Sunday, August 2, 2009

London 2009 - Part 3

I saw this magnet in the gift shop at Buckingham Palace and I decided I had to add it to the collection on my refrigerator. Admittedly, at £3.95 it was a bit expensive, but I figured, what the hell, this Queen is worth it! (I’m talking about Elizabeth II, of course.)

So speaking of Buckingham Palace, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the State Rooms were open for visits. They only do this for two months of the year, late July until late September, and only started it a few years ago to help pay for restoration work at Windsor Castle after the fire there in 1992. Buckingham Palace only became an official royal residence in the early 1800s under George IV, but since then it has served as the primary residence of the monarch. It underwent a major expansion during Victoria’s reign to accommodate her growing family. Today it is Elizabeth II’s primary residence and the site for all official state receptions and events. The student rate of £15 was a hefty price to get in, but I am glad I did it. As you move from room to room with your audio headset guide, you’re led through some of the most stunning architectural spaces, most designed by John Nash in an ornately Neoclassical style. There are elaborately decorated plaster ceilings, columns covered in faux lapis lazuli, and gilding everywhere. It is truly an impressive experience. Even the throne room is set up like a stage, with Elizabeth’s and Philip’s chairs embroidered with their initials raised on a dais. I was equally impressed by the artwork hanging in the galleries, including Old Master paintings by Vermeer and Rubens and many works by the 19th-century German painter Winterhalter, who made a career painting the British aristocracy in a highly idealized fashion. There’s also a hall full of marble statues, most commissioned by Victoria and Albert from artists of the day like Gibson, Theed, Thornycroft, and others. In another room, there was a special exhibition celebrating Elizabeth II’s tours around the world since coming to the throne in 1952. She is the most traveled British monarch. Gifts from nations in the Commonwealth were displayed beside the gowns she wore on many of these state visits. Fashionistas like to make fun of the Queen’s wardrobe, but it turns out that pictures don’t do her clothes justice. She had some stunning ballgowns during the 1950s and 1960s.

And just when you thought I might have had enough of the aristocracy, I also went to the British Library to see the exhibition Henry VIII: Man and Monarch. The exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary of his coming to the throne at the age of 17 in the year 1509. I’ve written on Tudor-related topics on the blog before (see my reviews on The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors), and this exhibition certainly feeds into the perpetual popularity of the overweight monarch who had six wives (two of whom he executed) and established the Church of England. But it also tries to show that he was a Renaissance man. Walk into the exhibition and a wall panel tells you quite boldly what to expect: “This is the Henry VIII of myth and legend. But Henry the monstrous, bloated tyrant with a face like Humpty-Dumpty of nightmare is only one of many Henrys. There’s also Henry the handsome, idealistic prince[,] the devoted son and husband, the scholar, poet, musician, friend and lover.” The exhibition was quite engaging. I’m so used to visiting art exhibitions and looking at paintings and sculptures that looking at manuscripts, plates, books, letters, documents, and the products of material culture on display here took me nearly two hours to fully appreciate it. Two of my favorite parts of the exhibition were Henry’s beautifully designed portable writing desk and a love letter to Anne Boleyn in his own hand. But one must appeal to the kids as well, and since Henry was an avid jouster, they have a setup where children can look through an armor helmet, ride a pretend horse, and lift a wooden lance, all while watching a video segment of a joust from the point of view of the knight. Needless to say, I had to experience it, so I forced a little girl off the horse so I could get on (hey, come on, she had had her turn!). Let me tell you, that lance was unbelievably heavy! And to think they wore armor too. I don’t know how they did it. I’m now in awe at their resilience and apparent strength. I guess Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill do have the bodies of Tudor men! The exhibition closes on September 6th. Click here for the online exhibition website.

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