Grand Day Out | Strawberry Hill House

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Back in January the Book God and I took a short trip to Strawberry Hill to visit an exhibition and just generally have a look around. Shamefully, despite the fact that I have lived not too far away for over 30 years, this was my first visit but I know I will be going back as it is just so fascinating.

Strawberry Hill House was built over a period of some 40 years by Horace Walpole as a summer retreat; it was a very early example of Gothic revival architecture (one of my favourites of course). Walpole used it as a place to keep his collection of art, antiquities and objects of interest from all historical periods. He was a man who collected things that were beautiful or historically important or had some kind of story attached to them, rather than focussing on a particular country or era.

As well as his summer home, Strawberry Hill House was also a place for holding parties, a place to study, open to select groups of the public to tour and see the amazing things it held, and of course it was the inspiration for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

In 1842 Walpole’s collection was sold off, and the exhibition we went to see (The Lost Masterpieces) was the first chance to see these items in the place they originally belonged.

Things that caught my interest in particular:

  • an enormous Chinese porcelain bowl from 1730 in which Walpole’s cat Selina drowned, inspiring Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat – drown’d in a tub of goldfishes
  • a red Cardinal’s hat, said to be that of Cardinal Wolsey
  • a portrait of Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and sister to Henry VIII, with her second husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
  • a tress of hair of said Mary Tudor in a golden locket
  • a cravat carved out of lime wood by Grinling Gibbons – this was something Walpole himself wore on at least one occasion
  • a pair of gauntlet gloves worn by James VI & I (allegedly)
  • a 1782 edition of the Castle of Otranto

I loved the house, it’s so beautiful and the gardens look equally lovely though on the day we visited it bucketing with rain so we decided not to walk round; we’ll keep that for the next time. Visitors are understandably not allowed to take photographs but there is a very good app which lets you study the object and is worth downloading. You can find it here.

An Unexpected Hiatus

I haven’t written here since * checks blog * oh – last month apparently. This unplanned break was entirely due to my developing a nasty chest infection which required lots of inactivity (believe me, any movement led to the most dreadful coughing fits). But as described by Silvery Dude, I am no longer sickly and off games, so thought I’d catch up with what’s been happening round these parts, besides the coughing of course.

The last thing I did in the great outdoors before succumbing to the dreaded lurgy was visiting the British Museum to see the exhibition on Ashurbanipal, which was fascinating and full of wonderful objects (as in the photo above). I love Assyrian art (I always visit the permanent exhibition whenever I’m in the BM) but recognise that they were a bloodthirsty lot, at least at the kingly level, so some of the images are graphic. I can recommend this if you are in London, I think it’s on until late February.

I may have bought a lot of things in the gift shop, including the book listed below – don’t judge me.

After that it’s all a blur. I was supposed to attend the British Library on 2 December to hear Ian Rankin talk, but just wasn’t well enough and, let’s face it, no-one wanted to hear me coughing over all of the speakers (I suspect there would have been very hard stares and possibly some tutting). I tweeted my disappoint and got a very nice get well soon tweet from Mr Rankin himself, which was unexpected and demonstrates once again that book people are good people.

I did a little bit of reading but didn’t finish anything, so current reading status is still:

  • The Hanging Tree – about 50%, hoping to finish it this weekend
  • Global Crisis – about 11% through but I’m reading this slowly because it is both enormous and full of interesting facts which I may share here on occasion

Actually, let’s go ahead. This week’s interesting fact is about intermarriage in the Spanish royal family which meant that:

Philip IV of Spain boasted only 8 great-grandparents instead of the normal 16; and after he married his niece in 1649, he became the great-uncle as well as the father of his children, while their mother was also their cousin

Books bought in December so far:

  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield – A SPELLBINDING, MULTI-LAYERED MYSTERY SET IN THE 19TH CENTURY AROUND THE THAMES shouted Amazon; this was a pre-order
  • The Willows by Algernon Blackwood – short early weird horror
  • The Favourite: Ralegh & his Queen by Matthew Lyons – the 16th century never loses its fascination for me
  • Cradle Song by Robert Edric – dark and grim crime novel, first of a trilogy set in Hull; don’t know why I do this to myself….
  • When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger – I can’t resist reading or listening to podcasts about cults, so this academic study on how a group handles the failure of their prophecy that the end of the world is/was due was a no-brainer
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean – a book about the fire which destroyed 400,000 books in the Los Angeles Public Library, this was a pre-order that arrived signficantly earlier than I expected; a nice surprise
  • Passing Strange by Ellen Klages – finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella
  • A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P Djeli Clarke – “Egypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine” – had to be done
  • New Amsterdam 2 by Elizabeth Bear – more stories from the wonderful Ms Bear
  • Should I Stay or Should I Go by James Ball – and 87 other serious answers to questions in songs, such as how do you solve a problem like Maria?
  • How to be Invisible by Kate Bush – when you discover that one of your favourite authors is a hardcore Kate Bush fan, and then discover that he has written an introduction to a book of her lyrics, well – David Mitchell has gone up even higher in my estimation!

Of course these all break my self-imposed book-buying embargo, but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t (and none of them were on my Christmas list so technically that’s OK. I think.)

Anyway,  have a wonderful reading week and hopefully normal blogging activity has resumed chez Bride!

 

Exhibition Time: Empire of the Sikhs

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The Brunei Gallery – part of the School of African and Oriental Studies – hosted (or I should say is hosting; doesn’t close until 23 September) an exhibition on what is described as

the last great native kingdom which challenged the British for supremacy of the Indian sub-continent

I know very little about the Sikh empire so was happy to accompany the Book God and learn what I could, especially as we had recorded (but not yet watched) a BBC documentary on Maharajah Duleep Singh – more about that later – so the timing seemed fortuitous.

The exhibition was really impressive, with a range of artefacts from an enormous decorative cannon to beautiful miniatures and exquisite jewellery. There was also a really helpful and well-designed timeline on one of the walls which described the key events in the development and history of that part of India against what was happening elsewhere in the world at each stage.

Favourite Facts

Maharajah Ranjit Singh – The Napoleon of the East, he set up a modern army which included a number of Europeans. Members of his army served under strict conditions including growing a beard, not eating beef, not smoking and marrying locally. Some of the European soldiers had served with Napoleon and joined the army after his defeat.

IMG_1981The Koh-i-Noor – the exhibition includes a replica of the diamond in it’s original setting, showing how large it was before Prince Albert got his hands on it and had it re-cut for Queen Victoria.

Maharajah Sir Duleep Singh – he came to the throne when he was five years old, was kidnapped and controlled by the British government in India before being exiled so that he would not become the focus of rebellions against British rule. He understandably had an unhappy life, converting to Christianity and then back to the Sikh faith, railing against his appalling treatment at the hands of the British. He died relatively young at the age of 55. His story is told in a documentary recently shown on the BBC [The Stolen Maharajah: Britain’s Indian Royal] sadly not current available on the iPlayer. We’re not very good at accepting our awful behaviour as an Imperial power, and it’s right that we are made to see how shabbily we treated him.

5e0aca04d528f140475fcf347bd0e96aPrincess Sophia Duleep Singh – my new girl crush. A god-daughter of Queen Victoria, she lived in a grace & favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace for many years. She is best known as an active member of the Suffragette movement alongside the Pankhursts, and was notoriously arrested several times for refusing to pay taxes without having the right to vote. She fascinated me so much that I bought Anita Anand’s biography of her [Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, Bloomsbury 2015]

A really enjoyable experience.