Historical fiction, King Henry VIII and St James’s Palace

A-Tudor-PalaceLast night the final episode of Wolf Hall left us in no doubt how terrifying it must have been to live at the court of King Henry VIII. The whole series, like the books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), has been an intriguing observation of power and the manipulation of power. But, unlike other 21st-century historical fictional accounts of the Tudors full of 21st-century people dressed in costumes essentially behaving in a very modern manner, the characters of Wolf Hall evoke another time. Perhaps it is nearer to a true Tudor sensibility. It somehow has a feel as though this re-presentation (hyphen deliberate) floats out from the documents, art and culture surviving from the period.

Last weekend I visited the ‘Real Tudors’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and had the opportunity to scan across six different portraits of Henry VIII as I slowly turned on my heels. Putting the different styles and skills of the various artists aside, we are looking to find the essence of the monarch caught somewhere in the brushstrokes. As I stood and looked and looked, I realised how hard it is to see Henry the human being. The difficulty with these portraits is they are of a royal personage painted at a time when to be royal was to be almost a god. The other issue with these images is that some are copies of an original portrait or even copies of copies long lost in the last 500 years. In the end I considered we will only ever have an extremely mediated view of Henry and as with our contemporary queen, their public face is all about this strange, archaic notion of royalty and nothing to do with an ordinary human sitting for a portrait. I would show you these Henry portraits but, . . .

All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to 'extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery'. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf
All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to ‘extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery’. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf

Wearing my Art Historian’s hat I find I have again to moan about access to public images held by a national art gallery. The National Portrait Gallery does not permit any photographs at all. In fact there are little signs here and there through the galleries reminding us not to take pictures. These images are part of a nation’s heritage and, of course, they are available to see and buy on their website, but that is not the same as taking my own shots.

St James's Palace Pall Mall
St James’s Palace, Pall Mall, London.
Built as St James’s House by King Henry VIII. The original Chapel Royal, gatehouse tower, turrets and two Tudor rooms in the State apartments of this red brick building still survive.

At least we are still permitted (and we are very, very grateful) to photograph royal palaces from the street. During the period between 1531 and 1536 Henry VIII had St James’s House built (now known as St James’s Palace). The Wolf Hall drama is also partially set during these years and today we can stand in front of the original Tudor gatehouse and imagine Thomas Cromwell riding through these gates perhaps to speak with Anne Boleyn the day after she was crowned queen.

The Tudor gatehouse of St James's Palace.
The Tudor gatehouse of St James’s Palace.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

8 thoughts on “Historical fiction, King Henry VIII and St James’s Palace”

  1. Those Belisha beacons are a nice Tudor touch there. If you liked Wolf Hall then I would recommend, if you’ve not already read it, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Lady Antonia Fraser. Although make sure you get the complete versions with the photo plates in as it probably features many of the significant paintings you probably went and looked at.

    p.s. I don’t know if there is a version without the photos, but I got conned into buying two volumes of her book about Charles II which was just the proper book (which I later discovered existed) cut in half and all the photos taken out.

    1. Ah yes, the bright yellow beacons – I think they are what a graphic designer I used to know called a ‘visual irritant’! Thanks for the recommendation. I haven’t read any Antonia Fraser, but I understand that she doesn’t play fast and loose with the historical facts either. I’m currently half way through Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ about the French Revolution and I’m beginning to adore Camille Desmoulins as much as Thomas Cromwell.
      Bad luck about your Charles II purchase. In a previous life I was responsible for the history section when I volunteered at our local Oxfam Bookshop and we quite often received good condition Antonia Fraser hardbacks and then resold them at a fair price.

  2. Looking forward to getting the Wolf Hall series on this side of the pond! Interesting points about public access to public art – I always just accepted the no photos rule but you raise interesting questions about why? Could it also be that too much flash photography could damage the art?

    1. Arrrgh – definitely NO flash photography – yes light does damage delicate works so much so that most of the older miniatures in the Portrait Gallery are kept under covers you have to lift to view!! But quite a few people have cameras that can cope with low light levels without flash, and even if flash didn’t do damage it would be rather intrusive and spoil the experience if everybody was taking flash pics. Currently there is quite a debate over here about photography in art galleries and museums. Only last summer the National Gallery lifted their restrictions after conceding it could not stop people taking pictures on mobile phones. The V&A are fine with items in their main collection being photographed as long as you credit them. They think it is a good advert for the museum and encourages people from all round the world to visit if they are in London.

  3. Yes, photography restictions are an irritant. After all, we tend to take photos in art museums for rather different reasons than to have a fine image of a work of art: it certainly wasn’t to save myself buying a postcard or a book on Hepworth that I took my shots last week in the Hepworth Gallery (and good on them for allowing photography).
    Like Frivolous Monsters, I really like the belisha beacons juxtaposing the 20th century with the Tudors.
    Now then, what are we going to do with our Wednesday evenings? Did you see the programme after, with Kirsty Wark, Peter Kosminsky and Mark Rylance. I found it a most interesting discussion: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05471yp

    1. Yes, I did and I was fascinated to hear both Rylance’s and Kosminsky’s slightly different response to the original Mantel text. It’s such a treat to have a glimpse of how this kind of talent successfully translates two fat novels to the TV screen. I was a touch uneasy at the beginning of the series, but after I’d relinquished my own intense but ill-defined Cromwell, I thought Mark Rylance was superb particularly in Episode 5 with Damien Lewis’s Henry. Oh yes what to do on a Wednesday evening 😦

      1. Yes, Rylance has been a real treat, and I so enjoyed his thoughtful exposition of how he tackled and interpreted the part. Luckily, we had to be out for an early episode, so we’ve recorded the lot. I think we’ll be watching it all again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: