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Edward VIII borrowed works from the nation

And took it upon himself to reframe the masterpieces before they were returned to the National Gallery

Edward borrowed seven works, including Canaletto’s Venice: The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni, 1730s, and Van Os’s Fruit, Flowers and a Fish, 1772 (see below). Photo: © David E. Scherman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

King Edward VIII, the monarch who gave up the British throne in 1936 after only ten months because he was not allowed to marry the divorcée Wallis Simpson, once borrowed seven masterpieces from the National Gallery in London by artists such as Canaletto and Jan van Os. Then the Prince of Wales, he wanted them to adorn his rooms in St James’s Palace—and he also reframed them.

Edward’s short-lived but eventful relationship with the National Gallery is documented in Stewards of the Nation’s Art: Contested Cultural Authority 1890-1939 (University of Toronto Press; also available as an ebook) by Andrea Geddes-Poole, an assistant professor at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

The writer Michael Savage highlights the saga on his Grumpy Art Historian blog, saying: “The future King Edward VIII was briefly a trustee of the National Gallery, and I’d heard that he was somewhat disengaged. But I had no idea that the National Gallery acceded to his request to borrow a few pictures for his own house—which he proceeded to reframe.”

Archive material outlines how the Prince of Wales tried, and failed, to engage with gallery protocol. In 1930, he was appointed as a trustee of the board. “The Prince of Wales turned up at the National Gallery board meeting today,” said Lord Crawford (David Lindsay) in the Court Circular, the daily record of official royal engagements.

“He fairly amazed us. About halfway through our proceedings, which happened to be extremely important, he got bored and began to smoke… the cigarette, however, enlivened the Prince and he began to talk to his neighbours… so far as I could make out, the chatter was chiefly about racing and society,” Lord Crawford said.

In November 1930, the Prince of Wales requested the loan of seven paintings from the National Gallery, which he planned to hang in his apartments at St James’s Palace. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said: “The director… reported a request from H.R.H. the Prince of Wales for the loan of seven pictures… the trustees authorised the selection of seven pictures for loan.” These included Venice: The Doge’s Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni, 1730s, by Canaletto, Fruit, Flowers and a Fish, 1772, by Jan van Os, and Ludolf Bakhuizen’s The Eendracht and a Fleet of Dutch Men-of-war, around 1670.

Discarded frames

The prince’s aide, Cooper Thomas, wrote to the then director of the gallery, Charles Holmes, saying: “The pictures are a great success, but I find that during my absence on leave, His Royal Highness changed a number of the frames and procured substitutes from Messrs Arthurs Field of Endell Street.”

The discarded National Gallery frames were stored at the former royal residence of Marlborough House in Pall Mall, added Thomas, who told Holmes that he had made labels stating that the works belonged to the National Gallery. Holmes tactfully responded by saying that “there should not be any ambiguity when the Prince of Wales ceases to need [the works], having a superb collection of his own”.

The final twist came in 1936, when Lord Crawford wrote in his diary: “The other day, the Duke of York [Edward’s brother, the future George VI] told the National Gallery that he was having his home redecorated and thought it safest to return the pictures to the gallery during that period.” The gallery, Lord Crawford stressed, had no idea that the paintings had been passed on to the Duke of York.

“And then it was discovered that the National Gallery’s frames, labels and numbers had been removed. The old frames were found stowed away in a bedroom,” Crawford wrote. The works were eventually safely returned to the gallery.

Van Os’s Fruit, Flowers and a Fish, 1772. Photo: © The National Gallery, London
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