The Queen's many houses contain thousands of priceless exhibits. A new display of Northern Renaissance portraits, engravings and artefacts at Buckingham Palace includes illustrated books, huge tapestries and a jewel-encrusted drinking cup inspired by Dürer and designed by Pugin.
Most are almost 500 years old, and will never be seen together again in our lifetime. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is open now and runs until April 12, 2013. The collection is going on show at a perfect time of year, when we are drawn to the fireplace, warm, ruby-red fabrics and velvet throws. Hans Holbein's sketch of Sir Thomas More's father (right), in soft medieval cap and fur collar, done in 1527, could be any intelligent pensioner, wrapped up for winter.
At about 29, Holbein came to England from Germany because (as Erasmus said), "the arts are not appreciated there". Soon attached to the court, the young artist's skill at drawing faces was, and remains, unparalleled. He subtly illuminated his sitters' thoughts, swathed against drafty English manor houses in fur-lined cloaks.
As autumn draws in, this show is a perfect way to snuggle up with a big group of paintings where everyone is wrapped in fur and velvet, glinting with gold. The colours conjure up crackling fires and cosy nights in over spiced wine and warming stews.
It is inspiring to realise how little changes in what really matters: a home you feel safe in, that reflects the seasons. The range of colours — deep rich garnets, glowing ultramarines, soft grass greens, orange-pink — the lustrous silks, furs from softest mink to pale pine marten and ermine; gold thread in rich brocade; the lustre of a brass candlestick ready for a bright flame, and the sound-softening comfort of wooden panelling, of tapestry, of carpets and velvet curtains… all add to a feeling of comfort, security, happiness and warmth.
A painting by Marinus van Reymerswaele (left) shows two misers in a counting house, from 1550. It is so detailed that a carpenter could rebuild the wood-panelled room from it. The pair sit at a table covered with a plain green cloth. A shelf above holds bills, a candlestick and scissors to cut pages.
© Royal Collection Trust 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The accountant has a leather holder for his valuable pen and seal, the parts looped together with red silk.
Another wood-panelled room, done in 1517 by Quentin Massys, shows the scholar Erasmus writing. His study, a cosy cabinet, its unpainted, plain wooden panels clearly nailed, has a wooden alcove for books, and hanging steel scissors. Although Erasmus wears scholarly black velvet and fur, he rests the book on a bright red velvet tasselled cushion. The little room looks comfortable and snug.
The most detailed interior is a beautiful engraving of St Jerome by Albrecht Dürer in 1514. The saint writes at a simple wooden table in a big room with deep, arched stone window embrasures, in which hard, wooden window seats are softened with plump cushions. Comforts such as candlesticks, and the saint's slippers, lie around. His letters are tucked behind a wooden dowel, along with valuable scissors.
Light pours through big windows made of blown glass roundels, while the unpainted joists of the floor above are clearly visible. It is so peaceful that St Jerome's dog snores happily, next to the fabled sleeping lion in the foreground.
There are also detailed exteriors, of which The Prodigal Son, an early Dürer engraving (done at 25), shows a medieval village. The son, a swineherd, returns home. Before him are typical steep-roofed houses of timber, stone, plaster and thatch, gathered round a large open space. Dürer delights in minute detail of thatching; of crumbling, cracked plaster; of lapped roof timbers rotting round a little window. He draws the clumsy timber door frames and the cantilevered walls of a thatched hall. You get so drawn into this engraving that you can hear the piglets snuffling.
One of the most magnificent pictures is Lucretia, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The wealthy woman has been ravished and is on the point of killing herself; but her sumptuous clothes are even more ravishing. Typical German tight sleeves, in rich wine silk velvet, are slashed and puffed with silver-grey, and banded with orange and pure gold thread. Over this glowing dress she wears a cape of deep, dark green velvet lined throughout with thick, soft fur, while her hair and neck are bound with gold, jewels and pearls.
You will come away longing for rich luxury, for sombre colours lit by the sensuous textures of silk, velvet, fur and gold, whether in a cushion, a throw, a dark-painted room, or the glisten of candlelight.
The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, is running at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, SW1, from Friday until April 12, 2013. Visit royalcollection.org.uk to buy tickets.