Monday, 7 November 2011

Doing porridge.

As an adult I have always lived in a tiny space, though not through choice but necessity. Whenever visitors first came into the bedsit I used to rent they would invariably declare it to be “cosy.” In short, it was extremely small but it suited me and it was all I could afford at the time. The lack of space was more than compensated for in my eyes by the views over a mature Edwardian garden. I must admit I got a shock when I moved into the bedsit in the November, a month after I had originally viewed it. Instead of fairies at the bottom of the garden, the now bare branches of the trees revealed a railway track. However that was what had saved the garden from redevelopment and I quickly got used to the sound of trains going past.

I later moved into the servants’ garret at Brimstone Butterfly Towers. A flat had been carved out of a Victorian bedroom and a box room. Again, I have views over mature trees so were it not for the sound of traffic coming from the street below I could fancy myself to be in the countryside. Perhaps visiting stately homes is my way of living vicariously. But cramped though it is, my flat is a virtual palace compared to the prison cell I went to visit recently.

Having just had an interview at an organisation which tackled alcohol abuse, I was sorely tempted to drown my sorrows if I had but a liking for hard liquor. Fortunately, neither drink nor illicit drugs have ever appealed to me so I decided to get high on endorphins instead and walk to Waterloo station as it was such a fine autumnal afternoon. Out of a sense of nostalgia I decided to pop into the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. It used to have a café where my mother and I would indulge in the occasional cake and coffee. She was a psychotherapist attached to St Thomas hospital across the Thames, so it was an ideal meeting point for us when I was working in central London. Incidentally, St Thomas is near the Houses of Parliament. It has been claimed that the real reason why it has often been spared the kind of draconian cuts imposed on other hospitals is its convenient location for MPs taken ill within Parliament.

The café I knew had long since gone as indeed had my mother. Through the floor to ceiling windows I could see there was an art exhibition being held in the area where we used to sit to eat our meal. Curious I went inside to take a closer look. The exhibition displayed artwork by prisoners from across the UK. In addition, there was a life size replica of a prison cell complete with two actors playing the role of prisoners, something I think they had performed in real life too. The idea was that they would spend hours banged up in their cell whilst they were viewed on a live video stream. Visitors could also enter the cell and chat to them about prison life or talk to them through barred windows at the other end of the cell. The installation called gotojail  has been set  up by Rideout (Creative Arts for Rehabilitation) which, according to their website was established in 1999 "to develop innovative, arts-based approaches to working with prisoners and staff within U.K. prisons."

One of the women on duty asked if I would be interested in entering the cell. I said I was too shy to but before I knew it she was propelling me up to the door of the cell and introducing me to Paddy and his cell companion, a much younger black guy whose name I failed to catch owing to my partial deafness. I perched on the edge of the lower bunk bed with Prisoner 2 whilst Paddy sat in a small blue plastic chair. The cell consisted of two bunk beds and a desk with a space for a single chair underneath it. On top of the desk prisoners could place personal items like bottles of soft drinks and a radio. It seems they would have been provided with a kettle to allow them to make hot drinks at night.

I used to share a bunk bed as a child. I had a routine where I would climb up to my bunk from the base of the bed and then roll head over heels on my mattress to my pillow. I was shocked at how little space there was above the adult prisoner’s head in the top bunk. The whole cell was cramped and prisoners could find themselves locked up for hours on end in it during the day as well as overnight. In retrospect it was probably the size of my former bedsit.

I was curious to know how it was determined who should share a cell with whom. Paddy said the officers tried to take into account similarities and if you found you really were not getting on with your companion you could make a request to be moved.

Long term prisoners who behaved themselves could expect to be moved into their own cell over time. In the interim, if one member of the cell misbehaved it would have adverse consequences for his cell mate. Thus, if misconduct led to a prisoner being deprived of television privileges, it would automatically mean that his cell mate was not able to have one either.

My poor hearing meant it took a while before I realised that the cacophony I heard was not coming from the public areas outside the mock cell but from a soundtrack being played into the cell. According to Paddy and his friend it was a realistic representation of the kind of noise to be heard in the average prison during the day. That alone would have driven me mad.

But the worst aspect of the cell for me was the stainless steel toilet by the cell door. Part of the desk formed a low wall providing a modicum of privacy but the loo did not even have a lid. Paddy explained that prison etiquette dictated that prisoners endeavoured not to do their “number twos” in the cell, only to urinate. During the day they could make use of communal lavatories elsewhere in the prison block. I could see that rule quickly going to pot if one of the prisoners fell ill with an upset stomach. Paddy said that at least in this cell the loo was in a corner. He had been in cells in which the loo was by the head of the beds, a revolting thought for someone as fastidious as me.

I asked about temperatures within the cell. Prisoner 2 explained sometimes it could be too hot and at other times too cold. I can well imagine the prisoners would swelter in such a tiny cell in the heat of the summer.

I had only been in the cell for a relatively short time and asked Paddy and his friend how they adapted to returning to their own homes and suddenly having so much space and a separate loo! Paddy said it could be quite strange and somewhat disorientating at first.

At that point, seeing other people hovering by the door I thanked them both for chatting with me. It was sobering to reflect later that I had spent half an hour banged up doing bird. That was a ninth of what actress Lindsay Lohan had to endure when she was slung into jail for 4 and a half  hours only a few weeks later. In such charming company as Paddy’s and his cellmate’s I am sure I could have managed as much porridge as La Lohan.  

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Georgian Rooms

Last month the laws of succession were changed enabling the first born of the British monarch to inherit the throne, regardless of sex. How very different the course of English history might have been if these rules had been in place in the 16th and 17th centuries. Mary Tudor would have come to the throne before her brother, Prince Edward, and might have been young enough to have given birth to a healthy child instead of having two phantom pregnancies. With a Catholic heir she would have crushed the fledgling Protestant Reformation in England completely. In this parallel universe, if the Tudor children had still failed to have issue of their own then the throne would have passed to James I of England. His eldest son, Prince Henry predeceased his father. His second child, Elizabeth of Bohemia would have succeeded to the throne instead of her younger brother Charles. As it was, by a quirk of fate, Elizabeth of Bohemia’s youngest daughter Sophia found herself heir to the English throne in extreme old age but she died only a matter of weeks before the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne. Consequently, it was Sophia’s son George who became king in 1717. Of Sophia herself, I shall always remember her description of her first encounter with her aunt Henrietta-Maria, wife of the ill-fated Charles I. Sophia was shocked at how different Henrietta looked in real life compared to her exceedingly flattering portraits. Far from being the beauty the official paintings suggested, Henrietta-Maria was, according to Sophia, "a little woman with long, lean arms, crooked shoulders, and teeth protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort."

When it came to dysfunctional royal families the Tudors set the standard in the 16th century with Henry VIII beheading wives and threatening dire consequences for his eldest daughter Mary if she continued to refuse to accept her parents’ divorce and the break with the Church of Rome. After Henry VIII’s death, matters were far from cordial between Henry’s children. The Stuart queens, Mary and Anne, helped depose their father King James II in the late 17th century and subsequently quarrelled bitterly amongst themselves.
Sophia Dorothea of Celle
The Hanoverians were at each other’s throats throughout the following century. It started with George I. Like Henry VIII his behaviour as a husband left a lot to be desired. He married the hapless Sophia Dorothea of Celle for her fortune. George showed neither affection nor respect for his wife. Once Sophia Dorothea had produced a son and daughter, her husband sought a mistress whom he publicly flaunted in Sophia Dorothea’s face. She responded by taking a lover of her own with horrific consequences. Her lover was brutally murdered on her husband’s orders. George then divorced Sophia Dorothea on the grounds that she had abandoned him. With the connivance of her father, George had his former wife placed under house arrest in a remote castle where she remained until her death, over 3 decades later. She never saw her family or her children again. Unluckily for her, she died a few weeks before her former husband. Had she lived longer it seems highly likely that her eldest son, now King of England in his own right, would have freed her from her lonely exile.

When George I succeeded to the British throne, he took his by now adult son, also called George and his daughter-in-law, Caroline of Ansbach, with him to their new country. But George major never really took to England and spent a great deal of his reign back in his native Hanover, eventually dying there on one such visit. His son took the opportunity to make political capital from his father’s prolonged absences. The ill will between them had not been helped by King George’s callous treatment of Sophia Dorothea back in Germany. Matters were exacerbated by an open quarrel which led to the younger George being banished from court along with his wife, whilst their children remained under the control of the king. The King’s Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole whose portrait can be seen in the Duke of Cumberland Suite, strove to reconcile father and son. With rebellions being raised on behalf of the exiled Stuart son of James II, it was not the time for the Hanoverians to be feuding amongst themselves.

History repeated itself with George II and his eldest son Frederick to the extent that whilst his younger brother, Prince William the Duke of Cumberland, was furnished with a superb suite of rooms at Hampton Court Palace, Frederick was eventually banished from court altogether. Unlike his father, Frederick was at least spared being separated from his own children. Frederick died before becoming king leaving his son George as the presumptive heir. When George III became king the Hanoverian tradition of feuding monarch and eldest son continued on for yet another generation.   

The Georgian Rooms at Hampton Court Palace were refurbished in the mid 1990s and have been staged as they might have been when George II and his queen, Caroline of Ansbach, were last living there in 1737. It was a tumultuous year for the Royal Family and a significant one for the palace. Frederick had rowed with his father after he left the court with his pregnant wife so that she could give birth elsewhere, a serious breach of protocol King George never forgave. The Queen died several months later without being reconciled with her son.  For both these reasons, King George became less enamoured with Hampton Court and thereafter only returned to the palace with a much reduced entourage. His grandson, George III, never developed a taste for Hampton Court Palace and eschewed living there in favour of other royal residences such as Windsor Castle and Kew Palace. As a result Hampton Court Palace became home to a multitude of grace and favour apartments and ceased to serve as a royal court.

To reach Queen Caroline’s apartments you must pass from the Communication Gallery with its bevy of Windsor Beauties through a small ante chamber displaying three large scale paintings: two were of Hampton Court during the early 18th century and one of Louis XIV’s troops crossing a river on their way to a battle against the Dutch.


The Cartoon Gallery is a somewhat austere room designed to house the sequence of Raphael Cartoons installed in here in 1698. The Cartoons were part of an original set of 10 commissioned by Pope Leo X from Raphael as designs for tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. King Charles I had later bought the Cartoons with the idea of having his own tapestries made from them at the works he had established at Mortlake. Fortunately for England Oliver Cromwell decided not to flog them off with the rest of the executed King Charles’ extensive art collection. Today the Cartoons at Hampton Court are 17th century copies. I saw other copies at Knole and at Trinity College Greenwich. The original Raphael Cartoons were loaned to the Victoria and Albert museum by Queen Victoria in 1865 and are still on display there today. I can’t say I am too fond of religious paintings as a genre but these cartoons are growing on me, probably because I have seen them quite a few times over the past year or so at different locations.

In contrast to the Raphael Cartoons the marble fireplace has a very pagan theme of Venus being pulled along in her chariot by swans and putti. Decorating the sides of the Cartoon immediately above the fireplace are carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Surrounded by such imposing paintings, King William III used this gallery for meetings of his Privy Council. Perhaps it was fortunate that his Cartoons were later replaced by copies. A warder on duty showed me a photograph of the terrible devastation that had wrought in this chamber alone by the fire of 1986.
At the far end of the Cartoon Gallery is a small closet with a fireplace. It has a high stool enabling the warders on duty to keep a beady eye on goings-on in the Gallery whilst not actually being in it. I imagine the Cartoon Gallery gets very cold in the winter even when the warders have exchanged their lightweight summer coats for a thick woollen red coat.

The Queen’s Private Drawing Room has been staged as if Queen Caroline and her friends are about to be served tea, coffee or chocolate. Three card tables, with scooped out hollows to hold counters and coins, have been set out. Above the grey marble fireplace are three rows of blue and white china vases displayed on shelves in the chimney piece. Various paintings have been arranged against the red figured silk wall hangings.

The next room in sequence is the royal bedroom. It has a special mechanism on the door to enable it to be locked from the bedside by the royal couple should the need arise to afford them some precious privacy. The stunning Flying Tester or Angel Bed of around 1730 originally came from Raynham Hall in Norfolk. It underwent a comprehensive renovation and restoration of the woodwork and upholstery before being placed in the Georgian Rooms. George III’s own far plainer red damask travelling bed, now in the Duke of Cumberland’s Suite, used to be displayed in here instead. The other remarkable feature about this room is the tapestries. I don’t know whether Queen Caroline was overly fond of sailors but she certainly had a strong partiality for the depiction of sea battles. The tapestries on display were all chosen by her.

Caroline’s bathroom is hidden behind a reconstruction of the early 18th century wooden partition which once stood here. It provided a screen for the modest queen, as the windows overlook Fountain Court. The queen would bathe in her wooden bathtub dressed in a muslin gown and sitting on a special seat. Hot water could be fetched from the kitchens and coldwater from a water tank nearby and brought into the bathroom by the doors at the back of the room. In front of the partition is a dressing table with a silver gilt toilet set. To remove temptation the toilet set is under glass. Every time I come into the bathroom I detect a distinctly old fashioned perfume which is said to be Caroline’s.  When I spoke to two female warders on duty recently one had come across the perfume and the other, to her evident relief, had never encountered it. To date there has been no logical explanation for the mysterious aroma, said to follow people around, a phenomenon I can also attest to personally.
Next to the bathroom is a rather charming closet, where the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting could repair to until summoned by their royal mistress.  One of these ladies-in-waiting, Henrietta Howard, not only assiduously served Caroline but was also the personal body servant so to speak of Caroline’s husband being his acknowledged mistress. Caroline was well aware that the English born Henrietta first became George’s mistress back in Hanover. Far from being appalled Caroline encouraged the relationship to the extent that she did her best to try and dissuade Henrietta from retiring from the English court in the 1720s. Caroline knew that royal kings and princes were almost obliged to keep a mistress, even when their hearts weren't really in it, as was the case with the Dutch King William III. Furthermore, Caroline found Henrietta more amenable than most, the more so since she had little interest in meddling in politics. But Henrietta was adamant. George had pensioned her off leaving her sufficient money to build herself the elegant Marble Hill House where she could be mistress of her own household.

In the Queen’s Private Dining Room Caroline once again gave expression to her love of sea battles through her choice of 6 paintings by the Flemish artist Willem van de Velde. His name sounded familiar and I realised I had first came across his work at the Queen’s House in Greenwich where he had once been granted a studio by royal command.

The little Sideboard Room next to the dining room has a marble sink in which glasses could be washed.  As I sat on a window seat listening to the ticking of the clock, Del the warder recognised me from earlier visits. As we chatted he said I knew so much about Hampton Court I should train the warders in the history of the palace. I replied that a lot of what I knew had been gleaned from staff like him. It was he, for example, who had explained that the warders first started dressing in their red coats in April 2009, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. Del also explained how they had a red winter and a red summer weight coat. Before the introduction of the latter they had worn dark coats and top hats. It seems a special hat, rather like a Beefeater’s, had been designed to be worn with Henry’s red coats, but had been quietly dropped for looking faintly ridiculous.

The final room in the sequence is the Queen’s Oratory or prayer room, the dome of which was designed for Queen Mary II by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century.  

A rather steep flight of stone stairs leads out into the arcade around Fountain Court. The flights of stairs and the skylight are extremely elegant but must have proved a nightmare for the likes of the elderly Mrs Baily in her grace and favour apartment to negotiate.

The Georgian Rooms are fascinating in their own right, but for me, the characters that inhabited them lack the drama and passion of their Tudor counterparts. Perhaps the realisation that they could never really compete with the memory of the flamboyant Tudors was the real reason why the Hanoverians quietly packed their bags and left Hampton Court Palace for ever. Their loss is our gain. By turning Hampton Court into grace and favour apartments, the structural integrity of the palace was maintained, allowing it to be transformed back into a royal court centuries later, to the great delight of the multitude flocking there today and above all to the eternal delight of the Brimstone Butterfly herself. .