Notable People

Power dressing is not a modern phenomenon, as the new exhibition Charles II: Art and Power at The Queen’s Gallery amply shows.

King Charles I by Edward Bower, 1649

The exhibition opens with Edward Bower’s remarkable portrait of King Charles I at his trial before the High Court of Justice in the Great Hall of the Palace of Westminster in January 1949. It is obvious that the King knows exactly how to convey his contemptuous refusal of the court’s right to try an anointed king. He sits on a red velvet armchair – and refused either to stand or to take off his hat – his accusers were not his equals and he didn’t owe them any courtesy. His hat is tall, wide-brimmed and visible; it must have been carefully chosen to make the maximum impact.

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Charles II (1630-1680). I know he is often thought of as a lascivious, extravagant king, always short of money and having running battles with Parliament. I see him rather differently. Partly because, I confess, I find him a very attractive man; I know this shouldn’t affect a rational view of him 337 years on, but there we are.

  1. Charles II by John Michael at his coronation. He wears King Edward’s crown and holds the newly made orb and sceptre. 

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Kensal Green Cemetery is an extraordinary place with an astonishing variety of tombstones: Do you fancy ivy twining up crosses, you have it; angels dancing on the roof of a classical columned temple, you have that, too; there are severe Egyptian-style family vaults, as well as pointy Gothic shrines. Furthermore, it is gloriously egalitarian; royalty lies within a stone’s throw of self-made men, quack-doctors, artists, and incongruously modern gravestones with plastic flowers.

General View looking west towards the catacombs

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This year, the Buckingham Palace State Rooms’ summer opening to the public has Royal Gifts as their theme. These are gifts that have been given to The Queen during her reign as part of the State Visits’ formal exchange of gifts. It is an opportunity for both countries to showcase their countries’ craftsmanship as well as to give something which they think the recipient will appreciate.

It is like entering in Aladdin’s cave. One of the most spectacular gifts is the ornate gold presentation tray from Ethiopia. Its inscription reads:

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I first came across the Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652), in Our Hidden Heritage by Eleanor Tofts, published in 1974. It was one of those books at the forefront of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s which sought to re-instate women writers, artists and composers whose works had been forgotten or downgraded.

Our Hidden History by Eleanor Tofts, 1974

Artemisia was taught to paint by her father, Orazio Gentileschi, in Rome. Both were influenced by the new style of the painter, Caravaggio, with its accentuated use of shadows, strong colours and dramatic story-telling. Artemisia became known for her wit and high-spirits, as well as her painting. But, when she was only seventeen, her life took a traumatic turn. She was raped by a friend of her father’s, a fellow painter called Agostino Tasso. Orazio appealed to the Pope and Agostino was brought to trial. Artemisia was cross-questioned under torture but held firm, and Tasso was imprisoned for eight months. Poor Artemisia was hastily married off and moved to Florence.

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Some years ago, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I heard Professor Jenny Hartley give a talk on popular Women’s Fiction – she was researching it at the time. At the end, after the questions, she said, ‘I’d now like to ask you a question: how many of you have read Katherine by Anya Seton?’

Katherine

Cover of ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton (1961)

A forest of hands shot up. The entire conference had read it. I myself read it as a teenager and loved it.  First published in 1954, it’s the story of a herald’s daughter, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and then the third wife of John of Gaunt, a marriage which scandalized all Europe. It is one of English History’s great love stories and it truly changed the course of history; for Katherine became the ancestor of the Tudors and thus of Queen Elizabeth II.

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I’m always delighted to be invited to a Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery; I know I’ll be in for a treat – and that’s not including the delicious coffee and croissants.

Bloggers breakfast

Oh! the croissants!

Their new exhibition, Portrait of the Artist, showcases 150 portraits from the Royal Collection, and the range is much wider than you’d expect. Not only are there the greats: Rubens, for example, but also humbler artists, like Paul Sandby, whom I’ve long admired; the photographer, Herbert Ponting – ditto; and the decidedly bizarre, like the French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt’s large bronze inkwell in the form of herself as a harpy-like creature with bat’s wings, clawed feet clutching the inkwell, and with her own head.

In this post, I have chosen to look mainly at the more unexpected exhibits.

E Bernhardt inkwell EH

Inkwell of a harpy-like creature by Sarah Bernhardt Continue reading

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This is my heroine of the week: the redoubtable – and diminuative (she was only 4ft and 10 ins) – Dame Sarah Ann Swift, the founder of the Royal College of Nursing.

Sarah Swift

Dame Sarah Ann Swift (1854-1937) by Herbert James Draper

Born in 1854, Sarah Swift had had a long and successful career in nursing and proved herself to be an excellent organizer. She had not long retired when war broke out but she immediately offered her services to the government. They accepted and she found herself responsible for the placement of 6000 trained nurses, and VAD nurses, in various war zones. It was 1916, and World War I was about to enter its most bloody stage; the Battle of the Somme, where over one million soldiers were killed.

RCN facing Cavendish Sq

20 Cavendish Square, home of the Royal College of Nursing

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This is Mariana – and she has a problem. She was betrothed to Angelo, a man she was passionately in love with, but, when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, the rat Angelo repudiated her. She now lives a lonely life in a moated grange. But things are about to change…

Mariana brighter

Millais’s painting ‘Mariana’

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