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.
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.
I’ve always been interested in names, what they mean, when they became popular and why they fell from favour and ‘Thomas’ is a particularly interesting example. Thomas was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, called ‘doubting Thomas’ because he refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he saw Jesus for himself. The main New Testament male names, (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Simon and Paul) were largely ignored as names people were actually called. In England, they were seen as religious names and set apart.
The most common boys’ names in the 12th century were William, Robert, Ralph and Richard – all of which had arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 and swiftly supplanted the Anglo-Saxon names, with the exception of Edward and Edmund, both names belonging to Anglo-Saxon kings who were also saints.
Canterbury Cathedral: the setting for a horrible murder
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.
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.
The new exhibition, George IV, Art & Spectacle, at the Queen’s Gallery shows King George IV, our most ‘exuberant king’ as the tube posters have it, to be a mass of contradictions. The portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence depicts him in all his royal Majesty – and we must remember that he was the King-in-Waiting for many years. George, Prince of Wales, had finally become Prince Regent in 1811 when his father, George III, finally succumbed to madness, and stayed in that difficult position until the king’s death in 1820. George III had been King for over 6o years and the previous coronation had been forgotten. The new George IV was determined that his coronation would be of unparalleled magnificence. Perhaps he felt that, after all that waiting, he was owed something in compensation.
Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.
George IV designed himself a magnificent Coronation costume. – he had good legs, why not show them off?
The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
I’ve always loved Victorian magic shows with their sleights of hand and appearances that trick the eye. To my delight, this year’s exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace, at the Summer Opening of the Buckingham Palace State Rooms, offers a genuinely Victorian touch of magic with an optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. I couldn’t wait.
This week I’m in Rochester, an important naval town on the River Medway which flows into the Thames. There is a huge amount to see in Rochester from Roman times onwards, but today I’m looking at one house.
Being a Charles Dickens fan, I have long wanted to visit Restoration House, supposedly Dickens’ inspiration in Great Expectations for Miss Havisham’s home, Satis House, that ‘large and gloomy’ place, full of dust, cobwebs and shadows and lit only by candlelight. It is here that the young Pip is entrapped by Miss Havisham’s desire to seek revenge, through him, for her lover jilting her so cruelly on her wedding day.
This year, the Queen’s Gallery marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) with a thrilling new exhibition which displays over 200 drawings held in the Royal Collection. What makes them so extraordinary is that you feel at once that you are being allowed inside the head of a genius, a man who was, above all, curious to know how things worked.
1. Study of shoulder muscles from sketchbook of Leonardo da Vinci