A Visit to Kensal Green Cemetery

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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The Spectacular Leeds Castle

I’ve been longing to visit the beautiful Leeds Castle in Kent for a long time and, a few weeks ago, I finally managed it. It’s spectacularly sited on two rocky outcrops in a lake created by the river Len.

Castle with waterfowl: the flag flies over the Gloriette, or keep

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Greenwich: up the Scaffolding

Last week, I visited the World Heritage Site of Greenwich. I particularly wanted to see the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College, built by John Webb, a pupil of Christopher Wren. It was once the Royal Naval Hospital, the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers, the Chelsea Pensioners, and the building I had come to see had been designed as a magnificent communal dining-room for retired sailors.

Old Royal Naval College. The Painted Hall is on the left 

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Buckingham Palace: Royal Gifts

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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The ‘Coronation’ Gold State Coach

Last Tuesday, I was invited to the Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Royal Mews. I particularly wanted to see the Gold State Coach, the one used at the Queen’s coronation. I’d seen it a number of times on television, of course, but I’d never seen it for real. My first impression was that it was enormous – which it is at 7.3 metres long, 2.5 meters wide and 3.9 metres high. It lives in the State Coach House and it’s quite a business to get it out when it’s required. First of all, they have to remove a false wall and a window; then everything that can be, must be got out of the way; and only after that can it be turned the necessary 90 degrees and pointed at the now-revealed door – and that alone takes two and a half days.

The Gold State Coach: it’s so big I can’t get it all in the photo

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The Savoy Chapel: a John of Gaunt moment

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?’


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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Queen’s Gallery: Portrait of the Artist

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

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Buckingham Palace: 90 Years of Style

This year’s exhibition accompanying the summer opening of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace looks at 90 years of style from the Queen’s wardrobe. I always enjoy these Bloggers’ Breakfast occasions, from seeing who else has been invited (this time, the impressive Suzy Menkes of Vogue), the enthusiasm of the curator, and the welcome voucher for tea/coffee and our choice of cake afterwards.

For GR VIs coronation

Princesses’s dresses, robes and coronets for the coronation of King George VI, May 1937

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Queen’s Gallery: For the Love of Scotland

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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The Apothecaries Hall: The Ghost of Katherine of Aragon

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.


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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