There Ihe is, standing there in all his splendid arrogance. Legs apart, arms akimbo, master of the universe. Resplendently dressed in clothes embroidered with gold thread, and jewels. Massive padded shoulders! Nobody would ever want to upset this fellow, you can see that clearly.
Yes, it’s Henry the Eighth all right. And I’m at his house.
I visited Hampton Court, Henry’s principal palace the other day. It is a royal museum just outside the conurbation of London, and has its own rail station reached from Waterloo Station – a short and pleasant trip. The weather was mild and a little dull but the light was nice and clear.
It feels far from London. The Thames is narrow and small here, so different to the big grey beast that flows through the city; in summer you can take a boat from Westminster or Kingston but unfortunately, it’s very crowded. In Autumn, when I’d like to be on that boat, it doesn’t run.
Typically, I’ve lived in London for a while yet til now I hadn’t been to Hampton Court. Luckily my friends and I have decided to get out more, and I have this blog to write so – here I am!
I knew a little bit about it, but not much. I knew it was Henry VIII’s palace and it is one of the relatively few extant examples of early Tudor architecture.
What I didn’t know about Hampton Court:
- It is two completely different palaces in one.
The first part, built initially by Cardinal Wolsey (Henry VIII’s friend and cardinal) was gifted to the King. The story goes that Henry went to visit the site and saw Wolsey’s magnificent building nearing completion. “Oh my, I’d just love to live there,” said Henry. Which meant Wolsey had to ‘gift’ the estate to the King, because he was the King after all. What Henry wanted, he got.
Henry did move in and lived there with his various unfortunate wives. I must admit I find it ghoulish that people like Henry VIII because he was dreadful to his wives. They find that fascinating.* It isn’t. It’s an example of that old maxim, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ There are numerous fascinating and wonderful things to say about Henry’s era – initiating the English Reformation; the ending of Catholic England; his rivalry with Francis of France and so on – but his misuse of his wives is, shall we say, a bit too depressing.
His daughter Elizabeth didn’t live full time at Hampton but she did use the place and stayed there off and on, adding her own influences to the building. It’s not clear from the info available onsite what use, if any, the Stuarts – James I, Charles I and Charles II – made of it, nor if Oliver Cromwell ever lived there.
But James II’s daughter Mary, and her husband William of Orange (William II of England) did live there – or I should say, they renovated it so extensively they effectively made two palaces out of it. So it has a Tudor entrance at the front and a grand baroque entrance at the rear. Like one of those dolls with two faces.
I’m a huge fan of the baroque so I suppose I gloried in the Wren-designed section a bit more than the Tudor parts, which are, nevertheless, astounding. Anyway, everything is displayed beautifully; the effect is evocative and there is good use of space so even when it is busy (as I guess it always is) you don’t feel squashed. And the detailed minutiae of daily life at the court is lavishly on offer. Even William III’s velvet-covered toilet is on show.
2. The palace offers all kinds of interesting tours including really fun theatrical role-play tours.
3. Hampton Court has several astonishing fine art galleries and an amazing collection of paintings.
It’s not really a surprise, because the Royal Collection of art is huge but somehow I hadn’t realised Hampton court is a good place to go to look at paintings. I guess because so much of the marketing seems to be aimed at ‘family days out’ which is for me quite a turn off. They could do more to present themselves as an art traveller destination.
Among the pictures on show are:
A very good copy of the lost portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein – see above. The copy was probably made not long after Holbein’s original.
Some fabulous tromp l’oeil ceiling work:
Excellent portraits of Henry’s rival monarchs, Charles V (below) and Francis I.
There is a wonderful small room in the William III section, full of lovely small Dutch paintings, including a fascinating work by someone very close to Hieronymous Bosch. You can tell it’s not a Bosch (a full Bosch post is coming, hold tight!) The man working in that room gave me a wonderful tour of the pictures using a torch because the room and the paintings are very dark.
But … but … the pièce de résistance is the Cumberland Art Gallery. I wasn’t allowed to take photos there but let me just say, it has an incredible Rembrandt I’d never seen before and the “Allegory of Painting” self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi.
I had never seen the Artemisia self-portrait before. As you may know, Artemisia, daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, was one of the foremost painters of the Baroque era and the only woman of that time who reached any level of real fame. I have always loved this picture. She is so focused, realistic, solid, earthy yet deeply engaged in something abstract – we can’t see the picture she’s painting – and she’s ignoring us, unlike Velasquez in Las Meninas who is watching us watch him paint. Artemisia is just getting on with it. Love her!
Truth be told, I just welled up when I saw this picture, finally, in real life. I felt like I might cry or faint.
I lingered so long in the art gallery I had to miss out on a lot of the rest of the Palace. I didn’t see the kitchens or the maze or the tennis court; some of the stuff I did see only as I whizzed through. I missed Mantegna‘s Triumphs of Caesar which is a pity, but I could not take in any more art by then.
I had a stroll in the atmospheric gardens enjoying the many superb yew trees, pruned into a strange toadstool shape. I love formal gardens. Love places like the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Tuileries, the severity of the geometry and the use of sightlines.
… then at last I joined my friends in The Mute Swan, the pub across the road, where they were waiting (and waiting) for me. We had lunch there. Nothing spectacular but it’s a nice place and the food was good, expensive like everywhere in London especially west London, but worth it; we did split the dessert x 3. I would not bother to go further afield to find anything else; the Mute Swan has a good menu, decent service and it’s convenient.
So clearly I need to go back to Hampton Court to see the rest of it. I could have gone back after lunch but I was completely done in. And I had another place to go in the afternoon —- another amazing trove of art —-
but you’ll have to wait to find out more about that!
photos , unless otherwise labelled, by author
- Similarly Jack the Ripper is likewise popular. Ugh. Please see the book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Review here, available at all good book dealers online and offline.