The Natural World

The Villa Aldobrandini, a superb example of Baroque architecture, stands in a dramatic and commanding position above the ancient town of Frascati, looking towards St Peter’s in Rome. It was built between 1598 and 1603 for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini as a gift from Pope Clement VIII. Popes weren’t allowed to own property, so Pope Clement’s gift of this magnificent villa to his nephew ensured that it remained in the Aldobrandini family.

The Villa Aldobrandini dominates the town of Frascati

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Usually, I find myself going regularly to various exhibitions or visiting interesting buildings in or around London but, at the moment, that isn’t possible; so this week I’m doing some Time Travelling instead.  Back in 2015, I was invited to the Press Preview of the Queen’s Gallery’s exhibition, Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden, which looked at four centuries of royal gardens through paintings and objects in the Royal Collection. It’s now spring again, so it seems appropriate to have another look at some of the wonderful objects there.

Queen Mary II tulip vase

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In June last year, I was at Streedagh strand in Co Sligo, on Ireland’s west coast, on one of Auriel Robinson’s wonderful SeaTrails walks. The walk covered a huge amount: local geology dating back 350 million years; prehistory, we examined an interesting Bronze Age Wedge tomb; 16th century history, hearing the story of the shipwrecks of three ships from the Spanish Armada which sank here in 1588; botany, walking over the machair grassland with its profusion of wild flowers; marine geology: marvelling at the fossilized corals, sea lilies and other creatures strewn in profusion along the shore; and 20th century history, seeing Mullaghmore harbour where the tragic murder of Lord Mountbatten, and three other people, two of them children, took place in 1979.

Murraghmore: looking towards Benbulben

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The Herb Garret, part of St Thomas’s Hospital which was founded in 1552 after the Reformation by King Henry VIII, (it had once been part of an Augustine Monastery) is one of the capital’s most unusual small museums. It is tucked away behind London Bridge station and not easy to find. You enter by a discreet wooden door, climb a steep spiral staircase, remember to duck your head at the top to avoid a low door frame, and eventually find yourself inside what looks like a large attic.

Dried opium poppies hand from the rafters

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In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland and, this week, I’m looking at a couple of places in Northern Ireland which he visited. St Patrick, whose family was Romano-British, was born in about AD 370, somewhere in Western England between the Severn and the Clyde. His father, a Christian, was a man of some standing in his community and owned a small estate. When he was about sixteen, Patrick was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave and became a shepherd. Six years later, he escaped and, eventually, found a ship to take him home.

St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral, Downpatrick. The poet John Betjeman declared it Britain’s loveliest small cathedral.

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Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and, later still, George IV) and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, had a short but tempestuous life. She was the only child of her parents’ unhappy and short-lived marriage, and heir presumptive to the throne. Sadly, she was destined to become a pawn in the breakdown of her parents’ disastrous marriage.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) by George Dawe, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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I first met the quagga when I was about seven in an aquatint dating from 1804 by the painter Samuel Daniell in a book in my grandfather’s library called African Scenery and Animals. There was something about it which appealed to me – it looked a noble animal, standing in the South African veldt with wildebeest in the background – almost a creature of legend. I liked its unusual name, for a start. And it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d seen; almost a zebra with stripes at the front but becoming a sandy colour at the back, with a white underbelly, legs and tail.

Quagga by Samuel Daniell, 1804, in ‘African Scenery and Animals’

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One Christmas, when I was a teenager, I was given a present of a five year diary. As each year was allotted only five lines, I decided it was useless and chucked it to the back of a drawer.

Waterlow Park: how can you remember what winter feels like in May?

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I have often wondered where the archaeologist Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, actually stayed whilst excavating in the Valley of the Kings on the trail of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. I imagined a dusty tent, perhaps with a flickering hurricane lamp, and mosquito nets over an uncomfortable camp bed somewhere nearby.

 Howard Carter (1874-1939) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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