Saturday, 20 September 2014

Eltham Palace

The Courtyard
London SE9 4QE

Monday September 8th 2014

Easily accessible by train and bus, Eltham Palace is an intriguing mixture of medieval and Tudor remains, carefully restored, and the height of Art Deco interiors somehow and successfully melded into one building for a home to the Courtaulds , this time Stephen and Virgina (known as Ginnie), for about 10 years. After they left for Scotland and then for the warmer climate of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the late Forties the buildings were taken over by the Army Education Corps and later restored by English Heritage, who opened the property in 1999.

If you are wondering whether these Courtaulds were related to those who founded the Courtauld Institute and gallery (see entry for June 5th) Stephen was indeed the younger brother of Sam.

 This was in fact my 6th visit to the site; we had some overseas visitors in tow with a few hours to spare before a Gatwick flight and as we had already visited with Jo it seemed right to write up our trip which took place on a perfect September day. Since taking over  English Heritage have made several improvements – there are now two separate picnic spots – one close to the house and another adjacent to the car park, where there is also a sheltered and very pleasant children’s playground: picnicking may be a better option than the café where the strength is tea-time catering rather than anything more substantial.

The approach is perfect – across the moat and then you are ushered in via the side entrance to pay and collect your audio guide – the guide is very detailed and with extras could take nearly two hours; it gives a really good picture of the kind of social life led by the rich during the Thirties and the expenses not spared in providing interiors in which to lead this life.  It goes without saying that this was not their only home.  I do recommend the audio guides if you want an enhanced experience but equally English Heritage provide information boards in each room explaining their function and history and when the furniture and furnishings are largely reproductions but based very closely on the contemporary documents and specifications.    So complete is the effect that it is very popular as a film and TV location.

Armed with your guide of whatever kind your first gasp is reserved for the entrance hall which doubles also as a sitting room with intricate inlaid wood walls and matching floor suites and carpets in delicate shades of beige (Swedish influence) – only those opting to get married can tread on the  Marion Dorn rug

Interestingly the Courtaulds’ house guests, while allowed endless hot water and en suite bathrooms (quite unusual in the drafty English country house), were expected to use the coin phone in the ‘service’ wing for outside calls – the house phones only worked between rooms. It is here that you also encounter the house’s other famous resident, the Courtaulds’ pet lemur ‘Mah-Jhong’ who had his own ladder to access his upstairs suite/cage visible from the landing. The entrance hall is beautifully light thanks to the dramatic central dome. Don’t miss the excellent Art Deco wash basins still in use in the public toilets.

Another more conventional sitting room opens off the dramatic entrance hall and holds some of the more treasured majolica pieces in the glass cupboards. Needless to say no expense was spared in the silk furnishings and antique Turkish rugs.

Along the corridor to the Great Hall are what you might call ‘his and her’ offices, more or less equally sized and with lovingly built to fit furniture, be it recessed lighting, side tables, maps on rollers or bookshelves. Ginnie’s room is a little softer given that it has a sofa, but you could imagine yourself working or more likely giving work to a secretary in either room. The prize exhibit  in Stephen’s room is a model of Charles Sergeant Jagger’s ‘The Sentry’, currently on show in the Wellington Arch (see blog entry August 11), as a reminder that he too served in the Artists’ Rifles and was profoundly affected by his experiences.

The suggested and preferred route through the house then takes you into the Great Hall which has the third largest hammer beam roof after Westminster Hall and Hampton Court (see August 4th) but being less crowded and with a simple largely empty interior it is easier at Eltham to appreciate the intricacies of the timber structure. This kind of double structure is called ‘false’ but actually there is no fakery to it and this one dates from Edward IV and the late 15th century. I would have liked to find a little animation of how they constructed these roofs , but architecture websites seem too sober for that.

Still stand and enjoy.  When they restored it (a farmer had been using it as a barn) the Courtaulds added a few embellishments in the ‘Tudor’ spirit, namely a minstrels’ gallery and a screen at the raised end of the hall. The windows are large giving maximum light and slightly incongruously you can walk out into the Thirties Orangery at the dais end.

Back to the corridor and up the wonderful curved staircase with huge portholes which are not glassed in brings you quite abruptly back to the Thirties glamour of the cruise liners when cruising was the prerogative of the rich. Courtesy of the Minstrels’ gallery you can get an even closer look at the timber work and hear about how close the bombs fell during World War II – the bombing of SE London is something we covered more than once on our Woolwich type bus routes…

There were of course several guest bedrooms as the Courtaulds were inveterate entertainers; one of them is now ‘set-up’ as an officer’s bedroom to recall the post-war Army days. Stephen and Ginnie’s ‘His and Her’ bedrooms again reflect their different tastes – hers has a wildly extravagant gold en suite to a circular bedroom with built in wardrobes and concealed lighting, his is more modest in fittings if not in size but also with a beautiful  bathroom. Not to be missed are Mah-Jongg’s sleeping /living quarters  at which point the audio guide will tell several tales of what a nasty little pet he was. The Venetian Guest room completes the substantive tour of the upstairs, where there are also some ‘home movies’ of the time on a loop. Needless to say there were rooms for secretary and servants too, though you do not visit the latter.

The tour finishes on another dramatic note, that of the dining room with its custom built pink leather dining chairs, which combined with the beautiful woods used, give the room a warm and flattering glow. The arresting  feature is not the fireplace, as is the usual case with stately homes, as by now we have concealed central heating and even an electric fire as part of the ‘modern look’ but the cupboard doors with their inlaid lacquered  exotic animal reliefs.  On that exemplary Art Deco note it is time to leave the house for the garden, which would justify a visit in its own right.

As we have by now been round at most times of year it is fair to say the garden is one for all seasons Rather than try to describe the tour round just think there is a moat path to follow right round the hall and house – this can be roped off in part if wet weather has caused flooding – and these sunken areas, when not under water are sheltered and tended. The photos show the borders, and the sunken rose garden.

Just one word of warning – check before you visit especially at weekends as the house is often closed for weddings and you will be met by large bouncers barring your way…

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Tate Britain: Late Turner

Monday 15 September 2014

Tate Britain
Millbank SW1

I had better start with a couple of justifications:  the original 'rules' of the Project  said that we were not going to visit special exhibitions.  But the problem is that it is quite unusual to go to one of our great galleries without a special exhibition to draw one.  When did anyone last pop into Tate Brit to have a quick look at the Turners?  Also, as several of the reviews have said, most of the sumptuous works in this exhibition normally live in the Tate, so we could be seeing them on a 'normal' visit. AND because as a Member of Tate, it was free entry. Finally, what are rules for if not to be broken?

So Linda and I met on the steps, just before the place opened. Linda's journey was much easier than we had feared, with the Victoria Line down: an 87 bus dropped her at the door. And I really approve of places in Westminster that have adequate cycle racks. I had time to watch the large number of people using the so-called super highway along Millbank.

There is no photography allowed in the exhibition, but you will find a number of reproductions here;  and the exhibition is really worth visiting.

It is very difficult to believe that Turner was in his 60s before Queen Victoria came to the throne, and died before the Great Exhibition opened.  The pictures are amazingly modern:  while there were brief references to Turner being influenced by Claude, there was no discussion of what the Impressionists had learned from him.  A couple of the paintings of the Thames could almost have been from that Monet series, from the early 20th century.  Turner's depiction of light and atmosphere kept taking our breath away.

As well as the paintings, the exhibition includes several of his notebooks; he sketched endlessly, sometimes in washes of watercolour, sometimes with meticulous pencil drawings (or 'graphite' as curators always put in the captions)  There was also a room with a wall full of sample sketches, which his agent would show to prospective clients and then he would make paintings from them.  

The six rooms of the Exhibition are more-or-less themed, with a whole room full of sea pictures, and another of his various travels, with the sketchbooks set alongside finished works.  Venice, of course, predominates, but there were many swiss scenes as well.  Very interesting was a room of smaller circular or square oils, almost everyone a vortex of light of amazing brilliance.  But I am not qualified or equipped to evaluate pictures other than to say that they are wonderful!

We did also enjoy a picture, by William Parrott, of Turner on varnishing day at the Royal Academy:  you can see it here if you scroll down to figure 20.  It was interesting because the Tate Exhibition has quite a lot to say about the critics, and occasions when buyers changed their minds having listened to the critics.  You could argue that the modern visitor to Tate should be grateful, since these form some of the great Turner Bequest, which included everything in his studio at his death in 1851.

When we could manage no more wonderful colour and form, we went up to the newish Members' Room, which occupies the balcony all round the inside of the Dome, and had a cup of coffee.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising.

Colville Mews
Lonsdale Road
Notting Hill London W112 AR
Wednesday September 10 2014

I have always been a fan of packaging, indeed you could go as far as saying ‘a sucker for packaging‘ where cosmetics are concerned, so this was not a difficult choice this week. As it happens Jo and I had both been to the original museum back in the 1980s when it was still on the Gloucester dockside and a good place to lose a wet afternoon whilst on holiday in the nearby Forest of Dean. After nearly 20 years in Gloucester the collection transferred to its current site in a quiet mews in north Notting Hill, at one time the less wealthy end though the presence of high end fashion showrooms next door shows this area has seen changes. Totting up all those figures will tell you that Robert Opie, its founder, has been collecting packaging for nearly fifty years. We met at busy Notting Hill Gate having both arrived by underground; the 15+ minute walk  takes you along  the very attractive Pembridge Road and Crescent; the bus numbers 23 and 31 will take you closer.  

As photography is not allowed this account would look rather plain so I made a decision on reaching home to look out some of the brands that were on display from our own store-cupboards and photograph these. This underlines the fact that the Museum only has UK brands (though some are of course now owned by multi-nationals) and unlike last week’s visit would not appeal to many overseas visitors. These are quintessentially the items homesick Brits/ex-pats request when living overseas. I have to confess that my store cupboards had far more overseas items than home grown… and I suspect that it is the case for many of us today. Also the packaging is today’s and not historical, though some of the display’s charm lies in seeing how little things have changed and of course many modern designers do like that retro feel.

Apart from the special, additional World War 1 cabinet at the start, the museum is arranged chronologically. After the Victorian and Edwardian sections there are areas for each decade.  The signage summarises the key political and social developments during that 10 year period plus any significant inventions or events to give a context. The cases are then arranged by products – ie biscuits / chocolates / soap / marmalade / Gentlemen’s Relish (‘Patum Peperium’) with separate cases looking at any of the contemporary celebrations starting with the Jubilee of Queen Victoria and following through to the 2012 Jubilee and Olympics. Exhibitions, sporting events, and royal  occasions various (but weddings especially) all inspire special editions of well-known brands with their products packaged in celebratory mode.  There are also cases for each decade with the most iconic and popular toys and games from that decade.  The World War 1 games are both patriotic and competitive, eg. ‘Race to Berlin’ and ‘With the Flag to Berlin’ are board games while ‘Pop into Potsdam’ is one of those hand-held ball-through-the-maze toys. By the Seventies and Eighties we are looking at Barbie Dolls and Star Wars figures, the point at which global marketing became what drove and drives the toy industry. Toys also link in with TV programmes, and increasingly films made for children.

The brands and their packaging are presented but not critically evaluated – what makes a brand a brand: is it the content? – tea-bags / soap powder / soft drinks and above all cigarettes – or is it the ‘image’ it sells also? Brands need to be instantly recognisable for the shopper who just grabs a tin or packet when in a hurry…  I know when I enter the cereal aisles that Shreddies are the almost only blue package on view, so I go on buying them.  Hence the success of Dorset cereals whose ‘see through‘ window packaging was immensely popular  and helped them secure  a part of the market.    

The Museum of course records those brands that are no longer …. Venus Soap, or Keating's Powder which is perhaps no longer needed as ‘it kills off fleas and lice’, they even had a  jingle  for this now hopefully redundant product.  There areinnumerable kinds of beef extract as given to ailing Victorian heroines.  Patriotic adverts for Bovril and Oxo are particularly prevalent   Occasionally a ‘celebrity’ is pulled in to help boost a product, for example WG Grace the cricketer – now reduced to a fridge magnet  promoting mustard.

New inventions of course generate new brands. I had thought the freeze drying and dehydrating of goods for later rehydration was a fairly new way of presenting food but it seems to have been used since Edwardian days at least.  Eating at the front or on manoeuvres have a longer legacy than just feeding the troops – and ‘instant coffee’ really took off after World War II as meat extract drinks faded from the scene.

Sweets and biscuits have strong brand identities even if the number of biscuit firms has declined as companies combine and take each other over.

The Twenties  was a decade that saw the introduction of several favourite brands, among them some of our best loved chocolate bars.  

Mackintoshes ‘Quality Street’ toffees have virtually the same font and the same tins they have always had – after the series of cases devoted to each decade come shelves of virtually unchanged packaging which include the following products:

Johnson’s Baby items

Imperial  Leather Soap
Scholls Foot Products
Roses Chocolates
Bird’s Custard
Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup
HP Sauce (still a mystery as to what the HP stands for ??

Interestingly some packaging has become ‘intellectual property’ so only Cadbury’s can package in purple (while Suchard Milka has mauve) certain jar shapes are limited to Nescafe, and you may remember the JIF  lemon squeezer, which some used as a water pistol .....

Of course after tins and paper packaging – the latter so ephemeral the advent of plastic changed packaging radically in the second half of the 20th century. There were other innovations – light crushable aluminium with ring-pulls for cans, wine boxes, and tetra packs for some liquids.

Cellophane makes a brief appearance – there is no acknowledgement that in the quest for hygiene, sell by dates and keeping qualities some products are very difficult to open.  One case is devoted to the sustainability of packaging – only certain wood pulps re-cycle and of course packaging forms a large part of our litter problems:  you can sometimes gauge the popularity of a brand by the number of wrappers in the gutter…  Some packets are hard to retrieve so it is surprising there are any crisp packets on display  at all. A great find for the museum was a houseful of goods dating from the late Seventies and early Eighties left untouched for thirty years. Dotted amongst the toys and packets are the odd promotional toy or mug.

Rather under represented – perhaps because most of the key products are French or American – are the cosmetics and beauty products (or maybe because the collector is a man?) where the packaging is almost as important as the product – pretty jars and boxes are needed   for your bathroom and certainly influence this consumer.

The entire collection  is a very visual experience – advertising takes many forms and  the museum focuses on the visible and  tangible; there are some old reels of TV adverts and you can hear the odd jingle towards the end of the  display cases, or when you stop for a drink in the modest café.  It is also a very nostalgic experience – as Time Out put it (quoted on the promotional  brochure):
‘to walk through the magnificently cluttered time tunnel of cartons and bottles toys and advertising displays is to locate your own place in history.’

It is no surprise that old adverts etc are such a key element in any reminiscence work with the elderly. 

PS In case anyone was wondering they are Mr and Mrs. Ribena Berry (aka a pencil sharpener and pen holder).

PPS TFL have finally come good after a certain amount of agitation and replied to my complaint from June... 

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

2 Temple Place

Monday 8 September 2014

On this beautiful sunny day, Andrew and I went on a private tour of 2 Temple Place, organised by the Friends of the British Library. I thought Linda and Mary would not mind if I wrote it up, though we shall of course visit it when there is an exhibition on and access is more straightforward.  They have exhibitions between January and March each year, and the next one will be 'Hidden Collections of the Industrial North West'.

So we arrived in the calm front courtyard of this remarkable building, though the traffic noise from Temple Place and the Strand was intrusive, and were met by our guide, Nigel Black, who began by telling us about the original owner of the building, and pointing out some key features.  The money came from William Waldorf Astor, for whom the word 'rich' is an understatement, but the inspiration was his architect, John Loughborough Pearson. For this building, Pearson moved from his usual Neo-Gothic to what the guide aptly called Neo-Tudor.  The outside embellishments include lamps with 15th century ships on them.  The weathervane, just visible above the crenellated roof, is of Columbus' 1492 ship, the Santa Maria.  Columbus, after all, went the 'other way' from Aster, Europe to America.

Since these were to be the offices of the Astor business empire, and therefore modern, the cherubs on one lamp stand are telephoning one another.  (The other lamp stand has one winding a coil while the other holds up a light bulb).

If I say that his home in London was in Carlton House Terrace (up for sale last year for £250,000,000) and his country houses were Cliveden and Hever Castle, you will see what I mean about his being rich.

But we were here to see William Waldorf's offices.  Having inherited his father's fortune, and wisely continued the family habit of investing in real estate in New York, he moved to England in 1890. He was always worried about his personal security, and the USA was a land of kidnappings and gangsters. So in we went, to the wood panelled entrance hall. It has a striking stone floor, onyx, chalcedony, porphyry and jasper inlaid in the marble.

Astor was very fond of historical fiction, and so the hall and staircase are embellished with wooden carvings of characters from his favourites. The ground floor has the Three Musketeers, plus d'Artagnan,  Milady, and various others.  Then on the upstairs landing, we have Hawkeye and Uncas from James Fenimore Cooper, two characters from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Rip van Winkle and his daughter to illustrate Washington Irving.  Above them all, for British literature, are friezes of Shakespeare plays.  These are by Thomas Nicholls, taking a break from church embellishment which was his main focus.  (You can see some more of his work in Waltham Abbey).  Above all this wood is a stained glass ceiling dating from 1895.

Next we moved into the Library, which was book-free, having in fact been Astor's office. (He had bought the Pall Mall Gazette, turning it from a Liberal paper to a Conservative one, though it made him no money and his wealth continued to come from New York)  The Library is embellished with lots more cherubs, by William Frith who also made the entrance lamp stands.  They depict the Arts and the Sciences, one of them holding a retort, and a couple of others with musical instruments and books
Above, are fifty heads of historical and literary figures by Nathaniel Hitch.  Here Bismarck and Martin Luther mix with the Lady of Shallot and others.  And then there are characters from Ivanhoe...
At either end of the room are stained glass windows by Clayton and Bell, depicting a Swiss sunrise and sunset.  When one end of the building was damaged by a nearby V1 in 1944, the glass was safely is storage, and survived.

Oh, yes, because you can never have too much, there is also a fine door carved by George Frampton, the man who 'did' Edith Cavell and Peter Pan. It shows nine women from the Arthurian legends.

Then we went through a 'hidden door' (part of Astor's security worries) into an exhibition room, still sporting the wallpaper from a William Morris exhibition, and our tour finished.

We had learned a lot of Astor family history, which I shall not detail here. Astors entered British Tory politics and embedded themselves in the establishment.  An Astor won gold at the 1908 Olympics (for Racquets, that upper class and now abandoned Olympic sport); one small descendant was bridesmaid to Katherine Middleton;  one is stepfather to the Prime Minister's wife.

We also learned about the owners of the building since Astor:  Sunlife Assurance of Canada, followed by the Accountants and Auditors/Chartered Accountants, who used it as a sort of Livery Hall.  But now it belongs to the Bulldog Trust, a charity which helps other charities with their governance, and by giving 'modest grants' (Nigel Blacks words, not mine!)

It had been a fascinating tour, and one which I would recommend to anyone, especially anyone with an interest in late 19th century decorative arts .... or an interest in how rich Americans like to spend their money.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Benjamin Franklin House

36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NF
Monday  September 1st 2014

As it was raining after the Banqueting Hall we scuttled along to Trafalgar Square, taking shelter in the arcade by the bookshops and found Craven Street surprisingly quiet given its location just off the Strand. There are some small old pubs tucked into the alleys but otherwise the street presents an almost unbroken terrace of Georgian town houses that run down to the Embankment.  We have a Mr Craven, an 18th century architect / developer to thank for ‘gentrifying’ the street from its former incarnation of disreputable houses; he also literally raised the level of the street thus allowing for some ‘below stairs’ working and storage space – an area to keep the coal for example.

The  house numbers have changed over the years and  what was previously Number 7 is now Number 36, and as we approached a notice was flapping soggily on the door – ‘it’s shut’ we thought but ringing the bell brought one of the two house volunteers to invite us in and book us onto a 12.00 ‘architectural tour’. The website explains the different options but essentially you cannot explore the house unaccompanied and in fact it would not make much sense if you did. Much more popular than our kind of tour are the ‘Historical experiences’ which include actors and projections bringing Franklin’s words to life. As expected this attraction is very popular with Americans for whom Benjamin Franklin is not only a founding father but a great American hero – not for his deeds but his ideas.   

As anyone who has been to the US, and especially to the East Coast, will know the Americans love to populate their historic sites (or even recreate them in the case of Williamsburg) with appropriately costumed and sometimes appropriately speaking actors either to portray tradespeople of the time or more famous residents. We gathered that the ‘story’ for the Benjamin Franklin House is told from the point of view of Polly Stevenson, the daughter of the landlady, a widow who maintained her family by letting rooms. 

The tour begins in what we would call the basement, where are displayed a variety of objects found on different excavations. Prior to the Stevensons the former owner / tenant had been Hewson, a surgeon, who clearly, from the number of bones exhumed, practised on already dead corpses. He worked with the more famous Hunter.  The display cases for the objects and the time-lines, like the shop are in a somewhat clumsy extension built out the back.   

Back to Ben Franklin who arrived in England initially for 5 months, and stayed for 14 years, all of them in this house. Already  the Postmaster General  in the American states (still a colony) Benjamin  Franklin  was  sent over to smooth relations between the ‘old and new countries’ though I think we all know how that story ended. The basement rooms  are assumed to be where any cooking took place (though my suspicion is that much eating would have happened in chop houses and taverns of which there has never been a shortage in this part of London) so there is a later range . More interestingly there is also a cupboard in the wall, well off the floor, which is not typical of Georgian houses, and is thought to have been a proto-fridge or larder – on the cool wall of course. There are windows but well below street level.

The next, ground floor was the Stevensons’ domain and gave our guide, Samantha, a chance to tell us about their ‘relationship’ with Mr Franklin. ‘Reader – she married him.’ Well, no she didn’t, as he actually married neither long-term partner and mother of his children Deborah Read, who chose to stay ‘home’ in New England, nor Margaret Stevenson, his surrogate English ‘wife’.  He was clearly very fond of young Polly too and she  followed him back to America in time for the war of Independence.  The wood panelled room of modest but very regular proportions is ‘set up’ with a tea-tray which would have been very much the female’s domain  see entry for Twinings Tea Museum ).

The first floor (second to Americans who name their floors differently) was where Benjamin Franklin set up home – and it is the most handsome room with floor to ceiling windows and a small false but decorative balcony. Apparently the illustrious tenant was a great believer in the benefits of ‘fresh air’ and followed his own theory by having a bath and then standing naked by the open window. This was not a particularly good image and the ‘air bath’ has not gone down as one of his more successful inventions or experiments. He was clearly made of tough stuff as he also used to swim (having taught himself from a book no less) in the Thames, even more of a sewer then.  Originally the front and back rooms were only divided by some columns which a later tenant removed, replacing them with a wall which proved to be less weight bearing than he thought. These alterations led to the upper floors sagging and distorting (I believe ‘architectural relaxing’ might be a kinder way of describing it) which is certainly noticeable as you go higher in the house.

The second floor (OK – I give up) has a display with a copy of Franklin’s glass harmonica (the original is in Philadelphia) of which we were given a demonstration. Apparently when out in the Irish drinking communities Franklin noticed how they played tunes on differently filled glasses by rubbing the rims, and sure enough the harmonica consists of a graded series of glass vessels. Mozart even composed some music for this rather ephemeral instrument – it never really caught on and once you’re not part of an orchestra you can easily fail…
This guy  makes a really good job of it – all we could manage was a sound sort of like a noise that might have escaped from Dr.Who.

The tour finishes here – the servants of course would have been on the smallest, least glamorous and most inaccessible topmost floor. Apparently Franklin arrived with two slaves whom he freed on arrival; one took off into the bright lights of London whereas Peter stayed with ‘his master’.

For Americans this tour must be an absolute delight – it is the only home where Franklin lived still to be standing and they are much more familiar with the various stories of his inventions and experiments.    For other visitors it is a good introduction to a fascinating man and an excellent opportunity to see a more modest London Georgian town house largely unaltered since its building in 1830.

PS Due to low level lighting and extensive wooden panelling  photos of poor quality...

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Banqueting House

Monday 1September 2014

Whitehall, SW1A 2ER

Linda and I arrived in Whitehall in good time for the 10.00am opening of this treasure of the Royal Historic Palaces' collection.  It was not quite raining, but even so, we should have been glad had the place opened on time, rather than five minutes late.  Still, this did give me a chance to discuss with an armed police officer why there were no signs telling me I could not lock my bicycle anywhere hereabouts.  I pointed out that not all cyclists knew the area, and that if there are to be police-state restrictions, they should at least be signalled.  He seemed bemused....

So, at 10.05 the gates were unbarred and we entered, pausing briefly in the Undercroft, now mainly a cafe, to use the facilities, which were very smart.

We had accepted the free audio guides, and so were listening as we went upstairs to the Banqueting House itself.  The main problem is this:  there is just one room to look at.  It is a sumptuous room, with a frankly astounding Rubens ceiling, but it is still one room, so the audio guide has amazing amounts of background information of an educational nature.  We were told, for instance, the difference between Ionic and Corinthian columns (both on display here) as well as much history of the buildings which were here before this one.

All this on top of a useful video show, starting with The Archbishop of York, whose property this land had once been.  (The video says 'Wolsey', but the land actually belonged to the archdiocese before Henry VIII took it and used it to build his Whitehall Palace).

After an number of the fires so customary in Tudor times, and after the accession of James I, the ramshackle tilt yards, cockpits and tennis courts were pulled down, and the most fashionable architect of the day, Inigo Jones designed the building we have today. He had just returned from Italy, and clearly kept a book mark in his copy of Palladio's great work while he designed the Banqueting House.

The audio guide had a lot to say about Masques, banquets, entertaining foreign ambassadors and so on.  But once Charles I had the ceiling put in, masques stopped, as the innumerable torches and candles would have damaged the ceiling paintings.

And the paintings are gobsmacking; nine enormous canvases, brought by ship from the studios and workshops of Peter Paul Rubens, in response to a 1639 commission from Charles I.  He paid £3000 for it, which according to an inflation calculation website is something like half a million pounds now.

The audio guide told us all about how they were rolled, shipped and lifted into place, but it is more useful to use the beanbags to lie on, or the angled mirror trollies to have a really good look at them.  In the centre, James I is being welcomed into heaven by a clutch of putti and classical goddesses.  Then there are various classical scenes, including one likening James to Solomon.  All in all, the ceiling is a statement about the Divine Right of KIngs, which was Charles I's overarching belief. 'Even by God himself', claimed Charles, 'Kings are called Gods', though I have been unable to trace his particular reference for this claim.  This was the Hall where the later Stuart kings handed out the Maundy money, and also touched people to cure them of the King's Evil.

Which brings me neatly to the most important date in the history of this fine building:  30 January 1649, when the King, Charles I, stepped out of a window onto the scaffold and was beheaded.  I suppose it's not surprising that the Historic Royal Palaces underplay this moment.  They talk about his walk from St James' Palace that morning, wearing two shirts in case people thought his shivering was fear. The video says he was 'accused of treason'. But there is no mention of his negotiations with France and his alliance with the Scots (when he promised to make England Presbyterian when he got his throne back...) both of which actually ARE treason unless one is a Divine Right believer.  Still, he died, and the Parliamentarian republic continued to use the Hall as a formal reception venue, presumably dissuading people from looking up at the ceiling.

Of course, when Charles stepped onto the scaffold, Whitehall looked rather different from the view he would have had today.

In 1698, fire swept through Whitehall Palace, the Banqueting House being the only survivor, possibly because Christopher Wren used gunpowder to prevent the spread, as had been done in the 1666 fire in the City.  

The Banqueting House has the now-obligatory rack of dressing up clothes for children, but there were none while we were there.  In fact I think there were about 10 of us altogether in the time we were there.

As you can tell from the wealth of facts I have passed on above, HRP clearly feels the place needs lots of information to compensate for the fact the your £6.00 does not buy you much to look at, aside from the ceiling.  But still, worth a visit.