I have been deliriously in love with London lately, and everything and everyone in it. And the best thing about being a student again is probably the opportunity it opens up for being a flaneur, for wandering, for falling in love over and over again.
So I wandered to the National Portrait Gallery, portraits being some of my very favourite things. Particularly very old ones. I headed straight for the Tudors. Everyone sitting for their portrait in those two rooms hides tales of intrigue behind their dark eyes, locked within bodies forced into strange geometries of clothes, every inch of them woven, punched, stuffed with jewels and finery.
Sir Walter Raleigh is still entirely dashing, and though he wrote very little poetry that you could call good, I particularly love this one
EVEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
And the young John Donne is here as well, the amorous poet of his early years rather than the deeply poetic minister of his later ones.
License my roving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My mine of precious stones: my emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joyes.
I was sat in the gallery with a horde of young school children…initially something I was quite unhappy about. But they were sat entranced by the expert leading their class, and I became entranced as well…
Here is a portrait of Elizabeth the 1st, and I learned all kinds of things about this amazing painting. My absolute favourite image of the day, however? One of the boys proposed that if you pulled the red string, Elizabeth’s dress would come right off…
She wore so much makeup and powder, that she then had to go back in and draw things, using beetlejuice for her lips, and even drawing in the veins of her forehead and the backs of her hands. And the story of this picture? One of her favourites, Sir Henry Lee, retired from the palace. But when he left the palace he stole something…(no, it wasn’t her crown. No it wasn’t her dress, and no, it wasn’t her jewels…). He stole a handmaiden named Maria Vavasour. For a while friends at the palace were able to cover up for them, hoping Elizabeth would just forget all about Maria…but finally they were forced to realize that she wouldn’t forget and so Sir Henry Lee had to do something quite incredible to save his own life…
So he bought Elizabeth this dress. Apparently worth a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money. You can see it has wings? This is the dress of the fairy queen, invited to a fancy dress party at Lee’s estate of Ditchley in Oxfordshire. And there Henry Lee lay, spread out on a bier in his garden, in a deathlike coma of enchantment until he was awakened by the forgiving kiss of the fairy queen…
And Queen Elizabeth I grandly kissed him on the cheek, and that was how Sir Henry Lee saved his own life. In the portrait, Queen Elizabeth is standing squarely on Ditchley, in commemoration…