National Maritime Museum

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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London: National Maritime Museum

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Charmingly (?) wonky photo of the exterior

If the Fan Museum wasn’t enough to quench your thirst for museums, never fear, for Greenwich is full of other options, like the National Maritime Museum, which is free.  I’d personally advise you to detour back to the market in between museuming for ice cream, either in the form of a chocolate chip cookie sandwich, or a lovely creamy gelato from Black Vanilla (though their one flavour per small cone policy irks me, as the standard is two flavours, and I’m still debating whether the pistachio surcharge is worth it.  It was delicious, but so is the pistachio from Scoop and Gelupo, neither of which charge extra.). With a cone in hand, the National Maritime Museum is a short (and tasty) walk away.

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I went here last year for the Royal River exhibit curated by David Starkey, which I quite enjoyed, despite my distaste for Starkey’s position on the Tudors.  (He’s basically a Tudor apologist, and I’m not going to be won over to the idea that Henry VIII was a good person anytime soon.) However, I didn’t get much a chance to look at the rest of the museum at the time, so this last visit was my first opportunity to check everything out.  I started with the section on explorers, which included the grisly ends of some arctic expeditions.  As I’m sure you all know, I have some interest in polar exploration anyway, (I think my first post on here was about poor Lawrence Oates, of the Scott Expedition) and I liked how this section was situated in a dark tunnel, as it was at least an attempt at creating an authentic atmosphere.

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Progressing out onto the main floor, there was a rather good assortment of ship’s figureheads, as well as Prince Frederick’s fabulous gilded barge, a true exercise in royal restraint and taste.  I do love its gaudiness though.  Rooms in the interior section of the ground floor are devoted to maritime London and arctic convoys, the latter of which was basically just a load of pictures of boats, and thus not of great interest to me.  There was a sign outside one of the rooms advertising an exhibit on cartoons within, but alas, it was closed, which was a shame.

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Don’t miss the chance to view Nelson’s Trafalgar uniform, complete with bullet hole, without the terrible glare behind it!

Other objects of note on the ground floor include a nice collection of dishes and other things from cruise ships, including some menus, various mechanical bits and bobs, and a gallery hidden off to one side through a stairwell that smells of new tyres (does anyone else love that smell, or am I the only weirdo?) on Seafaring Britons, complete with charming portraits of Nelson and his mistress, and a genuine ship’s biscuit (sadly missing a photo of Lord Kitchener (or naval counterpart) in the middle, as seen in a biscuit at the Museum of Reading).

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The middle of the first floor is a large open space with a map of the world drawn on the floor, which children can ride around on various boat toys.  Dodging between them, I quickly passed through a rather lame recycling themed gallery that seemed noticeably out of place in a maritime museum, and headed over to the much more appealing section on the East India Company.  I’m well aware of the troubled history of the East India Company, which was covered in detail throughout the gallery, but there were also many wonderful items from various Asian cultures to look at.

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Equally troubling is the history of Atlantic trade, which was covered in the next gallery. The cruelties of slavery were well illustrated with chains and whips, and objects related to the sugar trade, including a collection of abolitionist tea paraphernalia.  There was also a section on other Atlantic industries, such as whaling, and something to appeal to my macabre side – an old guillotine blade that was actually used for executions on Haiti during the French Revolution.  Again, grim, but fascinating.

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Due to construction work on one of the stairwells, the first floor was a bit labyrinthine, and I ended up having to walk all the way around, and back through the East India gallery to access the stairs up to the second floor.  The only things up there at the moment are a bunch of model ships, and a children’s gallery, which I skipped.  The model ships were wonderfully detailed, (or so I’m told) but they mostly all looked the same to me, since I’m not particularly well-versed on ships, or really anything pertaining to naval history. I think if they’d had tiny people on top, I’d have been intrigued.

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I think the National Maritime Museum is a solid diversion if you’re already in the Greenwich area, and even if you’re not that interested in maritime history (I’m not), many of the galleries still manage to be engaging by discussing the larger consequences of sea-travel.  I think they make an effort to cater to children as well, which might be a concern for some of you.  I’ll award it 3/5.  I should mention, whilst we’re on the subject of Greenwich, that the famous Painted Hall where Nelson lay in state is right across the street from the Maritime Museum (albeit somewhat buried in the maze that is the Old Royal Naval College), and is worth poking your head in on your way back to the station, to complete your tour of things related to Nelson’s death, if nothing else.

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Painted Hall