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.
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Renovating your way out of a recession

Builders in Oxford Street, London.
Builders in Oxford Street, London.

I am sure that there are new building projects being commenced all over the UK, but I was struck by the amount of renovation, rebuilding and new builds I saw last weekend in Central London.

Of course, there is the amazing, ongoing massive underground engineering project Crossrail that comes to the surface every now and then and creates a major building site. Crossrail is a deep underground railway service due to open in 2018 allowing a traveller to cross from an area south-west of London to south Essex without coming up for air! A service more for commuters than tourists, but aimed to relieve Central London congestion.

Elizabeth breaks through at Liverpool Street in January 2015. Photo from Crossrail.
Elizabeth breaks through at Liverpool Street in January 2015. Photo from Crossrail.

But back on the streets many London landmark buildings are receiving a little tlc and maintenance.

neo classical pediment
Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner – ground floor a muddle of scaffolding, but the neoclassical pediment is still striking.

Even the prestigious and pristine Athenaeum on the corner of Pall Mall and Waterloo Place has a protective structure over their statue of Athena. It is a gilded work by Edward Hodges Baily and I’m not sure if the cover is due to renovation work or whether it is the statues annual protection to keep the worst of the winter weather from the gilding/gold paintwork.

The Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall, London. Pristine neoclassic building designed by Decimus Burton.
The Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall, London. Pristine neoclassic building designed by Decimus Burton.

And, down the other end of Pall Mall the building work has spilled out over the pavement and another building under plastic is detracting from the beautiful St James’s Palace.

Despite many buildings being smartened up even in Central London there are some prime position properties awaiting a visit from the renovation ‘angel’.

Part of 90-93 Piccadilly on the other side of the road from these splendid gates opening onto Green Park.
Part of 90-93 Piccadilly on the other side of the road from these splendid gates opening onto Green Park.

These houses, 90-93 Piccadilly are a grade II listed terrace that overlooks Green Park. It has an amazing view through a set of well-maintained ornate gates all the way down to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace.

View across Green Park down to the Victoria Memorial. (Not sure how the glass office tower block behind got planning position!)
View across Green Park down to the Victoria Memorial. (Not sure how the glass office tower block behind got planning position!)