Saturday, March 16, 2013

Giggles, how to grow potatoes, royal burials and ... has anyone here seen Kelly?

The numbingly damp cold of early spring in England seeping through every layer of tweed, leather and wool, did nothing to lessen my enthusiasm for my first visit to Windsor Castle. For someone who is interested in architecture and interior design it is perhaps surprising I'd waited so long – especially having lived (a long time ago) within an hour's train journey. But I knew the castle well from photographs, or so I thought.

Queen Mary's Doll House is surprisingly uninteresting – dimly lit, behind glass, rather twee and maybe, just maybe, methinks, I'm too old and cynical for it and, anyway, I have the book. I moved on to the small exhibition of portraits of the Queen in The Drawings Gallery. Celebrating both the Diamond Jubilee and the anniversary of the Coronation, the exhibition The Queen: Portraits of a Monarch, was more interesting than I thought it would be given how familiar the Queen's face is, but... and I know this is not an original thought... despite these portraits being of the Monarch rather than the person it is impossible, I feel, for anyone born in the United Kingdom to disassociate the person from the role – especially a person one has never met, yet one feels one knows well, despite being someone who has never given a media interview in her life. Nonetheless, the surprise of the exhibition was the portrait by Lucien Freud – not just surprising in how small it is but also in how much I liked it this powerful depiction, with so luscious a paint layer, defiantly, I thought, facing the glitter of Warhol on the opposite wall.

The State Rooms, the work of King George IV and his architect Jeffry Wyattville, are some of the most magnificent rooms I've ever walked through, except perhaps for the Vatican Museum, but they are more corridor-like than photographs show. Unless one is attending an Easter Court, these rooms are never seen as the photograph of the Crimson Drawing Room below suggests, for most of the year the room is divided by a strip of red carpet and rope barriers. Perhaps walking along a red carpet rolled out at one's feet offers a certain psychological succour, for none of this detracts from the magnificence of the decor: gilded ceiling and cornice; crimson draperies matching the upholstery of the walls and the gilded furniture; inlaid floor replacing that lost (as, indeed, was all the decoration of these rooms) in the fire of the 1990s, and the chandeliers, so big breathtakingly large and brilliant as to be almost, in their sublimity, invisible.

There is much for the eye to light upon in the Crimson Drawing Room and for me the most magical were the portraits of Queen Elizabeth (which one sees first) and her husband, "the old King" as I know him, George VI on either side of the fireplace, by Gerald Kelly.

"At the same time the King and Queen were both having much more formal state portraits painted by Gerald Kelly, a distinguished portraitist and later president of the Royal Academy. Kelly had been lodging at Eton while he worked at Windsor Castle, but after the outbreak of war he gratefully accepted an invitation from the Queen to move in Windsor Castle until he finished his work. The Royal Family were rather surprised that the artist ended up living for much of the war with them in the Castle. Fortunately he was witty and entertaining. The historian Kenneth Rose noted, 'It was said that to prolong his stay he would steal down to the studio at dead of night to erase the previous day's work.' The paintings were finally ready to go on show after the war ended in 1945. That year he was also given a knighthood – the band at the investiture played 'Anybody Here Seen Kelly?' " 

The Green Drawing Room can only be viewed from the roped-off doorway, for facing one at the other end of the room are the doors to the Cream (or White) Drawing Room which belongs to the private apartments. 

Above the fireplace in the State Dining Room hangs a painting, one of the strangest, of Queen Victoria by Benjamin Constant. The guard took me behind the rope barrier so I could look at it more closely. As I say, a strange thing – not quite a portrayal of a woman, more a depiction of an archetype, ethereal, symbolic, and looking quite bemused. The guard told me Victoria was displeased with it because the painter had given her Garter sash the wrong shade of blue. However displeased she was, the sash remains as it was painted. He and I also discussed how the chairs didn't match the black gothic revival table, and it seems that the matching chairs I'd seen elsewhere were considered too heavy and, quite early on, were replaced by regilt lighter klismos variations.

As I walked through Saint George's Hall I overheard one guard advising the other of how she might grow potatoes in a large trash bag on her balcony, and I decided I would join the conversation. It's not that I'm fascinated by the subject of potatoes, or have ever seriously thought of growing them – but the idea of being able to do so on an east-facing eleventh-floor terrace has its attractions. Saint George's Hall, rebuilt after the fire in 1992, like other rooms that burned were restored, the guard told me as we walked out of the hall, (not sure if I was being moved along or not but, if so, it was done with grace and a smile) in such a way that it is equivalent to the pre-fire appearance, whatever that in practice might mean.

I removed my cap (a sign of respect long gone in other walks of life, for who any longer observes the tradition of taking off one's hat as a funeral goes by?) as I entered Saint George's Chapel, thereby forestalling the man who was just beginning to gesture that I should do so. Respect was on my mind a lot as I walked around the church though not so much when I spotted a docent in robes standing on a heating grate having a Marylyn Monroe moment.

I don't know how I'd come to forget that Saint George's Chapel, besides being the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, is the burial place of many a British monarch, Henry VIII included. The most immediate for me in historical terms was that of King George VI, the present Queen's father – I remember him, though vaguely. What I remember more is the sorrow in our house and in our neighbourhood when he was gone.

"And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied: 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.' ”

The above words, quoted in 1939 in his first Christmas Message of the Second World War, broadcast the the Empire, by King George VI, were used again by his daughter for the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel where the King is interred and yet again in 2002 when the words were read out at the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Small, with windows by John Piper, the King George VI Memorial Chapel, resembles the medieval chantries that line the aisles – not that masses for the departed are said anymore at Saint George's Chapel – and holds the bodies of George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the ashes of their daughter, the Princess Margaret. The broken slab is a memorial to Princess Margaret from her children, I understand. 


As I headed towards the Galilee Porch, I saw a Japanese couple enter the church and bow deeply more – not to me nor to the docent, but to the church. What I spotted in the Galilee Porch, or the western narthex, was this face, thought to be that of King Edward III.

Near the exit, I was surrounded by a group of young Japanese who, all the while giggling, took photographs of one of their more intrepid comrades playacting next to the sentry near the tourist exit of Windsor Castle. When I stepped back, having taken my photograph and received my own personal glare (or so I thought) from the guardsman, I thanked the ineffably polite young people as I walked away. From a few feet away I heard, "You're welcome" at which everyone, including me, broke out into giggles all over again.

Images of the Crimson Drawing Room, The Green Drawing Room, The Cream Drawing Room, the State Dining Room from For the King's Pleasure: The Furnishing and Decoration of George IV's Apartments at Windsor Castle, The Royal Collection, text by Hugh Roberts, 2001.

Quotation about Gerald Kelly from The Queen Mother, The Official Biography, William Shawcross, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York. 2009. An eBook.

Quotation (Wikipedia) from God Knows, a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins used, in part, by King George VI in his Christmas radio broadcast, 1939.

Image of John Piper's Study for window in the King George VI Memorial Chapel, St. George's, Windsor from here.

Image of the King George VI Chapel from St George's Chapel, Windsor Chapel guidebook. Photograph, Angelo Hornak.

Other photos my own. 


  1. Blue, you've given a wonderful tour. Was a particular decorator given credit for guiding the refurbishment of the rooms damaged by the fire?

  2. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I should have referenced this.

    From Wikipedia:

    "The architectural firm Sidell Gibson Partnership were appointed to produce the final designs."

  3. Goodness Blue, that was some tour!

    I was near Windsor on the weekend of the fire and remember seeing the smoke on my way back to London. A very sad time, especially seeing the poor Queen so distraught. I would love to see the Freud portrait in person so I can perhaps see and appreciate what you saw. Wonder how the Queen reacted to it.

    If it's any consolation, I lived and worked half of my life in New York and have never gone to the Statue of Liberty or the top of the Empire State Bldg. My children think it's disgraceful.

    1. lindaraxa, thank you. I was long gone from England by then and only saw the event on TV. I remember also the squabble about who should pay for the repair and restoration – terrible, really.

      I stayed on the ferry that had taken me to the Statue of Liberty in the 70s as I couldn't see the point of climbing inside to view the city or NJ. Top of the Empire Sate building? Never again.

  4. Blissful diversity of illustration, capturing layers of improbability and illustrating the genius of allowing life to prepare one to savour them.

    1. Laurent, thank you. I don't know if you've ever been to Windsor Castle but it is certainly worth a second look if you have. I enjoyed it so much I returned again the day after for a longer look around.

  5. My Windsor visit was in 1967. I'm better prepared now should I get another chance. What I remember most is that it was "out in the country" as my dad would have said.

    1. Terry, thank you. It is in the country, I suppose, so big is Windsor Park. Windsor, itself, has the feel of a country town but a town of lots of history.

  6. I was taken there by an English friend on my very first trip to England. Maybe I don't remember well because we were too hurried, but your tour was more fun!
    (Thank you for the reminder at St Tyl.)