IT COULD have been a lot worse: the initial rumour was that countless Titians, da Vincis and Gainsboroughs had gone up in smoke at Windsor Castle; yesterday it had been established that a William Beechey equestrian portrait of George III and three other ''important paintings'' had been lost. This was comforting. The royal art collection has got off lightly - Beechey is hardly Titian. But questions need to be asked. Whose collection is it anyway? And is it being looked after properly?
The Queen's art collection is no longer the well-kept secret it once was, thanks largely to the Queen herself. She recently allowed Channel 4 into the royal palaces to film The Royal Collection, a series which, coincidentally, ended last night with a film on portraits of the British monarchy, including the incinerated Beechey.
Last year she loaned almost 100 of her paintings to the National Gallery for ''The Queen's Pictures''. That exhibition was well-attended, but many people did not understand why they had to pay to see works of art they considered public property.
Technically, they were wrong. The Queen's pictures are not public property. They are the Queen's property. But the Queen has never treated her paintings as personal assets, although their total value may exceed pounds 2bn. During her reign no major work of art has been sold from the royal collection. Its quality - it is one of the greatest collections of Old Masters in the world - and the circumstances of its acquisition have given it an ambiguous status that the Queen implicitly acknowledges: it is a public collection, you might say, privately owned. The Windsor Castle fire suggests that it is about time this ambiguity was resolved.
Which raises the question of how the royal collection is looked after. Many of the great paintings owned by the Queen may be seen, but onlyin buildings that she owns. These tend to be palaces with timber construction that makes them susceptible to fire.
The Windsor Castle blaze comes only six years after a fire that gutted part of another royal palace, Hampton Court. As at Windsor, the fire at Hampton Court could have resulted in appalling losses but did not. The Royal Family might not have lost much of their great collection, but they have lost their credibility as its guardians. One fire looks like misfortune. Two begins to look like carelessness.
Given that the Queen has shown herself willing to share her collection with the British public, she should perhaps reconsider how best to do so. Apologists for the current system of piecemeal public display in royal palaces argue that the Queen's paintings should be seen in the places they were bought to adorn, and that removing them from their palatial settings would rob them of their historical associations.
But the historical links between most of the great paintings the Queen owns and the palaces in which they are hung are tenuous. Only a few of the Queen's pictures were specifically commissioned by the monarchy. None of the tremendous Dutch pictures in the royal collection (the Rembrandts or the Vermeers) were created for the palaces they now occupy, most having been bought by George IV some two centuries after they were painted.
The Windsor Castle fire has shown that the minimal advantages of the royal policy on art are far outweighed by the disadvantages. The policy has ensured that the royal collection is so widely dispersed and so poorly publicised that it is virtually unknown as an entity. Add to that the dangers of keeping major works of art in such antiquated surroundings, and there seems every justification for a change.
There is an alternative. Since the Queen has already gone halfway towards acknowledging that her pictures belong as much to the nation as they do to one of its more privileged families, why not go further? Why not construct a modern, purpose-built art gallery, preferably in the centre of a major British city? The collection could do with a decent home, or at least a less flammable one. Then the Queen's works of art would not only be far safer than they are at present, but also far more visible. Such an institution, if built, would be one of the finest museums in the world.
A few years ago Margaret Thatcher proposed to spend pounds 100m on a new museum in London to house the collection (far inferior to the Queen's) of the Swiss industrialist Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza. The collection went instead to Spain. But why not revive the idea and apply it to the royal collection?
Of course, John Major is unlikely just now to announce that he has suddenly found pounds 100m of public money to spend on a new museum. But this could offer a wonderful public relations opportunity, a chance for the Queen to remind us that the Royal Family are not the spoilt, culturally illiterate spongers they are sometimes made out to be, but are capable of grand altruistic gestures. The Queen herself could pay for the new Royal Art Gallery. How better to show her gratitude to the people of this country for continuing her income tax exemption?