Monday 1September 2014
Whitehall, SW1A 2ER
Linda and I arrived in Whitehall in good time for the 10.00am opening of this treasure of the Royal Historic Palaces' collection. It was not quite raining, but even so, we should have been glad had the place opened on time, rather than five minutes late. Still, this did give me a chance to discuss with an armed police officer why there were no signs telling me I could not lock my bicycle anywhere hereabouts. I pointed out that not all cyclists knew the area, and that if there are to be police-state restrictions, they should at least be signalled. He seemed bemused....
So, at 10.05 the gates were unbarred and we entered, pausing briefly in the Undercroft, now mainly a cafe, to use the facilities, which were very smart.
We had accepted the free audio guides, and so were listening as we went upstairs to the Banqueting House itself. The main problem is this: there is just one room to look at. It is a sumptuous room, with a frankly astounding Rubens ceiling, but it is still one room, so the audio guide has amazing amounts of background information of an educational nature. We were told, for instance, the difference between Ionic and Corinthian columns (both on display here) as well as much history of the buildings which were here before this one.
All this on top of a useful video show, starting with The Archbishop of York, whose property this land had once been. (The video says 'Wolsey', but the land actually belonged to the archdiocese before Henry VIII took it and used it to build his Whitehall Palace).
After an number of the fires so customary in Tudor times, and after the accession of James I, the ramshackle tilt yards, cockpits and tennis courts were pulled down, and the most fashionable architect of the day, Inigo Jones designed the building we have today. He had just returned from Italy, and clearly kept a book mark in his copy of Palladio's great work while he designed the Banqueting House.
The audio guide had a lot to say about Masques, banquets, entertaining foreign ambassadors and so on. But once Charles I had the ceiling put in, masques stopped, as the innumerable torches and candles would have damaged the ceiling paintings.
And the paintings are gobsmacking; nine enormous canvases, brought by ship from the studios and workshops of Peter Paul Rubens, in response to a 1639 commission from Charles I. He paid £3000 for it, which according to an inflation calculation website is something like half a million pounds now.
The audio guide told us all about how they were rolled, shipped and lifted into place, but it is more useful to use the beanbags to lie on, or the angled mirror trollies to have a really good look at them. In the centre, James I is being welcomed into heaven by a clutch of putti and classical goddesses. Then there are various classical scenes, including one likening James to Solomon. All in all, the ceiling is a statement about the Divine Right of KIngs, which was Charles I's overarching belief. 'Even by God himself', claimed Charles, 'Kings are called Gods', though I have been unable to trace his particular reference for this claim. This was the Hall where the later Stuart kings handed out the Maundy money, and also touched people to cure them of the King's Evil.
Which brings me neatly to the most important date in the history of this fine building: 30 January 1649, when the King, Charles I, stepped out of a window onto the scaffold and was beheaded. I suppose it's not surprising that the Historic Royal Palaces underplay this moment. They talk about his walk from St James' Palace that morning, wearing two shirts in case people thought his shivering was fear. The video says he was 'accused of treason'. But there is no mention of his negotiations with France and his alliance with the Scots (when he promised to make England Presbyterian when he got his throne back...) both of which actually ARE treason unless one is a Divine Right believer. Still, he died, and the Parliamentarian republic continued to use the Hall as a formal reception venue, presumably dissuading people from looking up at the ceiling.
Of course, when Charles stepped onto the scaffold, Whitehall looked rather different from the view he would have had today.
In 1698, fire swept through Whitehall Palace, the Banqueting House being the only survivor, possibly because Christopher Wren used gunpowder to prevent the spread, as had been done in the 1666 fire in the City.
The Banqueting House has the now-obligatory rack of dressing up clothes for children, but there were none while we were there. In fact I think there were about 10 of us altogether in the time we were there.
As you can tell from the wealth of facts I have passed on above, HRP clearly feels the place needs lots of information to compensate for the fact the your £6.00 does not buy you much to look at, aside from the ceiling. But still, worth a visit.