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The current exhibition at the National Archives – With Love: Letters of love, loss and longing –  is as delightful as it is eclectic. One of the main exhibits is a letter written from Spain in 1623 by Sir Endymion Porter (1587 – 1649) to his beloved wife Olivia. He was accompanying the Prince of Wales, later Charles I, on the young royal’s bizarre and ultimately unsuccessful secret mission to procure a Spanish wife. The Porters’ happy marriage was not untroubled by mutual jealousy. To allay his wife’s fears, in this document, the royal sidekick writes “I kiss thy sweet mouth a thousand times” and “in thee I am rich and without thee I am nothing but misery”. This was, after all, the age of Shakespeare.

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This exhibit had me pondering. Porter’s name was familiar to me but I couldn’t quite place it. It niggled. Then, less than a week later, I was loafing around Tate Britain and it all came together: his portrait by William Dobson. Of course!

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Endymion Porter by William Dobson. Tate Britain.

This picture was painted during the Civil War. Porter, an unwavering though not uncritical friend of the king, was by this time in his mid-50s. Here his blotchy face shows a life well-lived. The portrait below, by Daniel Mytens (who also ‘did’ the king), portrays him about 15 years younger.

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Endymion Porter by Daniel Mytens. National Portrait Gallery, London.

And this one – with and by Anthony Van Dyck – falls between the two.

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Endymion Porter and Anthony Van Dyck by Van Dyck. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Van Dyck also did this family group portrait of the Porters.

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Sir Endymion Porter, his wife and three sons by Anthony Van Dyck. National Trust.

All of these pictures, I feel, show a happy-go-lucky individual whose main concern was the good things in life. He was a royal favourite of both James I and Charles I, who dabbled in diplomacy and commerce, not always successfully. Like both monarchs – especially the latter – he was an aesthete, a connoisseur with a particular love for paintings. In 1649 he returned from exile, dying only a matter of months after the king and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields, appropriately the final resting place also of Dobson (d.1626). The painter was known to be a heavy drinker and one can easily imagine the pair of them sharing a glass or two between sittings.

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There are quite a few more portrait images of Endymion Porter out there, including engravings and miniatures. Just look them up in Google Images.

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royal river greenwichThis 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.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Quirky. A 17C mascot statue belonging to the Company of Ironmongers. It was believed ostriches ate iron.

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).

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Poignant. Last known portrait of George III. Wigless, mad and not terribly happy.

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.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

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!

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

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.

More information, booking etc.

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I must share. Have been doing some research this past week at the National Archives in Kew, about two miles from here (how lucky am I?). While the excellent staff were digging out the stuff I requested, I killed time by browsing their bookshop. It’s almost exclusively stocked with history, architecture and ancestry type titles and also has a good line in old maps etc. Best of all, it has loads of books on discount. Good ones too, not your usual bargain bin remaindered crap. So, for a princely sum of £21, I’m now the proud owner of:
Kew Past by David Blomfield
Samuel Johnson A Biography by Peter Martin
London Pleasures, From Restoration to Regency by David Kerr Cameron
Fatal Voyage, Captain Cook’s Last Great Journey by Peter Aughton

That’s over £70 worth on cover prices. So even if you are not doing research, I’d strongly recommend you visit this superb history bookshop, one you would never otherwise come across. You can shop there online too (use link, above).

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On Saturday a friend suggested we meet for tea and cake at The Original Maids of Honour tea room opposite Kew Gardens, an establishment that many readers probably know well. What could be more agreeable?

Maids of honour are a type of tart, the recipe of which has been handed down the generations, apparently since the time of Henry VIII. They have been served from the earliest times in Richmond and then in the present premises since 1887. The building was damaged by a V2 flying bomb during WW2 and restored. It’s extremely pleasant and relaxing without the tweeness that one might expect. The word “Original” in the name of the tea room suggests there must have been some proprietary dispute over these delicious comestibles at some time in the past.

Anyway, while we visited the Original Maids of Honour it was fairly busy, but we got a table easily enough. We chose to have the menu item which included tea, sandwiches, cream & jam scones and a maid of honour for £14.95 each. The food was delicious and I squeezed four cups of tea from my pot, so not bad value. Service, though cheerfully given, wasn’t the fastest in the world, but when you’re having a great time with friends and in no particular hurry, this hardly matters.

The OMoH sells a wide variety of treats, savouries and breadstuff to eat in or take away.

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A good day for West London. First, the 157th Boat Race showing off our beloved neck of the woods to the world at large. Helicopter’s eye view of wonderful bridges and Thameside sites. It’s surprising how much greenery still exists in these built up areas. The Boat Race organisers no doubt kindly arranged the start for 17:00 hours so many of us could get home sharpish in time from the 31st West London Local History Conference.

The conference is sponsored by local history societies:
Acton
Barnes & Mortlake
Brentford & Chiswick
Fulham & Hammersmith
Hounslow
Richmond
Twickenham
Wandsworth
West Middlesex Family History Society

This year’s theme was Scientists & Innovators in West London History. The near sell-out audience were treated to talks on a variety of absorbing topics: Dr John Dee, an Elizabethan scientist from Mortlake, the remnants of whose library give us one of the biggest bodies of source evidence for Western natural philosophy in the late 16C;  George III’s scientific instruments from Kew (now in the Science Museum); the history of Price’s, the biggest candle manufacturer in the world during the Victorian era, which finally shut down as recently as 2000, although its brand name lives on; the potions, powders, pharmaceuticals and popular grooming products of McLeans and Beechams of the Great West Road (now part of GlaxoSmithKline); innovative 18C nursery gardeners in West London who nurtured pineapples, pears and elm trees.

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My favourite was Price’s candles. We take candles for granted, today they are fripperies. But not so long ago, except for open hearth fires, they were our only source of artificial light. Beeswax candles we all know about. But it was interesting to discover how the 19C chemists at Price’s went to enormous lengths to find alternatives to the stinky and cheaper tallow-based models. Now I feel educated on the topic.

At just £8 for a full day’s worth of fascinating local history, this is terrific value. We congratulate the organisers for a fabulous conference and look forward to next year.

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