Visiting Buckingham Palace Gardens

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited (plus guest) to the Press Preview of the opening to the public of the Buckingham Palace Gardens so I asked my friend and fellow author, Sophie Weston, if she would like to come. Apart from the three Garden Parties which the Queen hosts every summer, the general public don’t usually get to see the gardens, but Covid has made the annual opening of the State Rooms and the accompanying exhibition impossible. Naturally, I said, ‘Yes, please’. Sophie and I were both looking forward to it. Normally, if you visit the State Apartments and the Summer exhibition, you come out of the palace onto the West Terrace Steps of the Palace where there is a café –

The cakes are always delicious, and I love the way that even the chocolate button on your vanilla slice has a small gold crown on it!

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British Museum: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

One of the most splendid exhibits in the British Museum is undoubtedly the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and its astonishing treasures, dating from the 7th century A.D. which was excavated 1938-9, as the country prepared itself for war.

The Bronze Helmet – fit for a King?

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Freedom v Tyranny: The Afterlife of Thomas Becket

This week I’m following up on  the blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170. I looked at how the relationship between King Henry II and his former Lord Chancellor, which had once been so close, turned to bitterness and hatred, and ended in Becket’s violent death in front of the High Altar. The murdered Becket swiftly became a martyr and a saint – and, almost immediately, miracle cures, ascribed to Becket, were recorded.

Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ on Pilgrimage to Canterbury c. 1387

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St Thomas Becket: Murder in the Cathedral

On a cold winter’s day, 29th December, 1170, three knights: Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy and Hugh de Morville arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. They were King Henry II’s loyal men and, time and again, they had heard him fume against the Archbishop Thomas Becket’s wilful refusal to obey him and side with the church instead. They vowed to ride to Canterbury Cathedral, capture Becket, and drag him back to face the King, so that the long and bitter quarrel between them could finally be settled.

They did not, at this point, mean to murder Thomas.

A reliquary casket showing the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. At the bottom, three knights, swords raised, are about to attack Thomas who stands in front of the altar. Two monks on the right raise their hands in horror

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Souvenir Mugs and Jugs from the Napoleonic Wars

To set the scene: 206 years ago today, on 28th February, 1815, the ex-emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, having escaped from exile on the Island of Elba, landed in France and immediately set about reclaiming his throne. His luck was to hold for 100 days. By the beginning of June he had raised 200,000 men, more than enough to match the combined armies of the Britain and her Allies. On 18th June, 1815 he would face his enemies at Waterloo.

‘British Voluntary Infantry raised 1797’, earthenware plaque, Bristol Water Lane Pottery c. 1801.

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The Queen’s Gallery: Judith and Holofernes

The story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament inspired a number of Renaissance artists, Cristofano Allori and Artemisia Gentileschi among them, to paint the beautiful Jewish heroine, Judith, chopping off the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian General  who had been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar to conquer Palestine. Sex and violence, as ever, proved to be a popular mix – and very sellable.

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Queen’s Gallery: Four Masterpieces and their Stories

Sixty-five of the masterpieces which usually hang in one of the State Rooms in Buckingham Palace are now being exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace’ until January 2022. They are here because of a major services overhaul in the palace itself – a mammoth task involving the removal of lead pipes, dodgy electrical wiring and old boilers. The Queen’s Gallery visitors get the benefit because all the paintings hang at eye level which means that even the smallest paintings can be seen properly.

A Girl Chopping Onions by Gerrit Dou (1613-1675)

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Mid-Victorian artists’ fascination with ‘Oriental Ladies in Harems’

A few days ago, I went to see The Enchanted Interior at the Guildhall Art Gallery, curated and developed by the Laing Art Gallery and Madeleine Kennedy, and adapted by the Guildford Art Gallery. It examined the fascination Oriental art and life in the Middle East held for Mid-Victorian to early 20th century British artists. What appears to have attracted them most was the allure of beautiful women hidden away in harems, living in a ‘gilded cage’. The exhibition is full of pictures of exotic Oriental interiors – usually in Constantinople (Istanbul) or Cairo, or somewhere similar. There are elaborately ornamental wooden grilles to keep the women safe from prying eyes; exotic, colourful Oriental carpets; maids bringing in food and drink; and – probably most the important – the women lounging on the carpets or ottomans all seem perfectly contented.

John Frederick, Life in the Harem, Cairo. 1858. The lady lounges on an ottoman, she has flowers in her lap. A female servant enters with refreshments. A eunuch follows her.

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Time-travelling in Royal Style – with Flowers

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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The Intrepid Edith Durham: Traveller and Collector

Every now and then my local library has a book sale and some years ago, whilst eagerly scanning the book titles, one of Virago’s familiar dark green covers caught my eye. It was High Albania by a woman I’d never heard of, Edith Durham, (1863-1944). First published in 1907, it was an eye-witness account of her hair-raising travels in the mountains of Albania. Intrigued, I bought it.

High Albania by Edith Durham

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