For all her qualities, the late Queen would never have claimed a deep interest in cultural matters. Perhaps it was all those decades of having gruesome Royal Variety Performances and gala premieres of ghastly films inflicted on her that put her off a close association with the performing arts.
Alan Bennett entertainingly imagined her relationship with Anthony Blunt, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, disgraced after being exposed as a Soviet spy. She seemed to attend concerts out of duty, uncomplainingly but without great engagement, and the only connection between her and architecture that most of us can recall was her distress as she stepped through the ruins of the part of Windsor Castle damaged by fire in the annus horribilis of 1992.
Our new King is a very different matter. His reputation for concern about cultural and aesthetic matters is founded above all on his views about architecture, but that is only one aspect of his artistic interests. He used to play the cello, has a deep interest in church music and has done a great deal to elevate the reputation of, and stimulate interest in, the works of Sir Hubert Parry, the great composer known universally for writing the majestic tune to Jerusalem, but regrettably for little else. He is an accomplished amateur painter of watercolours, and sells lithographs of his paintings to raise money for his charities.
He is remarkably well read, and not just in the great works of English literature (his envoi to his late mother, “may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, was taken from Hamlet and not, as some less well-educated people seem to think, purely from the funeral service of his first wife) and much non-fiction. He and the Queen Consort (who shares many of his cultural passions and is active and highly engaged in matters connected with his patronages) have regularly, and enthusiastically, attended classical music concerts, the opera and the theatre, as well as relishing galleries, museums and exhibitions.
He has many patronages in the arts, including the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. His charity, the Prince’s (now the King’s) Foundation has long funded the School for Traditional Arts, which helps train people to carry on the artistic practices long associated with the great civilisations, including stained glass, marquetry, iconography, frescoes and carving.
It may seem a rash assertion, but never since the Hanoverian succession in 1714 has Britain had a monarch so devoted to, and so well versed in, the literary, plastic and performing arts. The King appears to have a serious genetic inheritance from his great-great-great grandfather, Prince Albert, whose artistic accomplishments included writing music and designing buildings, including having a hand in Balmoral and in Osborne House.
His Majesty has said he is not “that stupid” as to engage in discourse that might be regarded as political now he is on the Throne: but it is hard to see how that should prevent him from showing support for the finest forms of artistic endeavour, and there can be little doubt that he will. Some high-profile leadership in the arts and culture is highly necessary. Any country that could, until recently, have Nadine Dorries as culture’s political representative has far to go.
Thus there is an opportunity for the King to use his unparalleled influence not merely to inspire change, but change that improves quality. He will find himself supported by his Consort, who is a voracious reader (she set up a book club on Instagram called the Reading Room), enjoys music (she is the patron of four orchestras), drama and paintings, and is at home when among people in the arts world.
His campaign as Prince of Wales about architecture is remembered as having started with his attack on the “monstrous carbuncle” of the extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in 1984, which he also described as looking like a “municipal fire station” and which would, he thought, have fitted in better had the rest of Trafalgar Square been demolished first. The King was showing a sensitivity to context and materials that had been widely ignored by architects since the rebuilding of Britain began after the Second World War.
Scale and use of correct materials underpin his views on building. In the same speech he referred to another campaign he had already run, about the “glass stump” proposed for No 1 Poultry in the City of London, demolishing the Victorian Mappin & Webb building on the site, and leaving something he thought more suited to “downtown Chicago than the City of London”.
The King was often accused of simple nostalgia, something he underlined by saying in that 1984 speech that it was hard to imagine that, before the Luftwaffe and the developers attended to it, London had one of the most beautiful skylines of any city in the world; and he castigated the “wholesale destruction” of Georgian and Victorian buildings. But why should not beauty be a consideration in something as permanent and substantial as architecture? As he also said in the speech, “the architect must produce something that is visually beautiful as well as socially useful”, not least because it was a way of an architect showing respect for the people who would live or work in his or her creations.
“To be concerned about the way people live; about the environment they inhabit and the kind of community that is created by that environment should surely be one of the prime requirements of a really good architect,” the King said. Instead, he feared that “a large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants.”
The danger of this creed is that it leads to pastiche, something of which the King’s project at Poundbury in Dorset has been accused. What he could best associate himself with is a developing form of architecture, on a human scale and using good materials, that does not merely descend into plagiarism.
He can, without becoming an “unconstitutional” monarch, act in private to influence matters such as this. London’s skyscape has been greatly violated since 1984, not least because of the determination Boris Johnson had, as mayor, to allow the construction of towering skyscrapers. The King can make his views on that known to ministers, and they would have nothing to lose by heeding him. Similarly, one of the great legacies of his reign could be higher-quality housing for his people: much of the housing stock built in the first two or three decades of his late mother’s reign was cheap and nasty and has already been demolished; it was of no architectural merit at all, and the work of replacing it will absorb the next decade or two.
But he also has the expertise and sensitivity to address other cultural deficiencies. The teaching of music in schools is largely pitiful; the teaching of English literature is becoming dismal; the humanities generally are suffering, and the King can become their champion. He can use his patronage to encourage and reward composers, painters, poets and dramatists, no doubt with the active and informed input of his Queen. He can in his public speeches – which will now be noted as never before – argue for the importance of culture and the need for it never to be cheapened: and he can do this not out of duty, but out of absolute conviction.
I can think of one immediate symbol of this that he could help create. A few years ago, a group of us tried to have a statue put up in London to honour Sir Hubert Parry. The ideal place is a blank paved area behind the Albert Hall, where his works are performed every year, and in sight of the Royal College of Music, where he worked for 35 years, and of which the King is patron.
Among the preposterous excuses the Albert Hall gave us for not allowing such a statue was that it might upset devotees of Shirley Bassey and Cliff Richard who had also suggested ones for them. If ever there were a cause to which His Majesty could apply his influence with absolute conviction, this would be it.