Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 2. Queen's State Apartments and King's State Apartments.

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Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne.  Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.

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These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious,  we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.

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The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.

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The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.

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The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.

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Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.

 

Handel & Hendrix in London, Brook Street, London W1

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London has a number of small and quirky museums. This one dedicated to life and works of George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix is certainly an unexpected combination. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the 18th Century and Hendrix lived at number 23 for short time in the 1960s.
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Bach’s house is decorated in the slightly austere Georgian style that was fashionable when he lived there. It does contain some beautiful musical instruments, including a wonderful harpsichord and a chamber organ. The bedroom has a four poster bed and there are some good paintings and a bust of Handel too. There are recitals held in the music room at least once a week and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.
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The Hendrix flat is laid out somewhat differently. The bedroom/living room is decorated as it would have been when Hendrix and his girlfriend lived here, this is borne out by the many photos of the room published during this time. The rest of the apartment is done in a more traditional museum style, with guitars and jackets in glass cases and commemorative posters on the walls.  The bedroom is interesting, the fact that it is so classically psychedelic Carnaby Street 1960s in style probably reflects the huge effect that he had on the fashion of the time.
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Unlike many museums in London, this one is not free unless you have a National Art Pass. It is small but it does contain a number of curious items. It is striking to compare what the height of fashion was in the centre of London two hundred years apart – and there is something apt in the fact that it doesn’t open until 11am on any day. Half an hour or forty minutes will adequately see you round this exhibition, but if you are a fan of either rock or baroque, I think there will be something here to please you.

Hogarth's Progress Part 2, The Taste of the Town, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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Nick Dear’s second part of Hogarth’s Progress is set thirty years on from part 1 which is reviewed here: Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston. This second play is also a fictional story based around real events in the life of William Hogarth.  By this time he has enjoyed success, and he is serjeant painter to King George III. He has taken a house in the countryside, in Chiswick.

This story also takes place on a drunken day, although by now William Hogarth is something of a reformed character and one has the impression that days such as these are less frequent than in the past. Although the day itself is a fictional day, the characters in the play are real, and the people and events that they discuss are fact. Hogarth is worried that, although he is relatively rich and famous, his art is not given the gravitas it deserves. The play then, although it is a light comedy in style, has an underlying discussion about what exactly it is that constitutes success. It is a cleverly written piece and it works well on both levels.

The dialogue is crisp and funny. The characters have depth, we see their flaws and like them nevertheless. Mark Umbers is very good as David Garrick, the multi faced actor. He is smooth, accomplished and very aware that the whole world is a stage. The role of Horace Walpole is beautifully written and it is beautifully played Ian Hallard. His lines are witty, barbed, and perfectly delivered. He rips Hogarth to shreds so sweetly that the artist leaves his house almost believing that he has made a new best friend.

The acting throughout is superb. Sylvestra Le Touzel is wonderful as Lady Thornhill, arch and harsh, but knowing where her best interests lie. Jasmine Jones shines again, this time as Bridget. It is interesting to see the cast playing different parts in each play and I enjoyed the links between the two shows, although each is an independent narrative and works without any knowledge of the other.

Both of these shows are interesting and both are worth seeing. If you can only see one, the first is frenetic and explicit, the second is calmer and sharper but each one is funny in its own way, so it depends on how you like your comedy. If I had to choose, I think I would probably pick the second, simply for the wonderful characters Walpole and Garrick.

 

Hogarth's Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.

Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.

Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well.  It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good.  Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.

The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.

 

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London WC1.

 

Franz Hals, the Laughing Cavalier
The Laughing Cavalier

 

The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.

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The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
 
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Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

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A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.

 

Canaletto, the Grand Canal
Canaletto, The Grand Canal

 

It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.

 

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Rembrandt, Susanna Van Collen and her daughter Anna

 

Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.

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The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.

Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

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There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1818

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Northanger Abbey was actually written in the final years of the 18th Century but was not published until after her death in 1817. Although it has similarities in style and content to “Sense & Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice” there are also some major differences.
It is a comedy of manners, but it is more a satire of the gothic novels that were fashionable at the time. So, it does make gentle fun of the contemporary styles of the day, but this book is more specific in its target than her first two novels. This is not to say that she is not just as funny when pointing out the differences between what is said and what is meant in genteel society at that point in history, but this is not the main thrust of the novel.
The story is laid out in the style of a gothic horror novel, with many things foreshadowing dark happenings in the imagination of Catherine, our heroine. These intrigues usually turn out to be much more mundane, such as her discovering that the scrolls found in the desk are only an old laundry list. The books mentioned in the Northanger Abbey are real novels that were popular at the time and, Austen’s knowledge of their content and style shows that, she must have enjoyed reading them herself.
Catherine Morland is much more the ingénue than the usual lead character in a Jane Austen novel, she takes longer to notice when people are behaving badly towards her. This gives the author the opportunity to write some particularly materialistic and vain characters, she is merciless and sharp with these.
This book feels much less a Regency romantic comedy and more the story of an imaginative 17 year old girl leaving home for the first time. Catherine comes of age by realising that the world she has read about in her books is not quite the same as the world she occupies in real life. This gives it a universal truth that is just as true today as it was when it was first written.
In conclusion, although Northanger Abbey, would probably not be my first recommendation as an introduction to the novels of Jane Austen, it is nevertheless, a fine book and worthy of its place as a classic of English literature.
 
 
 

Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee) 1995

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Sense and Sensibility is a good film, but I believe that it is almost false advertising to call it by that name. The story is so changed from the book that, although the characters have the same names and the final result is the same, it is totally unrecognisable in places as the same story. Some quite major characters have been killed off.  John Middleton is now a widower and their young child no longer in the story.  Lucy Steele’s sister, who blabs the whole story if the illicit engagement, is not in the film. Hugh Grant is far too affable in character for the grumpy Edward Ferrars in the book. Alan Rickman too easily wins Marianne over after her disappointment in Willoughby.  In fact, in this film, almost the least charming character is Willoughby, who in the book wins over Marianne, and her mother, by his easy false charm.
The acting is good, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are very good playing the romantic leads in a costume drama set in the 18th century. Emma Thompson is full of repressed emotion and Kate Winslett is fine as an impulsive teenager falling in love easily and recovering easily. Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie are wonderfully funny as Mr and Mrs Palmer.
There are some great moments of humour, the script has some wonderful lines. It is visually very attractive and there is much to admire in the period detail. A great deal of care and attention went into the making of this film and it shows throughout the movie.
It was nominated for seven Oscars. It won the one for best adapted screenplay. It was hugely popular and led to a revival of sales of Jane Austen’s novels and for these reasons it must be celebrated. I would probably have liked it more had I not read the novel itself so recently.
The film itself is most enjoyable but do go to see it as a Hollywood representation of upper class England in the late 1790s and not as a  faithful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the book.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is probably the most famous opening line to a novel in the whole of the English language.
Pride and Prejudice is one of the most loved books as well, it recently came second in a BBC poll of Britain’s best loved books and first in a major Australian poll of theirs. It was the second of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed and it is even wittier than Sense and Sensibility, her first.
Jane Austen gives a great idea of what it was like to be middle class in England in the late 18th century. She manages to portray the hopes and aspirations of the time, while gently poking fun at them. She has a fantastic talent for writing characters and, even though every one of them is slightly caricatured, we care about them despite their faults. She has a wonderful art of showing how people fool themselves into believing what they wish to believe, and this has a timeless quality, just as true today as it was over 300 years ago.
First and foremost, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel and there are 4 wonderfully different romances going on here, from the quite inappropriate, through the mildly shocking, to the wildly romantic and we have insight, as it also a comedy of formal manners, into how polite society looks upon them all.
The language is relatively concise, less of the longwinded descriptive prose that was fashionable at the time and more of the pithy epigram. It is easy to read, the story pulls you along, each chapter leaves you wanting to know what will happen next. The ending is wonderful and I’m sure this novel is at least partly responsible for the popularity of costume drama even today.
There are many good reasons why this is still one the most popular books written in English and, if you wish to become acquainted with classic English Literature, there is no better place to start.
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