This exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – guest-curated by David Starkey – celebrates five hundred years of the London Thames and its relationship with our monarchs. The narrative sweep is partitioned neatly and chronologically. We see how Tudor and Stuart rulers mounted simply enormous royal processions, mainly for propagandistic purposes. Henry VIII did one for Anne Boleyn. Charles II introduced Catherine of Braganza to the London public with a huge river display for which Pepys himself could not get a berth on any boat for under eight shillings, leaving us to rely on John Evelyn’s account. The Queen’s procession on 3rd June will be the first in 350 years to rival these.
The next section – my favourite – shows us how livery companies, many of whom had their own barges, tried to outdo each other for opulence during the new Lord Mayor’s annual river procession. We have contemporary paintings and gorgeous barge objects – carved and gilded coats of arms, patron saints, uniforms and more.
Later on we see how the royal centre of gravity moved west, particularly when George III moved the family to Kew. Objects on show include his telescopes, a microscope and an amazing breakfast table egg boiler (reminding one of Gillray’s cruel cartoon).
By the early 19th Century, the Thames was sewage-infested and fast deteriorating. The golden age of barge processions as depicted by Canaletto was well and truly over. The exhibition perforce concentrates on new bridges, the embankment and pumping stations. Steam and engineers. We have portraits I had not seen before of hero engineers: Rennie and Bazalgette. And we have of course Barry and Pugin transforming the Westminster shoreline. The role of royalty was now opening bridges and pumping stations.
The overwhelming majority of objects brought together for this exhibition have been lent by other institutions; by livery companies; by private collectors; and not least by Her Majesty the Queen. Aside from those mentioned above we have original scores of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks; 18C musical instruments; landscape paintings and original architect and engineering drawings; flags, livery and uniforms; royal souvenirs and gifts. My favourite: a huge carved Stuart coat of arms from the ship Royal Charles, captured by the Dutch and still in their possession!
Professor Starkey and the National Maritime Museum are to be congratulated for mounting this stunning and deeply absorbing exhibition.
The exhibition runs from 27 April to 9 September. Admission £11. Family tickets available.