London: The Queen’s House

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I was craving a churro the other day (ok, and I wanted to buy some new shoes), so another trip to Greenwich was in order.  I suppose I could have gone to Camden, as they also have churros and the shoe stall I like, but Camden is pretty horrible and crowded, and Greenwich is quite pleasant.  The only trouble is, I’ve already posted about most of the free museums in Greenwich, so I wanted to find something new to see without spending any extra money (which could instead be spent on more churros).  Granted, I could have just gone and ate the damn churro without going to a museum, but then what would I have to blog about?  A quick investigation online led me to the Queen’s House.  I’m not sure how this previously escaped my attention, since it is literally next door to the National Maritime Museum (you can even see the edge of it on the right of the photo above, at the end of the columns), but there’s a lot of attractive buildings in Greenwich, and I’m usually eating an ice cream when I walk down that way, so I’m not at my most observant.

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The queen in question is Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated Charles I, who only lived here for a few years because of the whole, you know, Civil War and all.  It was designed by Inigo Jones, and initially commissioned for Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife, but she died before construction could be completed.  Catherine Pelham also lived there for a bit, which is of interest only because she was cousin-in-law (once-removed, I think, at least as far as I can work out) to Elizabeth Hay, wife of William, and I think any connection to William Hay is neat, as he seems to be mostly forgotten.  It’s weird, but I often feel like I know the Georgians better than my actual acquaintances; I always get excited when I find a connection to Georgians I “know.”  Anyway, the house later became the Royal Naval Asylum, for orphans of seamen (ha), and then ultimately became part of the Royal Museums of Greenwich group, and currently houses the art collection of the National Maritime Museum.  Whew.  All you probably need to know is that it is free, and is a rather lovely setting for an art museum.

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Architectural highlights include the Tulip Stairs, which are meant to be haunted, though I didn’t sense any strange pockets of cold air when I was walking up them, and the Great Hall, with its collection of four busts, and a splendid black and white marble floor that they are rightly quite keen to preserve (there’s a warning about grit on your shoes posted outside).  I began my visit by climbing up that very staircase to the first floor, which held the Stuart galleries, and a special installation by Alice Kettle: “The Garden of England,” which consisted of three pieces with a flower theme set amongst the 17th century portraits in the North West Parlour.  The Stuart room was fittingly graced with portraits of Henrietta Maria and Charles I to each side of the window, and there was a dollhouse sized version of the Queen’s House itself in the next room.

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Heading up to the second floor, I was very pleasantly surprised to come across a Captain Cook gallery.  I’ve been quite keen on Cook ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, and even keener on the fine-looking Joseph Banks, but alas, this gallery was focused on artwork from Cook’s second and third voyages, and Banks went along on the first one.  Nonetheless, I thought it was incredibly cool to have the opportunity to see William Hodges‘ paintings, as they essentially represent the first time Europeans got a glimpse of Polynesia.  I especially loved his painting of Easter Island, and of course, his portrait of Cook himself, amongst a few others that I’ll also post here.  (Please excuse my shoddy attempts at photography, the lighting was poor, flash wasn’t allowed, and my hands are unsteady).

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I definitely lingered longer there than in any of the other galleries, and even came back for a second look, but there was plenty more to see.  The next room offered an x-ray analysis of some of Hodges’ paintings, to reveal the changes he made, and speculate on the reasons behind them.  There was a substantial amount of Dutch naval art as well, but pictures of boats don’t enormously appeal.  I did however get interested again when I got back into another portrait gallery.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I like a fine-looking seaman (ha again!). I know Joseph Banks wasn’t technically a seaman, but Cook’s voyage was pretty epic, and he managed to survive that (albeit with the help of a number of manservants).  In addition to Banks, I’ve also developed a fondness for the young Augustus Keppel (though he too, became corpulent in middle age).  I thought at first it was because I like Georgian naval outfits, and whilst I do love a good greatcoat/knee breeches combo, there was an unnamed Stuart naval officer who was looking pretty fine as well, so maybe it’s not all in the uniform.  Still, I do rather fancy Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent (though obviously not so much as Bertie Wooster, and in spite of the fact that Blackadder drives me mad because he wasn’t yet the Prince Regent during the time period Blackadder III is set in, and in fact wasn’t even born yet when Samuel Johnson was writing his Dictionary), so there’s something to be said for the breeches and stockings after all, certainly when compared to a neck ruff.

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Now, where was I? Oh right, the rest of the Queen’s House. There was art hidden all over the place in here; I had to go down a random back staircase to see Turner’s “Battle of Trafalgar” in a room with some paintings of battles in the American Revolution.  I don’t know why, but somehow I never think of naval battles when I picture the Revolutionary War, even though obviously I knew they went on.  There was also a series of rooms devoted to maritime art by the century; I managed to catch a glimpse of my old “friend” Alfred Wallis in the 20th century section, whilst I was predictably rushing through to get back to the older stuff.

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Back on the ground floor, there was a small gallery on the Royal Hospital School (which was merged in 1821 with the Royal Naval Asylum mentioned at the start of this post), used to train future naval recruits.  This exhibit featured quite prominently on the museum website, so I must confess I was hoping for more than just one room’s worth, but I did learn a few things; one, that there was a “practice” ship in front of the school so they could practice seamanship in an authentic environment, and two, the children used to dare each other to take the Tulip Stairs, because they were also afraid of the ghost.

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I’m kind of upset with myself for not discovering the Queen’s House sooner, because it is an unexpectedly charming collection. I loved the colourful rooms and intricate wall mouldings, which, when coupled with the 18th century sash windows and the wooden floors, gave the place more of a Georgian feel than a Stuart one, and made it an excellent atmosphere in which to appreciate some of my favourite kind of art (basically, old portraits). The Cook gallery also earns them some bonus points in my book, so 4/5.

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