With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain finds itself in two states of mourning and reflection. At this time, the end of the second Elizabethan era and the legacy of England’s longest reigning monarch is being written.
Like many of her notable predecessors, Queen Elizabeth II is likely to be given a cognomen posthumously – an epithet appended to the monarch’s name that distinguishes their reign. Famous examples include “Willem the Conqueror” for William I and “Richard the Lionheart” for Richard I. Even if you know little to nothing about those rulers, their cognomen communicate a central facet of their legacy.
And while there are many potential titles that would suit the late Queen, Elizabeth the Restorer is perhaps the most appropriate option. Her Majesty dedicated her government to restoring and preserving Britain’s material culture, from tackling the destruction of her country in the aftermath of World War II, to reconstructing a scorched Windsor Castle after a fire broke out in 1992 , and the establishment of the Royal Collection Trust. . And she did it all rather discreetly.
A war princess
To understand the depth of the late Queen’s dedication to restoration, it is vital to recognize the world that shaped her. Born on April 21, 1926, Princess Elizabeth was just 13 when World War II broke out in 1939, and that’s how she grew to adulthood during one of the most destructive periods in human history. Across Europe, staggering human losses were compounded by the looting of great treasures by the Nazi war machine, and countless cultural monuments were reduced to rubble by the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
London, the hub of British Imperial power, was brutalized by the Blitz – a Nazi bombing campaign that lasted from 1940 to 1941 – resulting in 43,000 civilian casualties and 1.1 million homes damaged or destroyed. During that massacre, a German raider dropped five high-explosive bombs on Buckingham Palace while her father King George VI and mother Queen Elizabeth were there. The bombs hit the palace gates, the inner square, the royal chapel and Queen Victoria’s memorial. The Royal Chapel in particular was damaged beyond repair.
After the Allied victory in 1945, 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth watched the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and her father embark on England’s extensive process of rehabilitation, both physically and psychologically. By their example, the future queen would learn firsthand the gentle power of restoration.
The Queen’s Gallery
In 1962, nearly a decade after her accession to the throne, the Queen opened the Queen’s Gallery on the site of the ruined Royal Chapel. The Queen’s Gallery, the first of its kind, is said to house a rotating exhibition of artworks and objects from the Royal Collection throughout the year. More than any other monarch, the young queen shared the royal treasures with her people as a blessing to their morale and sense of patriotism.
A particular source of pride to Her Majesty, the Queen’s Gallery underwent a £20 million expansion in honor of her Golden Jubilee in 2002, celebrating 50 years on the throne. British architect John Simpson was selected as the brainchild behind the construction project, which lasted from 1999-2002, and it remains the most significant addition to Buckingham Palace in 150 years. Today, the Queen’s Gallery has two outbuildings, one in Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh and another in Windsor Castle.
Since its opening, the Queen’s Gallery has continuously held themed exhibitions – with its 82nd and final being “Japan: Courts and Culture” (on display through February 26, 2023). The artworks and objects on display in the exhibitions often undergo special restoration beforehand, and works on display on a regular basis are rotated to protect them from exposure. To put that into a larger perspective, Her Majesty, aided by the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and team, has devoted 60 years to the dedicated restoration and conservation of works of art.
Restore Windsor Castle
The Queen publicly and famously declared 1992 her annus horribilis (‘horrible year’ in Latin). Her proclamation was attributed in part to the official divorce of the then Prince and Princess of Wales, but also to the fire that mutilated 115 rooms — including nine state chambers — in the 1,000-year-old royal family stronghold known as Windsor Castle. . Firefighters fought the flames for more than 15 hours. The only consolation was that only two works of art were lost in the fire.
Hardened to such a crisis by the aftermath of World War II, the Queen wasted no time tackling Britain’s largest restoration project. In the face of intense bureaucratic opposition (notably from the English Heritage government agency, which advocated leaving the castle in ruins so that it could “dry out” for 10-15 years, the Queen established two committees to oversee the Reconstruction: The Restoration Committee and Design Committee The Restoration Committee, chaired by her husband, Prince Philip, consisted of established conservationists, while the Design Committee, chaired by her son and heir, Prince Charles, included leading architects.
Despite both princes acting publicly on her behalf, the Queen was the ultimate authority on every major decision made during the unprecedented restoration process. With remarkable speed, the State Dining Room, the Great Drawing rooms, the Great Kitchen and the Grand Reception Room were returned to their immediate Regency era before the fire.
All works of art from the fire-damaged areas, including paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Gainsborough, were cleaned and fully restored at Her Majesty’s residence at St James’s Palace, London. The remaining areas in Windsor—St. George’s Hall, the Private Chapel and the Holbein Room – were to be restored in the spirit of their original Gothic architecture (large areas were discovered beneath the burnt layers of the 19th-century façade added by King George IV).
Exactly five years after the fire, on the 50th wedding anniversary of The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, Windsor Castle was officially restored — in some cases to a state that had remained invisible for hundreds of years. The “resurrection of Windsor” sparked a tidal wave of support for Her Majesty, who contributed £2 million (the equivalent of more than $4 million in 2021) of her private fortune to the ambitious reconstruction. The rest was paid from the proceeds generated by opening the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time.
The extent and quality of Windsor Castle’s restoration was such a success that French President Emmanuel Macron uses it as a model for rebuilding Notre-Dame Cathedral, which suffered devastating fire damage in 2019.
The Royal Collection Trust
Until the fire at Windsor Castle, the Royal Collection was managed directly by the Royal Household; however, in 1993 Her Majesty established a charity with a mandate to preserve the artworks and increase the public’s appreciation and understanding of art. Rather than viewing the collection as the personal property of a private individual, Her Majesty saw it as a source of public enrichment and herself as its devoted custodian. Since then, the Royal Collection has been “held in trust” by the Queen – and now by her successor, King Charles III – as sovereign to the nation.
As one of the last major European royal collections to remain intact, the Royal Collection is one of the world’s largest and most important art collections, valued at over £10 billion. Spread across 15 royal residences, it consists of more than 1 million objects — including 7,000 paintings, 30,000 watercolors and drawings, 450,000 photographs and hundreds of jewelry, porcelain, sculpture, manuscripts, weapons and furniture.
Since its inception, the Royal Collection Trust has overseen the restoration of hundreds of pieces of fine and decorative art. Many of these are on display in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and on loan to public institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum (a decision previously unfathomable). Notable pieces restored during Her Majesty’s reign include the 15th-century Trinity Panels by the Flemish painter Hugo Van Der Goes, an 18th-century Vincennes Sunflower Clock by the French horologist Jean Benoît Gérard, and a 19th-century Erard- piano decorated by the French miniaturist François Théodore Rochard.
A definitive legacy
While Queen Elizabeth II never gave a direct indication of what she wanted her posthumous cognomen to be, she left hints during her reign. For example, when Her Majesty hosted foreign heads of state and dignitaries on behalf of the British government, the Royal Collection was usually the centerpiece of the visit. From carefully curated selections on display at the restored Windsor Castle to exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty maximized the soft power impact of the collection and estates she devoted her life to restoring. That tells us something about how she probably wanted to be remembered.
Perhaps most tellingly, during her seven decades on the throne, the Queen commissioned only one series of paintings – an ode to her Windsor restoration. Captured by artist Alexander Creswell in watercolor – a favorite medium for both her husband and son, Prince Charles – the 21-part series depicts scenes of Windsor’s interior before and after its historic restoration. The full extent of the fire damage has been immortalized in 10 works, while the remaining 11 illustrate the same spaces raised to their former glory.
When viewed in full, the decisions of Britain’s longest-serving monarch create a definitive legacy—one that will live on in her country’s material culture. Perhaps that is why Queen Elizabeth II, the Heritage of England’s Guardian, should be known to future generations as Elizabeth the Restorer.
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