Elizabeth Hawksley

Some years ago I saw a rom.com where the American heroine visits London for the first time. She lands at Heathrow and takes a cab to wherever she’s staying – somewhere fashionable with a SW postcode. She peers excitedly through the cab window as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge whizz by. I thought: where the hell is the cabbie going? Then the penny dropped: his circuitous route in the wrong direction had nothing to do with the real London; it was a fictitious ‘London’.

Alcazar courtyard 2

The Alcazar: the Spanish Royal family’s summer palace in Seville

I’d always felt much the same about the cigarette factory in Seville in Bizet’s opera Carmen. It must be fictitious. Bizet took his plot from a novella by Prosper Merimee and I doubted whether either of them had actually been to Spain. Merimée probably thought Seville sounded romantic and what was really important wasn’t the unlikely cigarette factory but the romantic toreador at the centre of the story.

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This is one of the first things that greets you at the Park of Monsters, a.k.a. the Park of Wonders or the Sacred Grove at Bomarzo, in Lazio, Italy. It is so huge that when you stand up inside the gaping mouth you have to reach up to touch its teeth!

2 Mask of Madness

The Mask of Madness

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On Friday, my friend Eleanor and I went to Cambridge for the day. We try to do this every year and it’s always a pleasure. It’s a brilliant city for a day out: it’s not too large, there’s plenty to see and do, good places to eat in and a street market with interesting stalls. If the weather’s good, what more can one ask? We caught the fast train from King’s Cross station and forty-five minutes later we were in Cambridge.

1 Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum

We headed down Trumpington Road to the Fitzwilliam Museum: not, dear Reader, for Culture (at least not initially) but because the lure of coffee was overwhelming. And the Museum has an excellent café.

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What happened to the Roman temples and public buildings after the fall of the Roman Empire when they suddenly became redundant? The answer is simple: they were robbed for building materials.

C Castellana mosaic

Cathedral church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Civita Castellana: exterior Cosmati decoration (note the gold for added glitter)

Just think how much material there was to take! All over the Roman Empire there were thousands of temples, expensively clad in marble – some of it carved, and with marble or stone columns supporting pediments and roofs of dressed stone. And that was just the temples. Every Roman town would have had its forum, with colonnades, amphitheatre, public baths, and dozens of other public buildings, all made of expensively cut stone and marble.

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I always like to end a visit to a exhibition by walking round swiftly one last time and choosing an object to take home. It doesn’t have to remotely practical – this is Fantasy-land, after all, and I can have anything I like. In the V & A’s exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear I was spoilt for choice.

41 Negligee for Berenice Marlohe

Negligée in silk satin and Chantilly lace, 2012

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A week or so ago, I was invited to the preview of the V & A’s terrific new exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Lucky me, I thought,  at last I shall be able to see exactly what a Regency Buck wore underneath his skin-tight pantaloons and superbly-tailored coat.

39 Brass bra & Harem pants 1970

Brass bra and harem pants, 1970

Fortunately, the hunky cameramen wielding tripods and cameras were more transfixed by the 1970s brass bra and harem pants, not to mention the sexy silk satin and lace negligée as worn by Bérénice Marlohe, the femme fatale Bond girl in Skyfall, than by the Regency male underwear on display. The woman standing next to me raised her eyes to the ceiling and muttered, ‘Typical!’ So I was able to study the Regency Buck undressed in peace.

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The Queen’s Gallery has two exhibitions on at the moment. The larger exhibition space is showing  Scottish Artists 1750-1900: from Caledonia to the Continent which I also saw at the Bloggers’ Breakfast preview last week. All the pictures come from the Royal Collection and the exhibition’s subtitle is well chosen – Sir Walter Scott’s phrase ‘Caledonia stern and wild’ comes to mind. I’m concentrating on just four of the paintings which George IV, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought that show their love of Scotland.

Deborah Clarke talks

Deborah Clarke talks about the exhibition

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On Friday, I had the great pleasure of being invited to the Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, to a preview of the new exhibition, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. We had to be there by 8.30am – something of a shock to the system as I discovered that, even at 7.45am, it was standing room only on the Victoria line. Fortunately, a choice of tea, coffee or fruit juice and a variety of delicious pastries awaited us on arrival. There was time to meet the other bloggers, together with the curators of the exhibitions.

1. Bloggers breakfast

Bloggers’ Breakfast

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In June 1529, Queen Katherine of Aragon came in person before the legatine court at the Dominican Priory of the Black Friars. At stake was a divorce proposed by her husband, Henry VIII. Henry was desperate to marry Anne Boleyn and sire a male heir and needed his marriage to Katherine to be nullified. He wanted the case to be heard in England. Katherine did not agree.

Catherine_aragon

Katherine of Aragon

The situation was designed to intimidate her. The room in the Dominican Priory was, by definition, exclusively male, and the men she faced carried the full authority of the Catholic Church: Archbishop Warham, six other bishops, and the duplicitous Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who hoped to broker the deal. His line was that he was impartial and well able to deal with the case in England.

Court room general

The Court Room

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A Child’s Day through the Ages by Dorothy Margaret Stuart was one of my favourite books as a child. I particularly liked the story A Garland Over the Door, set in Athens in 438 BC, about the arrival of a baby brother to ten-year-old Ageladas and his little sister, Doricha – and it inspired me to try out something dangerous ….

Syracuse Mus pottery lion

Greek children’s toy: pottery lion

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