Maybe the baby prince?

Too soon to say, of course, but in three years he'll be, let's see now, 3 years old and fit for a bit of travel, surely? And where better to begin than in the American capital?

A blockbuster show, if so vulgar an adjective may be allowed for so polished a subject at so polished a place, will be mounted at the National Gallery on the huge subject of The British Country House for several months beginning in the fall of 1985.

It will be larger than, say, the Treasures of Dresden show and objects displayed will be worth far more than $50 million.

You remember the TV show "Brideshead Revisited." The country house that made everybody say, "Gee, that would be nice to have on the farm," was Castle Howard, a great country house designed by Vanbrugh. The owner of the house today is George Howard, who at this very moment is roaring, as you might say, throughout the British Isles to soften up owners of the great houses to fling open their doors and let the show committee lug off their greatest treasures.

John Harris, in Washington for a while (he is librarian or perhaps one should say Librarian for the Royal Institute of British Architects), said this week that few people are aware these rural seats contain art treasures little known to the world at large, but of such quality that the Hermitage, the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Prado and so on would give a couple of spare arms and legs to possess them.

"A head of Venus by Praxiteles is at Petworth," he said, "and who knows that?"

Howard said recently, in England, that "we are aiming to take over the town (Washington) and make this not just the biggest event of the year in Washington but the greatest occasion in the museum's history."

But then you know how the Brits overstate everything.

It would not astonish anybody too much if Queen Elizabeth lent some things from her own collections, and while nothing has been ventured in this direction yet, it would make sense for some of the royal family to drop by and get the show started with a real bang. Which is why I suggest--it's a thought--that the little prince should attend, and if he got a bit restless there could be a rather lovely playpen set up of wrought bronze with leeks and daffodils and unicorns, etc., with a couple of pups of distinctly British breed (Jones terriers would do well), but this is merely a free suggestion that costs nothing.

As far as that goes, the National Gallery doesn't cost anything, either. At least it doesn't cost visitors anything. You already know it probably takes a little planning ahead to mount an important show. Can't just phone and say "send us a couple of your Canalettos, okay, and we'll get them back to you in a couple of months." Clearly more than that goes on. It might come as a surprise that a show should take four years of preparation, though. The current El Greco show was not done in a day, and probably should not be viewed in a day, either, if you're of my mind that Greco is IT. The time to see the Grecos without long lines is late afternoon and evening from 5 to 9. And I always say when I enter that gallery that you really can't beat the price.

Two cosmic things do occur to me. One is that these great houses are in the same danger that every great building is, when taxes and death duties present a private citizen with the gruesome truth that the world has turned modern, but the vast maintenance cost of a house with seven acres of roof (as at Knole) have not diminished but increased.

Many great houses now belong to the National Trust, which people somehow assume is a government agency but it's not. It's a private outfit and gets no whopping tax dollars to preserve the houses, many of which are still occupied (though not owned) by the original families. To make ends meet, many of the great houses are open to the public for quite modest admission fees, and it would be a tremendous help to British tourism if more of the American travelers went to visit these houses and became aware of the treasures inside them.

So the show presumably would help the increasingly important industry of tourism, good for the British economy. At the same time the show would be a great thing for the National Gallery, showing art rarely or never before seen outside the great houses, many of which are not all that easy to visit.

The show inevitably raises the ancient question of privilege. It no longer seems fair, and hasn't since the 18th century, for a few people to live on vast landed estates with fabulous incomes while the bulk of people ate roots and berries. That, in case anyone had not noticed, has changed.

All the same, and no matter how unjust the system once was, it's nice that in palmy days somebody once thought the music room could be improved a little by that head of Praxiteles. Still sitting around.