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THE surveyor of the Queen’s pictures is on his knees in front of an exquisite oil painting by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch, whose ability to capture intensely private moments and therefore provide a carefully observed record of life in 17th-century Holland is being extolled. But right now Christopher Lloyd has his head in his hands and is groaning in mock horror: "Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier?"

The man who is the greatest living expert on the 8,000 paintings in the Royal Collection - many of them priceless - has just finished explaining why de Hooch’s atmospheric work of a woman engaged in the simple domestic task of spinning at a loom is no longer described as Evening in a courtyard in Delft.

"It’s the depth of the shadows," he elaborates. "They reveal that the sun is on the right, so the spinning woman is seen in shadow, while another is walking from bright sunlight into shadow, thus academic opinion now inclines to the view that it’s a courtyard scene in the afternoon. And, anyway, just look at the glorious blue of that sky."

But, murmurs conservator Rosanna de Sancha, de Hooch got the shadows wrong. "Wrong?" queries Lloyd sharply, leaping up and brushing down his dapper navy-blue suit. "What’s wrong with the shadows?" Well, replies de Sancha, there’s a shadow of a non-existent chimney in the bottom left-hand corner. "The way the sunlight is falling, there should be a shadow from the tree that looms over the buildings on the right," she points out.

"Oh my God. You’re right," says Lloyd, bending down to examine the painting again. "This isn’t in the catalogue. Why didn’t you mention it to me before today?" he asks. To which de Sancha responds that she spotted this anomaly only the other day.

The de Hooch is one of 51 Dutch genre paintings which are to be transported to Edinburgh for the keenly awaited exhibition Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, in the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Fifty-nine-year-old Lloyd has curated the exhibition, which features ravishing iconic works by Rembrandt, Cuyp, Dou, Hals, Schalcken, ter Borch and the incomparable Vermeer, among many others. He has also written the accompanying catalogue, which reveals that these men who gave us some of the most poetic and placid paintings, which often seem to be so very primly composed, led turbulent lives. De Hooch, for instance, died in a lunatic asylum.

While Rembrandt’s troubled times have been well documented, as well as fictionalised by Hollywood (as have Vermeer’s in Tracy Chevalier’s novel and the Oscar-winning film adaptation Girl with a Pearl Earring), many of the influential artists at work in Holland during the Golden Age of the 17th century were men on the edge, emotionally and financially.

For example, Hendrick ter Bruggen, whose painting A laughing bravo with a bass viol and a glass was acquired for the Royal Collection by Charles I, was a man of "profound but melancholy thoughts", who died of the plague. Frans Hals was permanently strapped for cash, while the landscape painter Meyndert Hobbema died a pauper, and Frans van Mieris the Elder was often in debt and frequently drunk.

Their home lives were no less stormy: just consider how many of their paintings show lascivious kitchenmaids and mustachioed men forever pressing girls to drink.

So it is a relief to stumble upon Maria van Oosterwyck’s contemplative still-lifes of flowers. The only woman featured in the exhibition, she was apparently "unusually pious". Her two paintings are powerful reminders of the transitory nature of life.

But then Dutch genre painting is laden with symbolism. The brandishing of a clay pipe has erotic overtones. An empty birdcage signifies loss of virtue. A jug is freighted with sexual connotations, and as for the aphrodisiacal qualities of the moist, delicately coloured dish of oysters in Willem van Mieris’ The Neglected Lute, well... Even a cat asleep on a chair is indicative of wantonness.

Some artists, such as Hendrich Pot, scatter cryptic objects around rooms as if providing clues for a cleverly plotted thriller, says Lloyd as we examine Pot’s puzzling "A Startling Introduction". A woman points a dagger at herself and a man stands back in exaggerated horror, but the broken rose on the ground, the girdle and the wine-glass on the table, and a hound harassing the lady’s lapdog reveal that this is all about sex and the city (Pot lived in London when he painted it). Or, in Lloyd’s more measured words, "The objects denote an erotic content."

The small children happily playing with their pets in Adriaen van der Werff’s tiny, jewel-like painting A boy and a girl with a guinea pig and a kitten are not all they seem either. "There is symbolic meaning in it and that meaning might have amorous connotations for the viewer far removed from the context of innocence. Something mischievous is going on," insists Lloyd.

"For his contemporaries, van der Werff was the greatest of all Dutch painters and his works once commanded higher prices than those of Rembrandt. But with all the paintings in the exhibition, the closer you look the more you see," he says, urging me to examine the velvety smoothness of Adriaen van de Velde’s supple brushwork, the purity of his colour and the golden, buttery light bathing the figures in Shepherd and shepherdess with cattle by a stream. It is one of Lloyd’s personal favourites of the 51 works to be exhibited.

Why 51? "I honestly don’t know," he shrugs. "It’s a completely arbitrary figure that I just came up with, although there are actually more than 200 Dutch genre paintings in the Royal Collection, the majority of them acquired by George IV. He was a passionate collector and regularly shopped until he dropped. Thank God. Without people like him throwing money around, we wouldn’t have these magnificent artworks or, indeed, the great palaces to house them."

But for now, Lloyd has found a tiny gap in his considerable knowledge about Pieter de Hooch and he is not happy. Such important and sometimes serendipitous discoveries are, however, part and parcel of the curatorial life, he sighs, adding that here, at the Royal Collection’s conservation workshops and studios - to which Scotland on Sunday has been given exclusive and unprecedented access - conservators such as de Sancha really are detectives, picking up important clues about works of art and the men and women who painted them.

Situated in lush green countryside outside London, the workshops were converted in 1999 from old tractor sheds. Strict security measures are in force. You approach the studios, whose exact location we have been asked not to reveal, along an avenue of cherry trees foaming with blossom. Eventually, a laboratory will be added to the four spacious studios, bringing the appliance of science to the analysis of paintings. Conservators are the forensic pathologists of the art world, for whom every brushstroke and every tiny pigment of paint is a silent witness to the past.

They painstakingly scrape away minute amounts of paint - about the size of a pinhead and virtually invisible to the naked eye - before putting them under the microscope, then lavishing tender loving care on the restoration and cleaning. They also examine paintings under infra-red and ultra-violet light to determine the mix of pigments. Technical investigations often reveal pentimento - a painting beneath another one - adding further grist to the academic mill.

THE moot question of de Hooch’s shadows will doubtless become the stuff of yet another art history treatise, remarks Lloyd over a mug of coffee, obviously foreseeing ever more scholars beating a path to his door at St James’s Palace, where he is based as a member of the royal household.

"As an art historian, obviously I’m interested in in-depth research and in finding out as much as we can about works of art, but I sometimes think of paintings as particularly juicy oranges. You can squeeze and squeeze them to get more and more delicious liquid out of them, but if you squeeze too hard, eventually all you’re left with is the pips. And what happens to them?" he says, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

Part of Lloyd’s remit is to make the paintings in the extensive collection accessible to all of us since, as he patiently explains, it is not owned by Her Majesty the Queen as a private individual. It is held in trust by her as sovereign for her successors and the nation and, indeed, she rarely refuses a request to lend items.

As well as paintings, watercolours and miniatures, the collection includes sculpture, furniture, books, manuscripts, prints and maps, ceramics, silver and gold jewellery, the Faberg oeuvre (seen in Edinburgh last year), arms and armour, fans, textiles and Old Master drawings - most notably 600 by Leonardo da Vinci which alone are valued at 3.22 billion. A 2002 market valuation of the entire collection estimated its worth to be somewhere around 12.7 billion.

The Royal Collection has largely been formed since the Restoration in 1660, although some items belonging to earlier monarchs, such as Henry VIII, survive. The greater part of the collection inherited and added to by Charles I (who was such an enthusiastic and flamboyant collector that he bought the Duke of Gonzago’s collection wholesale in 1629) was dispersed on Cromwell’s orders during the interregnum - thus creating the modern art market, according to Lloyd.

Various royals spent centuries tracking down and buying back many of these lost works. The most notable collectors were Frederick, Prince of Wales; George III; George IV; Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; and Queen Mary, Consort of George V. So the collection was shaped over more than 500 years by the personal, often eccentric, tastes of kings and queens.

"Sometimes their judgment was excellent - George IV, for instance; sometimes it was rather conventional, as in Queen Victoria’s case," declares Lloyd. Nonetheless, though the collection is stuffed with treasures, it is the only one of major national importance to receive no government funding or public subsidy.

Far from being a secret cache of fabulous objects - around 500,000 items in all - it is well documented that the collection contains, for instance, three times as many paintings as the National Gallery in London. Almost everything, from fans to Faberg, has been illustrated and described in a series of catalogues published over the last 40 years. During the Queen’s reign, says Lloyd, the watchword has been conservation.

Administered by the Royal Collection Trust, the collection is a registered charity (founded in 1993 under the chairmanship of the Prince of Wales who, as an artist himself and a private collector in his own right, takes a keen interest in its various activities, which include loans, travelling exhibitions, retail from gallery shops and cafs, conservation and educational work). Students are given access to the collection on request - even Prince William used its research facilities before he switched his degree subject from history of art to geography.

Acquisitions continue to be made, especially if they have a provenance relating to the monarchy. Recently, An old woman: "The Artist’s Mother" by Victoria, Crown Princess of Germany, a copy after Rembrandt, was purchased. Apparently Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter took a close interest in the Royal Collection, about which she frequently corresponded with her mother, and her 1878 copy is regarded as extremely accomplished.

"Of course Prince Charles is interested in the entire collection," says Lloyd. "If you grow up with these wonderful paintings, you become very fond of them. The Dutch genre works, for instance, mainly hang in Buckingham Palace in both state and private rooms. The Queen likes to have the wonderful Rembrandt The Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife Griet Jans in her own apartments, but she rarely gets the opportunity. It’s a very popular work and is frequently on loan.

"But, honestly, it doesn’t matter how often one clarifies this, the misconception that this is the Queen’s private collection continues to be reported endlessly by people wishing to score political points." It is, in fact, widely accessible to the public and many pieces can actually be seen in the historic settings for which they were originally commissioned or acquired, such as Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces, the Banqueting House and Osborn House.

More than 3,000 objects are also on long-term loan to museums and galleries at home and abroad, including the National Gallery of Scotland, which has the collection’s magnificent van der Goes Trinity panels.

FORMERLY at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Lloyd has held his post as surveyor since 1988 and has been considerably more successful at remaining discreetly in the shadows than some of his more unfortunate predecessors. The doomed King Charles I’s surveyor, Abraham van der Doort, for instance, committed suicide after misplacing one of 3,000 miniatures.

Anthony Blunt, meanwhile, managed to combine the posts of surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and director of the Courtauld Institute with his activities as a KGB agent and was unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1979.

As we gaze upon Adriaen van Ostade’s The interior of a peasant’s cottage, Lloyd quotes from an excellent lecture he heard Blunt deliver. "He said that we often describe these depictions of family life as being of peasants, but when you look at a work like van Ostade’s, say, you realise that these people could well be middle-class. After all, the room they are in may have an earthen floor but it also has lovely leaded windows inset with stained glass, so it’s always dangerous to make assumptions."

In this picture, which is one of van Ostade’s greatest paintings, the oil on panel is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s The Holy Family, which hangs in the Louvre. As in Rembrandt’s works, it is van Ostade’s powers of empathy that bring great distinction to a painting such as the cottage interior.

"In the 18th century many collectors regarded his achievement as comparable with Rembrandt’s," adds Lloyd, whisking me into a light-drenched studio where paintings by Rubens await forensic examination by the nine-strong team of conservators.

The four structural and exhibitions conservators - Lloyd jokes that they are only really interested in the backs of paintings and the historic, yellowing labels to be found there - are responsible for framing and ensure that every picture nestles on narrow strips of black velvet before being safely cradled in its frame.

Currently, the picture conservators are at work on the renowned collection of Italian paintings (Titians, Mantegnas, Canalettos), which will be shown in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 2007. Rosanna de Sancha is examining a small, "absolutely filthy" panel by Mazzolino. Painted in 1520 on thin wood which is now badly warped, it will require delicate and major surgery over the next few months to remove the accretions of time, coal dust and candle smoke.

Today, though, it’s Rembrandt who is the star turn. And I am standing in front of the greatest artist of the 17th century’s Self-portrait in a flat cap, in which, as Lloyd remarks, the man himself exudes gravitas yet is instantly likeable.

A few yards away, Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother, the profoundly compassionate study of old age which Queen Victoria’s daughter so faithfully copied, sits on an easel. Both paintings have been removed from their frames so that conservators Claire Chorley and Adelaide Izat can cast their expert eyes over them prior to the journey to Edinburgh.

A third work by Rembrandt, Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, is also included in the Edinburgh exhibition, which will transfer next February to the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Widely regarded as one of the artist’s most imaginative and sensitive religious paintings, it is the one Lloyd would dash through flames to salvage if, heaven forfend, these studios should burn down at this moment. Although, he says, if he had only a matter of seconds, he would have to save Vermeer’s A lady at the virginals with a gentleman ("The Music Lesson") first.

"There are, after all, only 34 paintings known to have been painted by him," says Lloyd. "He was incredibly painstaking and painted very slowly - you can see just how slowly when you X-ray his work or look at it under a microscope; it’s almost pointillist."

One of Johannes Vermeer’s most enigmatic oils, this painting was not even attributed to him when it entered the Royal Collection in 1762. Owing to a misreading of the signature, it was thought to be by the aforementioned bibulous Frans van Mieris the Elder, and was not correctly identified until 1866. Arguably the greatest Dutch painting in the collection, its initial oversight has been more than adequately compensated for by the amount of scholarly attention it now receives, says Lloyd.

A lady at the virginals was bought by George III, one of Britain’s longest-serving monarchs, who is now remembered more for his madness - caused by the painful disease porphyria - than for the vast assemblage of beautiful items he added to the Royal Collection. However, his contribution is currently being celebrated in the new Buckingham Palace exhibition, George III and Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste.

The Vermeer is lined up with more than 20 paintings waiting to be crated in specially built, temperature-controlled cases before coming to Edinburgh. "They are stacked up like out-patients," says Lloyd, explaining that no painting from the collection can be exhibited until its "medical records" have been checked.

De Sancha worked on the Vermeer. "It’s been very carefully conserved over the years, kept in ideal conditions, so all it needed was a dust to remove a little bit of hair and a few specks of dust from the canvas," she says.

"It is the most incredible privilege to work on such masterpieces," adds Adelaide Izat quietly, as I gaze in wonder at the portrait of Rembrandt’s mother, her head shrouded in a deep purple hood decorated with gold threads, with a fur mantle over her embroidered white chemise. And it is indeed a privilege to be standing just six inches away from such a work of genius. My heart beats faster. I long to touch the painting, to put my fingers where Rembrandt’s brush has been.

"I know just how you feel," says Izat sympathetically. "It doesn’t matter how many great paintings I work on, that feeling of awe never diminishes."

A lot of myths surround picture restoration and conservation, she says. "People get very worried about conservators being too interventionist, but restoration work can be removed and you are always left with the original beneath."

Both women are passionate about their work. Chorley excitedly holds up large X-rays to the light, which reveal Rembrandt’s self-portrait, one of 40 he executed as a sort of autobiography in paint. They reveal that on at least two occasions the artist used the panel for earlier self-portraits, which explains why the paint in certain areas of the picture is disrupted. "You can also see, if you look at the painting, how he changed his cap to give it more panache," she says.

The portrait of his mother, which was one of Rembrandt’s first works to enter a British collection after it was given to Charles I by the Scot Sir Robert Kerr (later first Earl of Ancram, ancestor of the Conservative MP Michael Ancram), also has a secret. The

X-rays show that the image has been painted over an earlier portrait of an old man seen the other way up and possibly intended for a biblical figure. "St Peter, I believe," says Lloyd.

An urbane man who wears his intellectual learning lightly, Lloyd retires next year, when he will be 60. Enchanting the Eye is his swansong. The distinctive logo for it, which will be appearing on the sides of Edinburgh buses, is executed in his hand since he is computer illiterate and his handwriting is deemed worthy of a 17th-century notarian’s.

He plans to write books and has ideas for several television programmes. "I’ve even got an agent," he confides. His tenure has seen a number of major developments. In 1992, he did much to improve access to the collection by presenting a series of television programmes about it, for which the scripts were apparently personally annotated by the Queen, who is rumoured to have a "sharp eye for a split infinitive".

Before we leave the workshops, another lively discussion takes place between Lloyd and the senior picture conservator, Rupert Featherstone. They are examining Jan Steen’s A woman at her toilet, which attests to the artist’s intelligent use of symbolism. It depicts an alluring, partially dressed young woman who is either putting on or removing a silk stocking. From the inviting expression on her face it seems clear she is performing a salacious 17th-century version of a striptease. "And," notes Lloyd, "if you look closely, you can actually see the mark on her leg left by the stocking."

"No, no," insists Featherstone, "she’s putting the stocking on."

But Lloyd is off on another tack. "Look at her left foot. Count her toes," he instructs. I do. "She’s got six of them. Now that may or may not have some significance. Who knows? It was spotted by a Dutch cameraman when he was photographing it," he reveals.

"Hold on a moment," says Featherstone. "What about the number of toes on her right foot?"

There’s a time and a place for such scholarly discussion, offers Lloyd with a good-humoured smile. "For the moment, I don’t care if she’s got webbed feet. The quality of Steen’s painting is remarkable for his treatment of the light, particularly in the room itself, and the meticulous painting of the still-life objects; it’s an absolutely outstanding example of Dutch genre painting. Never mind the half a dozen toes, seduction is her intent."

And, judging from the besotted look on the two men’s faces, she has succeeded admirably.

Enchanting the Eye: Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age is at the Queen’s Gallery, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, from Friday until November 7. Ticketline: 0131 556 5100