tastes of those who hold her most dear. And in a quick poll of the office, it's Germaine Greer who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes - which is more vulgar, to have no taste and keep quiet or to force your pretentious, media arthouse views down the throats of the world?
Sully, Sheffield

It is well known that Queen Elizabeth enjoys the music of the working class. That is brass and military Bands.
Edwin Edgar, Billericay

There is only so much one person can do, even if she is the monarch. She clearly spends time on the arts but the allocation is reflective of her interests, which I think is fair, and at least she is able to reflect her own likes and dislikes in her reign. She is after all a person entitled to her own tastes, which I think is sometimes forgotten.
M Joseph, Hertfordshire

I have never been a fan of royalty, but the news item about the Queen's tastes has put her up in my estimation. Too many people follow the arts because they feel that it the correct thing to do.
Philip, Birmingham

As I understand the term, a vulgarian is a rich person with pretensions to good taste. I have no real feelings about the monarchy either way, but it is obvious to me from your story that Germaine Greer fits into that category of person much more easily than the Queen.
Richard May, Sheffield

Royal patronage was already on the wane by the end of the 17th Century and the famously philistine Hanoverians pretty much killed it off. Things might improve a bit if we put William on the throne - maybe a Royal seal of approval for the next Sugababes album?
Paul, Glasgow

Steady on - I was born in Blackpool! I have good arts credentials as I was a steward at the Barbican Arts Centre in London during the late 80s/early 90s. The Queen on her visits there was professional and polished to everyone. And if she didn't like the performance you wouldn't have guessed it.
Maddy Price, Birkenhead

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