Collector or Thief? Inside Queen Mary’s Royal Collections
Queen Mary of Teck, the reserved grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II, was the epitome of staid British self-control and regal bearing. But beneath her icy exterior lay a true passion for objects (and their acquisition) that has led to decades of whispers that this most proper of queens—as fictionalized in the film Downton Abbey—was a common kleptomaniac.
There is no doubt that Mary (who reigned from 1910 to 1936) was obsessed with collecting, restoring, and reorganizing royal artifacts for the House of Windsor. “My one great hobby,” she called it.
But the queen also amassed numerous personal collections, which, according to her official biographer, James Pope-Hennessy, included “Battersea enamels, late jades, miniature elephants of agate with jewelled howdahs, small tea sets in gold or silver, papier-mâché workboxes, tiny watercolours of flower-gardens, glass paintings.” Her mania for miniatures led to the creation of the famous Queen Mary’s dollhouse, built between 1921 and 1924.
Queen Mary’s love for beauty and acquisition came naturally. “By nature, she is more interested in looking than in listening,” an associate wrote. Born in 1867 at Kensington Palace, the daughter of Princess Mary Adelaide (a cousin of Queen Victoria) and Duke Francis of Teck, she was christened Princess Victoria Mary, called “May” by her family and considered a quiet, intelligent child.
According to Pope-Hennessy’s definitive Queen Mary, she claimed her love for collecting came from her father, “only he was poor.” In fact, her parents’ spendthrift lifestyle landed the family in hot water, forcing them to flee to Italy.
“Her love of art was fostered in Florence, where her parents lived for a few years, as they had debts,” says historian Hugo Vickers, editor of The Quest for Queen Mary.
May’s first engagement to Prince Eddy, third in line to the throne, ended with his death in 1892. A year later, she married his brother George, who was as reserved, though not nearly as intelligent as she.
There was more to the reserved princess than met the eye. “She did look austere,” Vickers says. “Underneath it all, she had a good sense of humor, but she was quite shy.” She began collecting in earnest, which seemed not to bother her husband, as he was an avid stamp collector.
With the accession of her father-in-law King Edward VII in 1901, May was now Princess of Wales. In between motherhood and her numerous duties, she found solace and true enjoyment in working as an unofficial curator and cataloguer for the royal collections. “I am very busy now seeing that our various inventories are correct & that everything is entered as far as possible with its history,” she wrote to her Aunt Augusta in 1909. “It is really rather wonderful what we have managed to collect & get together since we married, quite a creditable collection of family things…without spending much money over it. I confess I feel rather proud of our endeavours. I hope you won’t laugh at me.”
These endeavors only ramped up when her husband became King George V in 1910. An astute businesswoman, Mary had developed a vast network of curators, auction houses, gallery owners, collector friends, and librarians to consult and bargain with. As queen, she also had the vast royal collections at her disposal—she rehung the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace and created virtual museums of her beloved possessions in royal residences.
“It was such a pleasure showing you my rooms on Sunday as you are so very appreciative of detail & worthy of all the beautiful objects which are ever a constant joy to me,” Queen Mary wrote a fellow collector in 1914. “It always seems strange to me that there can be people to whom these things mean & say nothing to them. I confess I pity them as they miss much in life.”
For the queen, beauty was found in history and heritage, not artistic daring or innovation. “She had a good eye and she did fabulous work in identifying and marking provenance, also of bringing the right collections together…. Having said that, she preferred a moderate portrait of some Hanoverian relation to a more exciting work by someone like Cézanne,” says Vickers.
This passion for bringing royal artifacts into the monarchy’s collection could lead to unpleasant encounters, which probably led to the rumors that the queen was a kleptomaniac, according to biographer Anne Edwards, author of Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor. She writes:
London antique dealers were to claim that they hid all the bibelots and precious items that they knew might appeal to the Queen when they expected her to visit their premises, for the Queen was prone to take what she wished and they would go without payment. If while visiting in some aristocratic home she sighted an object that had once belonged to the Royal Family, she often would request its return, and the current owner could do nothing else but oblige.
“She had kind of upmarket kleptomania because she would go stay in somebody’s house and she’d be sitting on one of a dozen Sheraton chairs and she’d say, ‘Oo, I do like this chair,’ And you’d be obliged to give her all 12,” royal ancestor Princess Olga Romanoff told the Daily Mail in May. “So people got wise to this, and they’d say, ‘Oh, God, Queen Mary’s coming to stay,’ so they’d put the good stuff in the attic and bring the more rotten stuff down.”
There is no doubt these tactics could at times be off-putting. “Queen Mary was predatory, of course…in her collection of artifacts,” says historian John Curtis Perry, author of The Flight of the Romanovs.
Even royal artifacts in museums were not safe from her acquisitive eye. “Her insatiable fascination in rearranging and completing the great royal collections at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle left museum directors no more protection from her obsession than antique dealers,” Edwards writes. “If she saw something that she thought should be placed in a royal residence, she requested a permanent loan of the piece.”
According to History Extra, Mary’s collections often overflowed into her family’s homes. “She bought family things chiefly, and up to the end would insist on e.g. saddling [her third son] the Duke of Gloucester with a vast and impossible silver tea urn because it had belonged to [Queen Victoria’s uncle] the Duke of Cumberland,” Lord Claud Hamilton told Pope-Hennessy.
More mysterious is the case of the legendary jewels of the House of Windsor’s royal relatives the Romanovs. During the Russian revolution, the Dowager Empress Maria (mother of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II) escaped to Europe with a giant box of jewels. In her exile in Denmark, she slept with the precious stones under her bed and refused to sell them.
According to The Flight of the Romanovs, in 1928, as Maria lay dying, the British sent over an agent to convince her daughter Xenia to give them the box for safekeeping. Dependent upon the British crown for support, she agreed. After Maria’s death, an emissary named Sir Peter Bark convinced Xenia that the jewels would be safest in England in the care of George V. There, the British royal family would sell the jewels on behalf of Xenia and her sister, Olga.
The box included some 76 exquisite pieces, according to Perry, which British historian William Clarke said London experts appraised at approximately 159,000 pounds. Strange events followed; the box was opened in Buckingham Palace, and no proper inventory was taken. The jewels were eventually sold, some to Queen Mary. Perry writes:
Members of the Romanov family believe that Buckingham Palace commissioned Clarke’s research. Clarke argues that Queen Mary is documented as having paid fair prices for everything she bought, but certainly the circumstances of the sale raise questions of conflict of interest. The amazing feature of all this…is that the House of Windsor allowed the whole matter to fester for so many years and never told Olga, Xenia and their heirs what precisely had happened. Therefore, we do not know for sure how much money the jewels yielded, nor do we know where all the money went. The facts we know are that Olga received nothing, Xenia sixty thousand pounds, and Queen Mary some magnificent jewels.
Grand Duchess Olga, who would live a long life as a farmer in Canada, would continue to be treated shoddily by her British relations. “Queen Mary would habitually give her a paper calendar for Christmas,” Perry says.
Though Queen Mary’s reported strong-arm tactics as a collector may have been an abuse of power, there is no definitive proof that she was an outright thief. Scholars of Queen Mary, including Edwards and Vickers, do not believe she was a kleptomaniac. In fact, Edwards writes that Mary in many ways helped stimulate British commercial life. According to Edwards, Queen Mary’s legendary shopping expeditions aided many businesses. She writes:
Crowds followed her; whatever she was seen wearing or buying would swiftly be in such demand that manufacturers would increase production. She attended all industrial fairs and home-furnishing expositions, and photographs were always taken when she made a homely selection for Buckingham Palace—an electric icebox one time, bath mats another. Immediately a sign would go up on a display of the item, “Purchased by Her Majesty the Queen.”
There is something touching about the utter delight Queen Mary took in her collections until her death in 1953. Into old age, Mary was said to have “one of the best memories in the British empire,” per Edwards. According to Pope-Hennessy, she instantly noticed if even the smallest of her beloved objects had been removed for cleaning.
She also began to meticulously catalog her own life. “Towards the end of her life, she docketed and arranged her papers for a future biographer, sometimes writing on an envelope containing, say, a German letter to Queen Victoria from some relation, the disarming superscription: ‘Nice letter about me,’” Pope-Hennessy writes.
If she had not been a royal princess, perhaps Queen Mary would have been an expert librarian or curator. Her tireless acquiring enriched royal collections, giving the current queen one of the most important jewelry collections in the world and greatly assisting modern royal curators. According to Edwards, to this day, there is scarcely a piece of furniture in a royal residence that doesn’t have a label written in the old queen’s hand.
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Published at Tue, 16 Nov 2021 15:48:36 +0000