An Act Of Royal Vandalism

“Goodness, what a lovely ceiling!”

“That old thing? If you like it so much do take it with you, My Dear.”

Don’t you just find yourself saying that every time you have guests round? It’s probably a good thing that Queen Anne, possibly one of the dullest monarchs and definitely the biggest Royal vandal Greenwich has known, didn’t spend much time at Greenwich, or we’d have lost the walls and floors of the Queen’s House too (we’ll get onto the name-’em-and-shame-’em commoner vandals on other occasions). It also points to the perils of painting beautiful ceilings onto canvas and pasting them onto the roof like Orazio Gentileschi did, instead of doing it properly by spending years on your back on a scaff-tower…

I hope you lot had a more productive Open House Weekend than I did. Of the six buildings I tried to visit on Saturday, I managed just one, largely due to sodding London Transport and sodding, sodding South East Trains who between them shut most of the tube and Maze Hill and Westcombe Park and North-sodding-Greenwich, and which meant it took me nearly an hour just to get out of Greenwich.

The one I did get to, though, I have been trying to visit for months.

Marlborough House, in Pall Mall, is a lovely place. One of the few remaining early 18th Century town houses in London, it’s a glorious Stuart affair, complete with extensive gardens and murals all over the place, but I can’t see that it would be much diminished had it had its own ceiling, instead of nicking ours.

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was a feisty woman, well-versed in the politics of her age, and afraid of no one. At first, the frankly wimpy Anne was impressed with her, and they played together at being ‘ordinary,’ taking tea together as Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman, and giggling at the world. I’m not sure what Anne was doing visiting Greenwich – she certainly didn’t go there very much – but on one occasion she must have been accompanied by her Lady of the Bedchamber, who seemed to consider the Queen’s houses as her own personal shopping mall.

Talking of the Mall, the Queen had already granted Sarah a large chunk of her grounds between the Mall and Pall Mall so that she could build herself a grand house. The piece of land didn’t go quite up to Pall Mall, though, and Sarah was too mean to buy the little strip of land between her new gaff and the road, something she would regret later…

She admired the paintings on the ceiling at the Queen’s House, and from what’s left of them, there was indeed much to admire. Designed by Gentileschi along with Inigo Jones who built the place, they were painted in 1635, with or without (but probably without) his daughter Artemesia, and, as I mentioned earlier, painted on canvas stretched across wooden frames.

The pictures were based on a famous textbook, Cesare Ripa’s Iconographia, which had models for classical designs. This particular set shows Old Testament scenes – The Finding of Moses, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife etc., a sundry group symbolising the Nine Muses and, in four separate panels the Arts – painting, sculpture, architecture and music.

I have never come across anything that was so heavily patrolled by people stopping other people taking photographs, and once they discovered my camera in the bag-search, I was a marked Phantom. No chance of a picture. I can’t find one on the internet either, so you’ll just have to imagine it.

But back to the Royal vandal. Anne gave the ceiling to Sarah as a gift. The canvases were ripped down and transported to Westminster where – OMG – they were too big. No one had bothered to measure them first. No problem, they thought. Better too large than too small. They just got the scissors out. The ceiling was hacked back from 5.5sq m to 4.6sq m. Bish Bosh. Tidy job, mate.

And very nice it looks too. Lots of gold and overpainting, joined by lurid paintings on the wall of an almost opposite subject – the sundry wars that the duchess’s husband had been fighting in. Some of the pictures are really quite eye-popping – complete with dead bodies, the rolling eyes of horses and peasant women stripping corpses. I’m not convinced much thought went into marrying the two subjects…

Sarah and Anne famously fell out, and the Queen probably regretted giving her ceiling to the duchess. Much as the duchess must have regretted not buying that strip of land. A woman with a talent for falling out with people (she fought with Sir Christopher Wren over the building of Marlborough House and finished it herself) she later clashed swords with the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, who cannily built the 18th Century equivalent of a tower block between her and the road…

To cover up the edges, the ceiling was heavily overpainted, and bits added and subtracted. During the 19th Century, a minor royal wallpapered over the paintings (I’m not sure whether it included the ceiling or just those scary walls) but the place stayed a house of opulence and there’s no doubt about it, that ceiling does look good where it is.

But I can’t help feeling it’s wrong. The Queen’s House always seems so – well, austere, when it shouldn’t. It was designed to be every bit as fabulous as its later neighbour, the Painted Hall, and yet it is stripped. Elegant, yes, but denuded. There was a laser display panel which projected the ceiling until recently, when, presumably, it was commandeered by the BBC and redeployed for I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue…

There are two ways I can think of to see this ceiling. 1) You can become a head of state of one of the Commonwealth Countries – the building now operates as the Commonwealth Secretariat, or 2) you’ll just have to wait until next Open House Day. Sorry guys…


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