Friday, 22 July 2011

England's Queens by Elizabeth Norton

I got this book after my visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It's called England's Queens and subtitled 'the private lives of....'. It's basically a biography of all the Queens of England, which is a real task for any writer - especially over about 450 pages. I've read a couple of Norton's books before, most notably on the wives of Henry VIII, particularly Anne Boleyn. They are very readable, but contain no real new information, and are a straight forward narrative of their lives. This seems to follow the previous books. So far, I've only read the very short chapter on Isabella, consort of Edward II - for obvious reasons! Nothing new in her mentions of Piers Gaveston - all the well-known incidents are there. Norton mentions Isabella marrying Edward II and seemingly not knowing anything about Gaveston. This always intrigues me because surely the French court must have known Edward 1st had banished Gaveston because of the closeness between his son and Piers. The story of Piers receiving the wedding jewels and wearing them at the wedding feast is retold, with the out-raged uncles being furious. Norton believes that Edward and Piers were lovers, but she mentions Edward having an illegitimate son, and takes the view that Isabella accepted the relationship between Edward and Piers as Piers was no threat to her, and the fact that she was pregnant while Piers was still alive is evidence that she lived a 'normal' married life with Edward and Piers' influence didn't stop her husband from having sex with her. That's refreshing! She exonerates Isabella from any plots against Piers, and doesn't make any suggestion that Edward and Piers abandoned Isabella in their flight - merely that they split up to ensure Piers' survival.

Much is made of the animosity between Isabella and Hugh Despencer. Norton believes Edward II was murdered, and that Isabella had a hand in it. She also repeats the tale of Isabella being married in her wedding dress, to show remorse for murdering her husband, and says that Isabella was buried in the same Greyfriars church as Mortimer - I can hear Kathryn's snort from here:)

I shall read the rest of the book, but I think it will be a case of dipping in and out of it.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A Visit to the National Portrait Gallery

Finding myself in London over the weekend, I with a spare hour, I decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery. That makes 2 visits in the last 11 months. In my last visit, there was an exhibition on the portrayal of Lady Jane Grey - particularly the romanticised images from the Victorian era. Whenever I visit, I always find myself in the Tudor gallery. I have plenty of books with glossy pictures of the Tudors in, but there's nothing like coming 'face-to-face', as it were, with the real thing. You notice much more with the actual portrait than you would with any colour print in a book. Take this famous portrait of Anne Boleyn.

The detail on the dress on the actual portrait is amazing, particularly the detail on the fur on the sleeves of her dress, plus the decoration on the neckline. This portrait is described as being in a 'vulnerable' condition, and the gallery is asking for £4,000 in donations to repair it. The wood on which it has been painted is cracking. Visiting the gallery is free and they depend on donations.

Another of my favourite portraits is that of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex. Again, seeing the portrait in the gallery is different to seeing it in a book. What strikes me about this portrait is Cromwell's 'double chin' and the lines around his eyes. He looks very severe, and in my opinion is not a 'vanity' portrait.

The gallery has developed the use of 'infra red' technology to 'see' beneath the original layers of the portrait. In this portrait of Thomas Cranmer, the artist changed the position of the hands, the lettering of the books Cranmer is reading, and a ring on the end of a piece of ribbon in one of the books has been painted out. Makes me wonder did Cranmer himself ask for the changes or was it the artist?

This portrait of the young Edward VI is clearly meant to show him in one of his father's typical poses. Infra red technology shows, however, that the pose was more exaggerated than the final portrait. Edward's right foot has been re-painted - he originally had his legs further apart, but maybe the artist realised the pose looked ridiculous on a child. Edward is thought to be around 9 or 10 in the portrait. The arms of England appear in the right corner - these were added after the original portrait has been completed. It begs the question - was this portrait started before the death of Henry VIII? and the arms painted in when Edward became king?

I grew up with this portrait identified as Lady Jane Grey. It was only a few years ago it was identified as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife. It's all to do with the crown-shaped brooch the sitter is wearing - it's been identified in an inventory of Catherine's jewels. It's a full-length portrait, and I love the detail of her hands.

Of course, the one portrait I would love to see, that of Piers Gaveston, doesn't exist. Edward II wold surely have had a portrait of him painted. Of course, the earlier portraits of monarchs and nobility are much cruder that the Tudor portraits. Edward IV's hands look far too small for him in his portrait. But however 'crude', it would be a dream come true, to use a popular cliche, if such a portrait were discovered.

The gallery allows you to investigate the portraits in a special room on pcs. You can buy prints of the portraits, and it has a great gift shop, selling things such as faux pearl Anne Bolyen necklaces! And of course, the gallery itself is free.