The collection of works of art, particularly paintings and drawings, accumulated by the British royal family over a period of five centuries, from Tudor times to the present day. It is the only great European royal collection to retain its identity, the others having been mainly absorbed into state museums. Sir Oliver Millar, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures 1972–88, writes that the collection was ‘made by a succession of English Kings, Queens, Consorts and Princes; and it reflects their discernment and prejudice, their bad taste as well as their good, their friendships, diversions, loves, hates, idiosyncrasies and obsessions—and of course a network of dynastic associations—in a uniquely illuminating manner…The commonplace that the worst and most extravagant Kings have the best taste is well borne out by the story of the collection’ (The Queen's Pictures, 1977). In the foreword to The Royal Collection (1992) by Christopher Lloyd (Millar's successor as Surveyor), Prince Charles explains that ‘Although the paintings were purchased over the ages as a means of decorating the homes and official residences of sovereigns, they are not, strictly speaking, the private property of the sovereign. They are, to all intents and purposes, national heirlooms which are an integral part of the institution of monarchy and of which each successive sovereign is the guardian.’
The earliest English monarch of whose collection we have substantial records is HenryVIII (1491–1547; reigned from 1509), but most of the works he owned cannot be certainly identified (the inventories are imprecise) or have been lost or dispersed; they probably included Raphael's exquisite St George and the Dragon (c.1505, NG, Washington), which is believed to have been a diplomatic gift to his father Henry VII from Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Henry VIII spent lavishly on art and understood its propaganda value, but little is known of his personal taste. Rather than being a connoisseur, he probably appreciated paintings, like other luxury goods, for their value as status symbols. He employed outstanding foreign artists, notably Pietro Torrigiano and above all Holbein, but the Holbeins now in the Royal Collection were acquired after his reign.
Every British monarch since Henry's time has acquired paintings and other works, but only a few of these rulers stand out for their genuine love of art, particularly Charles I (1600–49; reigned from 1625), who assembled one of the finest picture collections ever created and gave England a new prominence in European cultural affairs. Charles's passion for art began early and he inherited the nucleus of his collection from his elder brother Henry, Prince of Wales, who died in 1612 aged only 18. Other works came to Charles as diplomatic gifts, but most of his collection was purchased, and the huge sums he spent on it were one of the sources of the financial difficulties that helped bring about his downfall. His greatest enthusiasm was for Italian Renaissance painting, particularly of the 16th-century Venetian School (he had a superb representation of Titian's work). In 1623 (two years before he became king) he bought Raphael's magnificent set of cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles for use at the recently founded Mortlake Tapestry Factory, and in 1627 came his greatest coup when he outmanoeuvred rivals to acquire the bulk of the celebrated Gonzaga collection, including Mantegna's series of canvases of the Triumphs of Caesar. Charles also patronized living artists, most notably Rubens and van Dyck, whom he knighted in 1630 and 1632 respectively.