Saturday, 30 June 2012

Royal Thames History at the National Maritime Museum


After the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant a few weeks ago, I have been dying to see Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  I decided to make my way there today in the spirit on the exhibition by taking a waterbus from Waterloo to Greenwich. 

Despite being the first day of summer the day was just like the River Pageant a few weeks ago: wet and grey. But—just like the river pageant—that did not diminish the spectacle of sailing on England’s grandest highway. The ride started by the Palace of Westminster, looking majestic on the riverbank, and passed by the dome of St Paul’s rising over the City, the jewel-like Shard towering on the south bank, then under the majestic Tower Bridge bestriding the river like a great city gateway, and finally ended by the beautiful esplanade of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

The Royal River (on a sunnier day), with the City in the background.
(Photo: Alex David)
The exhibition is smaller than I thought in area, only about six large rooms, but it packs a lot of historical items in those spaces, some of them unique and on show in Britain for the first time. It is not so much about the Thames itself as about the history that has taken place in it, by it, or near it.  Often, the items on display have nothing to do with the river itself but with famous figures from English history with some association with the Thames, no matter how banal. That however works quite well since good history is about people, and an exhibition on a mere waterway would have been too insipid anyway. 

The exhibition has been marketed around town with images from a Canaletto painting, The Thames on Lord’s Mayor’s Day (1752), and the original painting is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition (it is also the first time it has been seen in London since it was painted). The work is part of a series of views Canaletto made while living in London and it shows the magnificent spectacle of a regatta on the Thames in the 18th century, so grand it almost rivals Venice. It is a very limpid painting and the level of detail is remarkable (as usual for Canaletto) not only in the representation of minutiae but also in the way that he married the splendor of the regatta boats on one side with muddy banks and workaday boats on the other side (see below). 

Canaletto's magnificent vision of the 18th century Thames,
suspiciously reminiscent of his native Venice.
(From the Lobkowicz Collection, Prague,

St Paul towers high above the roofs of the city, just like it did during my ride today, but instead of skyscrapers the landscape was then dotted by church spires. Apparently this was the painting that inspired the recent Thames pageant, and if only the weather two weeks ago had been sunny the painting would have been perfectly recreated on the water. As it was, our own river pageant turned out to be a grainy black and white version of the colorful original.

The historical memorabilia is packed thick either by theme or by period. It begins with some intriguing Anne Boleyn items (the connection being that Anne had a sumptuous river procession for her coronation in 1533). A personal prayer book, from the time of her romantic courtship by Henry VIII, bears a love note Anne wrote to Henry, poignantly scribbled below a picture of the Annunciation where an angel tells Mary that she will bear a son, something that Anne herself tragically failed to do. 

Heads or tails? One of the very few authentic likenesses of Anne Boleyn left in existence. All the other ones done in her lifetime were destroyed after her death.

We also get a precious glimpse of what Anne may have really looked like via a medallion struck in 1534 to commemorate that wishful yet unfulfilled delivery of a son (above). It is an extremely rare record since all authenticated images of Anne were destroyed after her execution (most portraits we have of her were painted years after her death) and, while a bit scratched, you can see the high cheekbones and long neck that must have captivated Henry VIII.

There is a great deal on show from the Stuart age when pageantry on the Thames came into its own, starting with a memorable spectacle in 1662 called Aqua Triumphalis, organized to celebrate the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (and to cover up for the fact that the Catholic Catherine did not want to have a Protestant coronation). One remarkable item from that procession is a large barge cloth from the Pewterers Company which is amazingly well-preserved despite being 350 years old, its material and embroidery so neat it looks like it was made yesterday. Its existence today is also a thing of wonder since it miraculously survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz in its storage place in the City.

London Ice Follies: feasting, racing and drinking during The Frost Fair of the Winter of 1683-84 on the Thames (1685) as painted by an unknown artist. Notice Old London Bridge with its houses on it in the distance.

Even more spectacular is what used to happen on the Thames during Stuart winters. Back when the river was wider and its tidal flow was slower (because of the breakwater arches of Old London Bridge), the Thames used to freeze over during the coldest winters, especially between the 17th and 18th centuries when Europe experienced a little ice age. People then descended upon the frozen Thames to set up Frost Fairs on the ice, including food stalls, sleighs and mass entertainments. Some items on show recall the most famous of these fairs, held during the severe winter of 1683-84, when the ice was so thick you could bait on bull on it, or roast one for that matter: apparently a whole ox was roasted on the ice in the presence of Charles II and his court. The joyful, chaotic atmosphere is captured in a painting (above) showing an entire avenue of stalls stretching between the two banks of the river, horses and carriages fleeting on the ice (it was that thick!) and happy people slipping on their asses with bottles in their hands. A poem from a pamphlet printed at the time captured the Thames’ magical transformation:

Behold the Wonder of this present age
A famous river now become a stage
Question not what I declare to you
The Thames is now both Fair and Market too!

The Pearl Sword
 Next in the exhibition is a section dedicated to the past glories of the Lord Mayor’s River Procession, a collection of magnificent relics including lavish uniforms, boat carvings and gilded statues (the river procession was discontinued in 1856 and transferred to the streets where it remains today). The stands out item here is the Pearl Sword (right), decorated with over 2,500 small pearls on its sheath, and almost looking like a cockney creation for the pearly kings and queens of East London (Oi!). In fact, it is one of the oldest treasures of London, a remarkable piece of history that was first presented to the City by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. Ever since then, the sword has been used to mark every sovereign’s visit to the City of London, and was actually last used only a few weeks ago when it was born aloft before the Queen as she walked up the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral for the National Jubilee Service.  It is shown unsheathed here, its arabesqued blade showing some oxidation and the bottom of the scabbard some wear and tear, but otherwise it is another item on show remarkably well preserved.

The exhibition tends to jumps like a grasshopper across epochs, and you next find yourself in the Georgian age learning about G F Handel’s famous Water Music, which was first performed on barges escorting King George I on a river trip to Chelsea (that was before the invention of car radios) (see below). There is an early score of the composition on display, as well as one for the Music for the Royal Fireworks, plus a few 18th century instruments of the kind used to perform these pieces at the time. Interestingly, they include two horns used by the Sharp family which might be the same ones painted by Zoffany in their famous group portrait. (see previous post).

Georg Handel presents his latest composition, Water Music, to George I during a boat ride on the Thames. The King is impressed but also annoyed that there is no place in London where people would just leave him in peace.

A small section is then dedicated to Kew Palace and its royal inhabitants though I could not figure out why it was singled out among all the royal palaces on the river. Nevermind though, since it includes some of the most moving items in the exhibition: a few souvenirs made to commemorate George III’s first recovery from madness in 1789. We tend to forget today what a highly emotional drama the madness of King George was at the time, and how his recovery was the cause of national rejoicing. Items produced to celebrate the event included crockery, medals, and a special fan designed by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, with the words inscribed on it “Health is Restored to One and Happiness to Millions”, and that sold in great numbers. Equally moving in this display is a small portrait in a lavishly gilded frame that shows the king during his last bout of madness in the 1810s (below). Beaten both by lunacy and senility by now, old George is shown resting his bald, bearded head on his hand and just staring ahead forlornly like a beaten King Lear. It is a very poignant reminder that all the hopeful rejoicing for his earlier recovery had been ultimately in vain. 

Sad and tragic: by the time this picture was painted King George III's madness was so advanced he had to be kept in complete isolation at Windsor Castle.

Besides the human interest, there is of course a lot of didactic material on the history of the Thames. Quite a bit is dedicated to different kinds of watermen on the river. There is a bit of nostalgia about the Thames watermen of yore who used to ferry people up and down the river before the building of bridges. But we are warned against having too much sentiment for these people as apparently they were a very rowdy breed renowned for their swearing, so much so that they had their own beadle who would discipline them with nicely decorated but very sturdy wooden truncheons.

The building of new bridges and tunnels in the 19th century is retold also, albeit in a boring way. The only item that stands out here is a set of cutlery made from the remains of Old London Bridge after the famous crossing finally did fall down in the 1830s (below). (I suppose that finally completes the rhyme with “Breeeak it up for forks and knives, forks and knives, forks and knives…Myyy faaiir lady!”) There is also much to learn about the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race (the oldest rowing race in the world, started in 1715), the building of the embankments, Queen Victoria’s visit to the Thames Tunnel, and what’s involved in swan upping which is basically pointless pain and disfigurement to swans.

London Bridge fell down in the hands of speculators,
and was turned into into this lovely set of stake knives.

I thought a little less space should have been given to all this didactic information and more emphasis instead to a too small display on Lord Nelson’s funeral, the grandest event that has ever taken place on the Thames.  After the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was returned to London to lie in state at Greenwich, and then taken by river up to Whitehall in a procession that had all the grandeur of a black coronation, especially since there were mixed feelings of joy for the naval victory and loss for Nelson's death. It was the first time that a state funeral had been granted to a commoner, and the event had all the pomp of a Canaletto painting together with the emotional intensity of Princess Diana’s funeral. Nothing greater was ever staged on the Thames before or since, so perhaps the curators should have presented more than a few prints (below), a funeral program, a decrepit flag, and some tacky souvenir cups and mugs. The present poor display seems all the more baffling since the Museum owns a considerable collection of Nelson memorabilia including his fatal bullet-holed uniform on display in the main galleries.

This print shows the grandest funeral London has ever seen. The body of Lord Nelson is ferried down the Thames (in the third black barge from the left) as the city pays its obsequies. Just like Princess Diana's funeral 190 years later, people remarked about the absolute silence around the cortege.

There is little time to feel critical however as the last section offers a wealth of material history. First up is, in my opinion, the most remarkable item in the whole exhibition: the big, gnarled coat of arms that once hang on the stern of the Royal Charles (below). Little known today, the Royal Charles is one of the most famous ships in the monarchy’s history. Originally built by the republican Commonwealth in 1655 and christened the Naseby, to commemorate the Roundhead victory in the Civil War, it was renamed the Royal Charles at the Restoration when the figure of Cromwell on its stern was replaced by the royal lion and unicorn on display here. In its new guise, this was the ship that brought Charles II and the institution of monarchy back to England in 1660 (it was also the ship that bore Charles’ wife, Catherine of Branganza, from her home in Portugal to England in 1662).

An amazing survival from the Stuart age, this royal coat of arms once adorned the ship that brought King Charles II back to England from exile in 1660. Thanks to this exhibition it is being seen in England for the first time in over 300 years. 

Oddly, the survival of the ship’s most famous symbol, its royal coat of arms, is to be credited to one of England’s past enemies, the Dutch. The Royal Charles was captured during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1667 and taken to Holland as a proud spoil of war. The Dutch were so proud of its capture that when the ship was broken up in 1673 they kept the coat of arms as a hunting trophy, still to be seen today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This is the first time the Dutch have allowed the old wood back to England—where ironically it would not have survived as long since the English do not have such sentimentality for relics.

Too adorable! After Queen Victoria dressed up her son Edward in this little outfit in 1846 baby sailor suits sales went through the roof.
(Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter) 

And when I say the English do not normally care for relics, that of course does not include the Royal Family since the last section in the exhibition contains a panoply of personal family relics kept by Victoria and her kin. It begins with the little sailor suit once worn by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) which is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of even the meanest Grinch (above), then it goes onto some items from the wedding of the grown up Edward to Alexandra of Denmark. The arrival of Alexandra to England is recalled by a large painting where she is shown disembarking among people’s cheers, and wearing a perky little bonnet a-la-Florence Nightingale (below). The actual bonnet is showcased to the right of the painting, remarkably preserved after 150 years, but it is even more remarkable that Alexandra apparently sewed it herself in the domesticity of the Danish court.

The landing of Princess Alexandra at Gravesend by Henry Nelson O'Neill (1864) shows the rupturous welcome given to the future Queen Alexandra as she arrived in England to marry Prince Edward, Queen Victoria's eldest son (next to her). If she had known then the adulterous ways of her future husband she would have gotten back in the boat and sailed home.

No one of course could outdo Queen Victoria for domestic sentimentality, or the creation of family relics, and one item showing both tendencies is displayed on the other side of the Alexandra painting. After their wedding, the Queen saved the paper and wax orange blossom that Alexandra had carried in her bridal bouquet, and kept it in an envelope with a card, written in her own hand, that says “From Alix’s and P. of Wales’ bridal wreath March 10/’63” (below). It might seem odd for the most powerful woman in the world at the time to save fake wedding flowers like one of Dickens’ poorest characters, but when you think about it there is actually something remarkably sane and human about her doing so, in an age when other European monarchs collected either jewels or battleships. It is in mundane little things like this that the British Royal family has always kept close to the heart of the nation.

A truly sentimental queen, Victoria saved this little paper flower from her daughter-in-law's bridal bouquet, and wrote down its provenance on this envelope in her own hand. Note how she covered up a mistake under the capital B.

The very end of the exhibition brings together items from some of the past royal yachts, particularly the Victoria and Albert III used by Edward VII and George V, but there are no memorable items here, or at least none that can distract the attention from the ghostly figure at the end of the room holding guard over all these royal heirlooms. Standing starched in a glass case, its epaulettes and decorations shimmering in suffused light, is the splendid uniform of George VI as Admiral of the Fleet (below). The Queen’s father had a close relationship with the National Maritime Museum, both as a former naval officer and as the person who officially opened the Museum in 1937, just a few weeks before his coronation. So it is fitting that he be represented at the end of this royal journey on the Thames, as a disembodied royal greeter bidding goodbye to visitors. What’s more, there is something very moving about seeing the kingly uniform that George VI was forced to wear, against his will, now stripped of its occupant. It is a reminder of the splendid, unbearable burden that eventually killed the body out of the uniform at the young age of 52.

Not just and empty suit: this Admiral uniform was once worn by King George VI, one of England's most beloved and most overburdened kings (aka the king from The King's Speech movie).

I spent so much time ogling all this memorabilia that before I knew it I had been almost four hours in the exhibition and I had to be thrown out at closing time, just like barfly drunk on history. I left very satisfied, though I must still point out some baffling omissions. Besides Nelson’s funeral, it is odd to stage an exhibition about the history of the Thames without any display on Old London Bridge, or to have this exhibition in Greenwich and not have any section on the Tudor Greenwich palace (though there are sections on other royal palaces on the river’s shores). And a little nod to Churchill’s funeral route on the river in 1965 would have been nice too. But that’s not to take away from the magnificent collection of items on display, a veritable kaleidoscope of English history made of the stuff of kings, artists, heroes and all the everyday people that have flowed down the waters of England’s noblest river.

The Queen, during a visit to the exhibition, finally figures out what happened
to her missing crockery.

Royal River: Pageantry, Power and the Thames runs at the National National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until 9 September 2012. Learn about admission times and prices here.


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  3. This looks fab! After the Jubilee, Id love to learn more about the history of the pageant. Thanks for the review!

    1. Thanks for your comment Nicole. Your website looks really good and useful for 'new Londoners!' (
      Keep up the good work!


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