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The oiled west: Obama to see Americana from Queen's art collection

The president will be shown artistic treasures that reveal British enthusiasm for all things American down the years

It is a custom of state visits for the Queen to show the visiting dignitary a specially chosen selection of highlights that may be of interest to them and their nation from her extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and objets d'art.

The Royal Collection is one of the last surviving examples of monarchical collections, which in most countries have long since become part of public museums; from a historical point of view, it is the finest collection in the world, with treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and Holbein's portrait studies.

Barack Obama will get a personal view of it this afternoon in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, where he will see paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian. Among these masterpieces, he will see a special "American" display.

This may seem unpromising – after all, the monarchy lost America back in the 18th century – but in fact the Royal Collection has a fascinating haul of Americana in among its Leonardos.

Indeed, this art collection tells of British enthusiasm down the centuries for all things American, offering plenty of material for a presidential private view.

Admittedly, one of the greatest royal collectors was George III, whose reign was marked by British defeat in the revolutionary war and loss of the British empire's richest colony. And it is true that the collection includes a Tarleton cap, a piece of military headgear named after Banastre Tarleton, who was one of the most hated and feared British officers in the attempt to suppress the revolution. Yet the Queen's collection reveals that subsequent monarchs soon fell in love with the young republic.

And that really doesn't seem too strong a description of Queen Victoria's passion for the wild west. One of the most evocative American images in the Royal Collection is a photograph of Buffalo Bill that she purchased as a souvenir of her favourite frontiersman.

It shows the famous hunter and scout posing with his rifle, long hair and cowboy hat, and wearing a leather tunic in the style of a Plains Indian. It was taken in 1892, the year the Queen enjoyed a special performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Windsor Castle. This was the second time she had seen the show. She praised Buffalo Bill, real name William Cody, as "a splendid man, handsome and gentlemanlike".

She also commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer's 1839 painting Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals, a richly oiled canvas of a man lying calmly among wild beasts, after she watched this American lion tamer perform on seven occasions that year. Queen Victoria had a special relationship with American tough guys, it would seem from her art collecting.

You can chart the cultural history of two continents from this venerable art collection. The Royal Collection dates back to the age when, in European eyes, much of North America was untamed wilderness. Some of the oldest images of America that it holds depict exotic flora and fauna of the new world, such as Mark Catesby's picture of an American bison, looking like a survivor of the Ice Age, dating from the early 18th century.

America in the early 1700s was above all seen as a natural sphere of study, a new world to catalogue, in the eyes of the Royal Collection, which also includes Catesby's studies of a skunk and a bald eagle. But by the 1770s, America was producing its own artists. George III appointed the Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West as history painter to the court; West's 1771 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe is one of the highlights of the Royal Collection. He in turn persuaded the King to make use of a fellow American, John Singleton Copley, to portray the Hanoverian princesses.

So the years that saw the American Revolution also saw American artists working directly for the monarchy, for the simple reason that an art scene did not yet exist as such in Boston or New York. Soon, though, American culture would become proudly self-conscious, and the flora and fauna once studied as objects of curiosity by Europeans would be rediscovered by American romantics as the essence of a new nationhood.

Another photograph collected by Queen Victoria is a portrait of the poet Henry Longfellow, seen in his day as the great national American bard, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Longfellow's 19th-century epic poem Hiawatha draws on Native American myth to imagine the continent in its innocence, as a place where humanity lived in accord with nature. Queen Victoria apparently loved Hiawatha as well as Buffalo Bil, if her purchase of this photo is anything to go by.

In the Royal Collection, there is plenty to fascinate American eyes. It offers a romantic vision of the new world, cultivated by rulers and former rulers who dreamed of it from afar. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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