Art and culture

Behind the Scenes at Windsor Castle: An Interview with the Surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art

January 08, 2021

We step inside Windsor Castle and take a look at the Royal Collection with the Surveyor of The Queen's Works of Art, Rufus Bird.

How did you come to be involved in the Royal Collection?

I worked at Christie’s auctioneers for 13 years and was always interested in joining an intensive course run by The Attingham Trust called ‘Royal Collection Studies’. I was eventually allowed to join that course in 2008. That was my first in-depth look at the breadth of the Collection. In 2010, I joined Royal Collection Trust as Deputy Surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art.

What does the Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art actually do?

The Surveyor is the lead curator of the decorative arts section. Lots of people think I look after the paintings, but they are cared for by the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. It’s an incredibly varied role: it includes organising conservation plans and approving object treatments, discussing loan requests and exhibition plans, checking that objects are handled safely when moved in preparation for an event, redisplaying objects in the State Apartments or even overseeing the design of new carpets along the visitor route. There are essentially four distinct areas of work which all overlap: conservation, curating, collection care and administration.

What is in the Royal Collection?

About a million objects, built up by monarchs over the past 500 years. Most of the collection was dispersed during the Commonwealth Sales after the Civil War in the mid-17th century, and until the late 18th century most of the modern furnishings were either sold or claimed on the death of the monarch by senior courtiers as perquisites of their post in the Royal Household, and so in some ways it is remarkable that there is anything left at all. Many of the great collections of European monarchies have become state-owned and are to be seen in the great museums of Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. The exception is the Vatican, which is also a historic, European Princely collection. In Britain, our historic Royal Collection is still intact, and to a very large extent reflects royal collecting since 1660, when Charles II was restored to the monarchy.

The collection quite simply comprises everything moveable in the royal palaces: furniture, tapestries, armour, paintings, books and manuscripts, silver, jewellery, sculpture, ceramics, paintings, drawings, prints, watercolours, miniatures, candelabra, chandeliers and so on down to historic door stops, teaspoons and fireguards. The coronation regalia, known as the Crown Jewels, which includes the House of Commons and House of Lords maces, are also part of the collection. Objects in the collection can be found in 15 residences, royal and historic. The best-known are Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but the collection is also in Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Osborne House, Kew Palace and Tower of London, and there are many objects on long-term loan to the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Pavilion in Brighton and numerous other museums and galleries across Britain and the Commonwealth.

How do the collections at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle differ?

Both residences bear the firm impression of perhaps the greatest of all royal collectors, George IV. He may have been surpassed by Henry VIII and perhaps Edward III, but very little of their collections survive today, whereas a great deal of George IV’s collection survives. Buckingham Palace was finally furnished in the 1830s by William IV and Queen Adelaide, but they continued to live at Clarence House. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to take up residence there, and she added frames fixed to the walls filled with family paintings, so there is a very strong imprint of her vision for how the palace should look. Windsor is much older and was laid out by Edward III and bears the impression of Charles II, certainly in the layout of many of the rooms. However, it is the unforgettable magnificence of the Semi-State Apartments today which gives us the closest impression of how George IV wanted his rooms to look.

Windsor castle
BVRB [BERNARD II VAN RISAMBURGH] (C. 1696-C. 1766) Cabinet, c.1745 Oak, lacquer, gilt bronze, marble-credit Royal Collection Trust _ HM Queen Elizabeth II 2020

What are your personal highlights at Windsor Castle?

As a furniture enthusiast, I love the glamorous French mid-18th century lacquer commode made by the famous Parisian cabinet-maker Bernard van Risamburgh, or BVRB. It’s fitted with exceptional quality gilt bronze mounts. In the same room (the King’s Closet) is an exceptional portrait by Albrecht Dürer of a wealthy merchant called Burckhard of Speyer, a painting bought by Charles I. The new armour displays in the State Entrance and the Queen’s Guard Chamber are spectacular, and the armour made for Henry, Prince of Wales at Greenwich is a masterpiece.

And what are your personal favourites at Buckingham Palace?

There are two cabinets with pietre dure (coloured hard stone) plaques in the Green Drawing Room, both made in Paris at the end of the 18th century, both reusing panels made in the 17th century. These are remarkable pieces: both were bought by George IV, one by Adam Weisweiler around 1790 and the other by Martin Carlin in 1828, so it’s clear furniture with pietre dure plaques was a passion of his. 

The painting by Rubens called ‘The Farm at Laken’ is a magical, idealised view of pastoral richness: a perfect painting for a metropolitan setting. The painting by Rubens can be seen in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace, which displays the paintings which normally hang in the Picture Gallery of the Palace. The paintings have been removed to allow work on a major ten-year project to take place, which will overhaul the Palace’s essential services, including lead pipes and aging electrical wiring and boilers, in order to ensure the building is fit for the future as an official residence of the Sovereign and a national asset for generations to come.

Does the Royal Collection Trust continue to acquire works of art? And if so, what do you tend to buy?

Very occasionally the trust will acquire works when funds permit. On behalf of HM The Queen, the trust recently bought a superb preparatory oil sketch of the famous group portrait of Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, known as ‘The Great Piece’ by Sir Anthony van Dyck.

How much was lost in the 1992 fire at Windsor Castle?

Very little was lost as a large part of the castle had been decanted as the castle was undergoing rewiring at that time – only an enormous sideboard and very large painting, both in the State Dining Room, neither of which could be removed. Several rooms were entirely destroyed and were completely rebuilt. The Crimson Drawing Room and State Dining Room were meticulously reconstructed. The Royal Chapel, where the fire began, was not reinstated: instead, an octagonal room was constructed to display silver-gilt and other richly ornamented objects in cases behind glass.

Is there a rolling programme of conservation and restoration? And if so, do you do this in-house or do you outsource to various specialists?

Both: we are fortunate to have a large team of highly experienced in-house conservators, working in the fields of arms and armour, giltwood, metals, furniture, paper, book-binding and paintings. But we do not have a textile specialist and sometimes we have so much work on that we need to contract out some conservation. We also outsource tapestry conservation.

What is the team looking after the Royal Collection comprised of?

There are about 550 members of staff working for Royal Collection Trust, a department of the Royal Household. Like most large private collections and estates, it’s divided into two: trust (conservation and curatorial) and enterprises (retail and visitor services). The trust side works most closely with the collection, and there are about 75 curators and conservators. The remainder work in the enterprises part, warding rooms, selling tickets, working in the shops, developing marketing and promoting online content. 

Within easy reach of Coworth Park, see the Royal Collection for yourself when you visit Windsor Castle. The world’s oldest and largest occupied castle, a trip to Windsor will leave a lasting impression.

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