This Week in London – A celebration of Spain and the Hispanic world; Lunar New Year at Greenwich; and, RA gifts at The Queen’s Gallery…

Joaquín Antonio de Basarás y Garaygorta, ‘Indian Wedding, in Origen, costumbres y estado presente de mexicanos y filipinos’ (1763); Illustrated manuscript on paper (41 x 65.7 cm). On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY

• The collection of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York is being celebrated in a new exhibition opening at the Royal Academy of Arts. Opening Saturday, Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library features more than 150 works from the collection – founded in 1904 by Archer M Huntington – which range from paintings and sculptures to jewellery, maps and illuminated manuscripts. Highlights include Francisco de Goya’s painting The Duchess of Alba (1797), Pedro de Mena’s reliquary bust, Saint Acisclus (c1680), earthenware bowls from the Bell Beaker culture (c2400-1900 BC), Celtiberian jewellery from the Palencia Hoard (c150-72 BC), and Hispano-Islamic silk textiles including the Alhambra Silk (c1400). There’s also a beautifully illuminated Hebrew Bible (after 1450-97), an exceptionally rare Black Book of Hours (c1458), and, Giovanni Vespucci’s celebrated world map from 1526. The exhibition runs until 10th April. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk.

The Lunar New Year is being celebrated in Greenwich this Saturday with a series of events at the National Maritime Museum. Activities range from Mahjong workshops to seeing a traditional lion dance, lantern making, a tea ceremony demonstration and, of course, the chance to find out about the items in the museum’s collection with Asian connections. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/national-maritime-museum/lunar-new-year.

Royal Collection Trust staff conduct final checks of a display opening today at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, showcasing 20 contemporary artworks gifted to Queen Elizabeth II to mark the Platinum Jubilee. PICTURE: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023.

Twenty contemporary artworks gifted by the Royal Academy of Arts to Queen Elizabeth II ar on display at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. The works on paper – created by Royal Academicians elected in the past decade – were presented to the Queen to mark her Platinum Jubilee in 2022. They include Wolfgang Tillmans’ Regina – a photograph taken during Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002 depicting the Queen in the Gold State Coach passing along Fleet Street, Yinka Shonibare’s Common Wealth – a digital print of an orchid against a collage of platinum leaf and Dutch wax printed fabric, and Sir Isaac Julien’s Lady of the Lake – a fictionalised portrait of the American abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass as well as a digital print of Thomas Heatherwick’s design for the Tree of Trees project. This 21-foot sculpture incorporates 350 saplings and was erected outside Buckingham Palace as part of The Queen’s Green Canopy and was illuminated during a special Platinum Jubilee ceremony on 2nd June last year. The works can be seen until 26th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.rct.uk.

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LondonLife – Bright lights, big city…

PICTURE: Kevin Grieve/Unsplash

View of the Docklands from North Greenwich.

10 most popular posts for 2022 – Numbers 10 and 9…

It’s that time of year again – our annual countdown of our 10 most read posts for the year!

First up are numbers nine and ten… 

10. Where’s London’s oldest…pharmacy?

9. LondonLife – Greenwich Park restoration…

This Week in London – Newly restored ‘Nativity’ back on display for Christmas; Tutankhamun 100 years on; and, ‘Museum of the Moon’ at Greenwich…

Following a restoration, early Renaissance artist Piero Della Francesca’s The Nativity has gone on display in The National Gallery in time for Christmas. The painting, created circa 1470, had been in the possession of Piero’s family until it came to London in the 1860s. Then in a poor condition, it was acquired by The National Gallery in 1874. It has now been restored by the gallery’s senior restorer Jill Dunkerton with panel work by Britta New in a process which has shed new light on the painting. This includes the understanding that while it was previously framed and displayed as an altarpiece, instead the work is now believed to have been a very grand, domestic painting which Piero may even have painted for himself. To complement this new interpretation, the gallery has been able to acquire a carved walnut frame, of almost exactly the correct dimensions, date and probable origin. You can see a video of the conservation process below. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

• Marking the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in November, 1922, the British Museum has opened a new display looking at the way the ancient Egyptian pharaoh was viewed, both by his contemporaries and by people today. The free Asahi Shimbun Display Tutankhamun Reimagined features artwork by contemporary Egyptian graffiti artist Ahmed Nofal alongside a statue of Tutankhamun which was discovered before his tomb was even found. Accompanying the display is a trail through the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) in which visitors can learn more about Tutankhamun and his times. Can be seen until 29th January. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

Artist Luke Jerram – of Gaia fame – is returning to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich next week with his artwork Museum of the Moon. The large scale installation, which will hang in the Painted Hall, features NASA imagery of the lunar surface. Visitors are invited to lean back on daybeds to experience the installation which is accompanied by a surround sound composition by BAFTA-winning composer Dan Jones. Runs from Tuesday, 13th December, to 2nd February. Admission charge applies. For more, see https://ornc.org/whats-on/museum-of-the-moon/.

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This Week in London – 12 Days of Christmas at the Tower; Museum of London celebrates its London Wall closing; and, William Beatty at the Old Royal Naval College…

The Tower of London is getting into the festive spirit with a celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelve installations have been installed at the Tower, each representing as different aspect of the fortress’s unique history – from nine wreaths representing “nine rowdy ravens” to five gold coins representing the Mint once housed there. There’s also the six Queens of King Henry VIII and three “lordly lions” – a reference to a gift presented to King Henry III and housed in a Lion Pit at the tower. Visitors will have the chance to collect a map at the start of their visit and follow a trail to find the installations at they explore the Tower. Christmas at the Tower of London runs daily until 3rd January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/.

The Museum of London is preparing to close its doors at its London Wall site as it moves to its new location in Smithfield and to celebrate it’s holding two free weekend festivals. The first, to be held this weekend, will feature family-friendly activities including arts and crafts, dance, face painting and theatrical performances while the second, to be held on the weekend of 3rd and 4th December (after which the museum will close), will feature a celebration of London’s music scene from the 70s to the present day with a DJ sets, a late night film festival and museum’s first ever 24 hour opening. Visitors on both weekends can also take part in London Biggest Table Football competition for a chance to win an England shirt signed by Harry Kane and to see the museum’s collection in a new light thanks to an illuminated display. For more on the festivals, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london.

Now On: Blood and Battle: Dissecting the life of William Beatty. The life and work of renowned 19th-century naval surgeon and physician, Sir William Beatty, is explored in this exhibition at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The display – which marks 200 years since Beatty, who had served as ship’s surgeon on HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar (and who wore the musket ball that killed Nelson in a locket on his watch chain for the rest of his life afterwards) – took up the post of Physician to the Royal Hospital for Seamen – explores Beatty’s work as a ship’s surgeon, his time at Greenwich Hospital and how he was honoured by being knighted and appointed Physician Extraordinary to George IV and the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) as well as his outside interests including his involvement in developing the London – Greenwich Railway. Admission charge applies. For more, see https://ornc.org.

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This Week in London – Hieroglyphs explored at the British Museum; King Charles III coronation date announced; ‘The Admiral’s Revenge’ in Greenwich’; and, Dickens and ghosts…

The Rosetta Stone. Granodiorite; Rasid, Egypt; Ptolemaic, 196 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.

• Marking 200 years since French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) was able to decipher hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone, a new exhibition opening at the British Museum explores how the stone and other inscriptions and objects helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt centres on the Rosetta Stone but also features more than 240 other objects, many of which are shown for the first time. Alongside the Rosetta Stone itself, highlights include: “the Enchanted Basin”, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BCE which is covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods; the richly illustrated, more than 3000-year-old Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet which measures more than four metres long; and the mummy bandage of Aberuait, a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees each received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs. There’s also the personal notes of key figures in the race to decipher hieroglyphs including those of Champollion which come from the Bibliothèque nationale de France as well as those of England’s Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) from the British Library. The exhibition can be seen in the Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery until 19th February. Admission charge applies. For more, see britishmuseum.org/hieroglyphs.

• King Charles III will be crowned at Westminster Abbey on 6th May next year, Buckingham Palace has announced this week. The Queen Consort, Camilla, will be crowned alongside him in the first such coronation since 12th May, 1937, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were crowned in the abbey. The ceremony, which will be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, will, according to the palace, “reflect the monarch’s role today and look towards the future, while being rooted in longstanding traditions and pageantry”. King Charles III is expected to sign a Proclamation formally declaring the coronation date at a meeting of the Privy Council later this year. The first documented coronation at Westminster Abbey was that of King William the Conqueror on 25th December, 1066, and there have been 37 since, the most recent being that of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June, 1953.

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A new dark comedy, The Admiral’s Revenge, has opened in The Admiral’s House in the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. The play, set in 1797, features sea shanties, puppetry and follows a crew of shipmates in the wake of the ill-fated Battle of Tenerife. Audiences have the chance to explore the Admiral’s House before the show and enjoy a complimentary rum cocktail. Runs until 12th November. For ticket prices, head to https://ornc.org/whats-on/1797-the-mariners-revenge/.

A new exhibition exploring Charles Dickens’ interest in the paranormal has opened at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury. To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural explores Dickens’ famous ghost stories, including A Christmas Carol, and reveals his influence on the genre. Highlights include a copy of The Chimes which Dickens gifted to fellow author Hans Christian Anderson, original John Leech sketches of Dickens’ ghosts of the past, present and future and original tickets and playbills relating to the author’s public performances of his ghost stories. The display will also look into Dickens’ own views on the supernatural as a fascinated sceptic and includes  correspondence in which he was asking about the location of a supposedly haunted house. Runs until 5th March. Admission charge applies. For more, see https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/all-events/to-be-read-at-dusk-dickens-ghosts-and-the-supernatural.

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LondonLife – Greenwich Park restoration…

Looking up to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. PICTURE: mkos83/iStockphoto.

The Royal Parks announced recently Greenwich Park, here pictured showing the view up to the Royal Observatory, was to undergo a three year project to restore its 17th century landscape. The formal landscape of the park was commissioned by King Charles II and, designed by French landscape architect André Le Nôtre (who also designed the world-famous Versailles gardens), features tree-lined avenues which frame the view up the hill from the Queen’s House as well as “The Grand Ascent”, a series of giant, grass steps leading up the hill, and a terraced layout – known as a parterre. Massive numbers of visitors – some five million annually – have, however, seen the landscape features erode and slump while the trees – Turkey oaks planted in the 1970s to replace the elms wiped out by Dutch elm disease – are now in decline. The restoration work, which begins next month, will see the terraces restored and the declining tree avenues recreated with 92 new, more resilient trees. The work is scheduled to be completed by March, 2025. For more on Greenwich Park, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/greenwich-park.

Lost London – Greenwich’s Romano-Celtic temple…

Although little now remains of it (and none to be seen above ground), a mound in Greenwich Park is thought to have once been the location of a Romano-Celtic temple.

Site of the temple remains in Greenwich Park. PICTURE: Matt Brown (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Given its site close to Watling Street – the main Roman road linking London and the Kent ports, it’s believed that the temple may have served travellers as well as the local community. The Historic England listing for the ruins, which are a scheduled monument, suggests the temple was in use by 100AD and continued to be used until about 400AD.

The remains, which are now located on the eastern side of Greenwich Park on a site known as Queen Elizabeth’s Bower, was excavated in 1902 after they were stumbled across during works on the park. Three different floor surfaces were revealed, one of which was a tessellated pavement, along with the right arm of an almost life-sized statue, fragments of stone inscriptions and more than 300 coins dating between the 1st and 5th centuries.

A further excavation occurred in the early 1970s and another in 1999 – all of which provided further evidence of a temple.

Finds from the 1999 dig – which was undertaken by TV Channel Four’s ‘Time Team’, Birkbeck University of London and the Museum of London in the creation of a programme broadcast the following year – included part of an inscription to Jupiter and the spirits of the emperors and a stamped tile.

It is thought the temple precinct, known as a temenos, would have included a main temple building known as a cella as well as ancillary buildings and been surrounded by a stone wall.

A Moment in London’s History – The martyrdom of St Alphege…

This month marks the 1010th anniversary of the murder of Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by Vikings in Greenwich.

St Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, is asked for advice in this early 15th century manuscript from Paris.

Alphege, also known as Ælfheah and Alfege, had been kidnapped from Canterbury during a Viking raid in September, 1011. Alphege’s captors were said to have been seeking a huge sum for his ransom – some 3,000 gold marks, reports the monk Osbern – but that, knowing such a sum would bring starvation upon the people under his care, he refused to allow himself to be ransomed – for money or anything else – and this drew the anger of his captors.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one day, seven months after his kidnapping – on 19th April, 1012, the Vikings were drunk and, had the elderly archbishop brought before their assembly. Then, in an act of execution, they began throwing ox bones and heads at the unfortunate archbishop before one of them struck him on the back of the head with the butt of an axe, killing him.

According to tradition, the murder took place on the site of St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. A contemporary account also tells that a Viking lord named Thorkell the Tall, a Christian convert, had tried to save the archbishop’s life – offering everything he owned except his ship in exchange for the cleric’s life – but failed (interestingly, so appalled was Thorkell at the murder that he switched sides and fought for the English king Ethelred the Unready following Alphege’s death). There is also an account that the fatal blow was actually delivered by a Christian converted named Thrum as an act of mercy.

Alphege’s body was recovered and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1023, the body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury in a gesture of goodwill to the English. The first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet such a violent end, he was canonised in 1078.

There is a memorial stone to the saint set in the floor in front of the altar in the Greenwich church.

LondonLife – Climbing the rigging…

PICTURES: @NathanTurner

Visitors to the Cutty Sark now have the opportunity to climb the ship’s rigging for the first time since the ship arrived in Greenwich in 1954. The ‘Rig Climb Experience’, which was launched last weekend, sees those bold enough to do so stepping up from the main deck onto the ship’s ratlines, climbing up its shrouds and traversing one of the ship’s lower yardarms  to reach the tops platform where they’ll be able to take in magnificent views over Greenwich and The Thames. One of the fastest tea clippers of its day, the Cutty Sark – which was built in Dumbarton in 1869 – had more than 11 miles of rigging, 32 sails with an original sail area of 32,000 square feet, and a 152 foot main mast. Prices start at £41 for adults and £26 for children for a ‘Standard Rig Climb’ and £51 for adults and £36 for children for the Rig Climb Experience Plus. For more, head to www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark.

This Week in London – Canaletto at the National Maritime Museum; the story of the postcode; Easter hunts at royal palaces; and, superheroes and orphans…

Canaletto, ‘View of the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Bembo to Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi‘ © From the Woburn Abbey Collection

Twenty-four of Canaletto’s Venetian views which are normally found at Woburn Abbey form the heart of a new exhibition opening at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Friday. Canaletto’s Venice Revisited explores some of the most iconic view paintings of Venice and how tourism, which helped establish Canaletto’s career, today threatens Venice’s future. The views from Woburn Abbey were painted by Canaletto for Lord John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, in the 1730s and this is the first time the paintings, which are thought to be Canaletto’s largest single commission, will be on display in their entirety outside of the abbey. As well as 22 smaller views of Venice depicting iconic landmarks such as Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, as well as campi, palazzi and churches, the works include two monumental views, A Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Grand Canal, Ascension Day: The embarkation of the Doge of Venice for the Ceremony of the Marriage of the Adriatic. Runs until 25th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk/canaletto.

The story of the postcode is the subject of a new exhibition at The Postal Museum. Sorting Britain: The Power of Postcodes charts the journey of postcodes in the UK, from the post postal districts in London, Liverpool and Manchester and the first trial of postcodes in Norwich in 1959 to how postcodes are used today as an indicator of social standing. Highlights in the display include ELSIE, one of the only original 1950s Electronic Letter Sorting Indicating Equipment left in existence, images of ‘Poco the Postcode Elephant’ – one of the biggest advertising campaigns of the 1980s and unseen maps of London from the 19th century. Runs until 1st January. Included in admission ticket. For more, see www.postalmuseum.org.

• The Lindt GOLD BUNNY Hunt is returning to both Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace this Easter for the first time since 2019. Children aged four to 12 are invited to use a trail map to explore each palace and gardens and find the Lindt GOLD BUNNY statues while learning about people from the palaces’ past and, on successfully completing their mission, claim their chocolatey reward. Check the website for details of dates. The hunt is included in palace admission. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk.

The representation of foundlings, orphans, adoptees, and foster children in comics and graphic novels comes under scrutiny in a new exhibition at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. Opening Friday, Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 years in comics looks at traditional orphan superheroes ranging from Superman and Batman to Spider Man and Black Panther along with characters from early newspaper comic strips, Japanese Manga and contemporary graphic novel protagonists. The display includes historical newspapers, original artwork and contemporary digital work as well as examples of international comics rarely exhibited in the UK. There are also three new artistic commissions specifically made for the exhibition. Can be seen until 28th August. Admission charge applies. For more, see https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/event/superheroes-orphans-origins/.

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Treasures of London – The Solebay Tapestry…

The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672 © National Maritime Museum, London

A monumental tapestry – and the only surviving one of its era depicting an English naval scene, the Solebay Tapestry was actually one a series of six designed by father and son team, Willem Van de Velde the Elder and Younger.

Commissioned by King Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York (later King James II), the tapestry known as The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672 – commemorates the Battle of Solebay, a naval battle fought in Southwold Bay off the coast of Suffolk on 28th May, 1672. The first battle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, it ended with both sides claiming victory and was the final naval battle in which James was engaged.

It depicts the dramatic climax of the battle and shows the Royal James engulfed in flames after it was set alight by Dutch fireships. Edward Montagu, the first Earl of Sandwich whose was aboard the Royal James, died in the attack.

Detail from the Solebay Tapestry, showing the burning of the ‘Royal James’, before conservation. © National Maritime Museum, London

William Van de Veldes the Elder, who was a contemporary of Rembrandt and, along with his son, is considered the founder of English maritime painting, was present at the battle and made a series of sketches from a boat at the scene (he was actually there for the Dutch, not the English).

Subsequently commissioned to reimagine the battle from the English point-of-view, it was the studios of the Van de Velds in the Queen’s House in Greenwich that a series of ‘cartoons’ – large-scale paper designs – were produced using the sketches.

These were then presented to weavers who, once thought to have been based in Mortlake but now believed to have been based in either at Clerkenwell or Hatton Garden, used them to create the tapestries.

The tapestry in the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich was displayed behind King George VI during his speech at the opening of the National Maritime Museum in 1937 but hasn’t been able to be displayed for the past 22 years due to its fragile condition.

In urgent need of repair, the first phase of a conservation project was completed last year. Royal Museums Greenwich has now launched an urgent crowdfunding campaign through ‘Art Happens with Art Fund’ to raise £15,000 for the completion of the project. This will mean the tapestry can be included in an exhibition at the Queen’s House next February marking 350 years since the Van de Veldes’ arrival in England.

The crowdfunding campaign runs until 17th March. To contribute, head to www.artfund.org/save-solebay.

Detail from the Solebay Tapestry of sailor washed out to sea, taken in March 2019 before conservation. © National Maritime Museum, London

Famous Londoners – John Flamsteed…

Memorialised in the name of the house where he once lived at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, John Flamsteed was the first Astronomer Royal.

Flamsteed was born in Denby, Derbyshire, on 16th August, 1646, and was the only child of Stephen Flamsteed, who among other things was involved in the brewing industry, and his first wife Mary (who died when John Flamsteed was still quite young).

A bust of John Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

He was educated at local schools but left off his studies at the age of 15 due to his own ill health and his father’s need for his assistance in the household and with his business.

His poor health meant he pursued some more sedentary activities and it was during this period that he established interest in astronomy, writing his first paper in 1665. Flamsteed did briefly attend Jesus College in Cambridge in the early 1670s, although it’s not thought he ever took up full residence.

Flamsteed was ordained a deacon and was preparing to take up a living in Derbyshire in 1675 – having by then obtained an MA from Cambridge – when his patron Jonas Moore, whom he’d met in the summer of 1670 during a visit to London and then visited again in mid-1674, invited him to return to the city, ostensibly to establish an observatory which Moore, who was Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, had offered to pay for.

Flamsteed arrived in February, 1675, stayed with Moore in the Tower before, after meeting King Charles II, was made an official assistant to a Royal Commission which the king had established charged with examining the merits of a proposal – put forward by a “le Sieur de St Pierre” to find longitude by the position of the Moon.

The commission decided the proposal wasn’t worth taking further but did recommend the establishment of an observatory from which the movement of the stars and Moon could be mapped in the hope of developing a method of finding longitude. Flamsteed was subsequently appointed “The King’s Astronomical Observator” – the first Astronomer Royal – on 4th March, 1675, by royal warrant, and in June that same year, another royal warrant provided for the founding of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Flamsteed laid the foundation stone on 10th August.

He was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Society in February the following year and in July he moved into the observatory, now known as Flamsteed House (it contains famed Octagonal Room with large windows from which celestial events could be watched), which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It was to serve as Flamsteed’s home for next decade or so.

Flamsteed House, Royal Greenwich Observatory, its named after John Flamsteed. PICTURE: Dmitry Djouce.

Flamsteed’s achievements as an astronomer included the accurate calculation of the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668 and recording some of the earliest sightings of Uranus which he mistakenly thought was a star. He was also in regular contact with many other scientific luminaries of the day and famously fell out with both Sir Edmond Halley (his one-time assistant and future successor as Astronomer Royal) and Sir Isaac Newton.

Flamsteed’s own catalogue of almost 3,000 stars wasn’t published until after death in 1725 thanks to the effort’s of his wife Margaret – whom he had married on 23rd October, 1692 (they were to have no children although Flamsteed’s niece, Ann Heming, did live with them). Margaret also published his star atlas, Atlas Coelestis, posthumously in 1729.

In 1684, Flamsteed was elevated to the priesthood and made rector of the village of Burstow, near Crawley in Surrey – a post, which, along with that of Astronomer Royal, he held until his death on 31st December, 1719.

He was buried in Burstow and there is a plaque on the wall of the church there marking his grave (which was added long after his death). Aside from his earthly honours – which includes the name of Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory, a crater on the Moon is named after him as is an asteroid.

10 historic stairways in London – 1. The Tulip Stairs, The Queen’s House, Greenwich…

London has many beautiful stairways – and some of them have some incredible historic connections. In this series, we’re going to be looking at 10 of them and the history that goes with them. First up, it’s the spectacular Tulip Stairs found in The Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Tulip Stairs. PICTURE: Mcginnly (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The wrought-iron stairs – which have the honour of being the first self-supporting spiral stair in the UK (meaning each tread is cantilevered from the wall and supported by the stair below rather than being supported by a central pillar) – were designed by Inigo Jones in 1635.

They are so named because the stairs, which are topped with a glass lantern, feature a flower pattern on the railings which resembles tulips although it is thought the flowers could be actually French lilies designed to compliment the Queen at the time of their completion.

Detail of the flowers on the Tulip Stairs. PICTURE: Maarten de Loud/Unsplash

For while Jones originally designed the house for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, the building was unfinished and the stairs weren’t in place when she died in 1619. It was Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I and daughter of French King Henry IV, who was Queen when he completed the property.

The stairs were at the centre of a ghost sighting in the mid 1960s when retired Canadian clergyman Rev RW Hardy took a photograph while visiting the house with his wife which appeared to show a couple of spectral figures on the staircase. The couple were both adamant that the stair was clear when the photo was taken and the mystery of the image, despite subsequent investigations, apparently remains unsolved.

WHERE: The Tulip Stairs, The Queen’s House, Greenwich (nearest stations are Cutty Sark DLR, Greenwich Station and Maze Hill Station or by water, Greenwich Pier); WHEN: Daily 10am to 5pm (but check the website for closures); COST: Free (but a prebooked ticket is required); WEBSITE: www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house.

This Week in London – The ‘RRS Sir David Attenborough’ at Greenwich; the Amazon explored at the Science Museum; and, Christmas at The National Gallery…

The RRS Sir David Attenborough in Liverpool. PICTURE: By Phil Nash from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 & GFDL.

Find out what it’s like to live and work in the Earth’s polar extremes at Greenwich from today. The three day ‘Ice World Festival’ centres on the British Antarctic Survey’s vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, which is visiting Greenwich before beginning its first mission to the Antarctic. Visitors will also be able to meet real polar scientists and explorers and see the Boaty McBoatface submersible as well as treasures from the National Maritime Museum’s polar collection including relics from HMS Erebus and Terror and items belonging to Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton. While the ship can be seen from the dockside, a limited number of tickets are available for walk-up visitors to the festival (advanced booking tickets have sold out). Runs from today until 30th October. Admission is free. For more information, head here.

More than 200 images – captured by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado over seven years – explore the rich diversity of the Amazon in an exhibition at the Science Museum. Amazônia provides a close-up look at one of the most unique environments on the planet through Salgado’s eyes, including panoramic scenery and the Indigenous peoples of the region (Salgado spent time with 12 different Indigenous groups over his period in the Amazon). Runs until March next year. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/amazonia.

Father Christmas with return to The National Gallery for selected dates in November and December. The gallery’s Christmas experience will provide children with the chance to have their photo taken with Santa in his grotto, listen to an elven story in the winter forest set and receive a special token which they can exchange for a gift at the Elven Sorting Office. Meanwhile, Hendrick Avercamp’s painting A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle (about 1608–9) will be enlarged and reproduced on a canvas to provide a scenic backdrop for the activities. Admission charge applies. Bookings are now open. For more, head to www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/meet-father-christmas.

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This Week in London – The Northern Lights come to Greenwich; Sir Kenneth Clark honoured; and, Phyllida Barlow at the Tate…

Borealis, Dan Acher. PICTURE: Courtesy GDIF

The Northern Lights come to Greenwich this Bank Holiday weekend. The Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, promoted as London’s “leading festival of free outdoor theatre and performing arts”, features two major installations in the Old Royal Naval College grounds – the Borealis and We are Watching – from artist Dan Acher as well as the Greenwich Fair on Sunday. There’s also dance and theatrical performances – including Family Tree, a performance inspired by the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cells were harvested and cultivated without her consent after her death from cervical cancer in 1951, and Future Cargo, Requardt & Rosenberg, a contemporary sci-fi dance show – and pop-up events in neighbourhoods across the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The festival opens tomorrow and runs until 11th September. For the full programme of events and for more information, see https://festival.org/gdif/whatson/. For bookings for Borealis, head here.

Art historian and broadcaster, Sir Kenneth Clark, has been honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former Marylebone home. Clark (1903-1983), who is probably best known for the landmark 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation, lived in the property at 30 Portland Place between 1934 and 1939 – the period when he became director of The National Gallery and when he was knighted. Sir Kenneth and his wife Jane hosted parties at the property where guests included Winston Churchill and Vanessa Bell. Sir Kenneth, who also headed organisations including the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Independent Television Authority, is noted for having saved some of the nation’s most valuable artworks during World War II by having more than 800 paintings evacuated to rural Wales. He was also responsible for many of the Ministry of Information’s wartime films and sponsored emerging artists including Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

A celebration of Phyllida Barlow’s art has opened at the Tate Modern on South Bank. ARTIST ROOMS: Phyllida Barlow spans the British artist’s 60 year career and features some of her large-scale sculptures as well as more than 30 works on paper. Highlights include Object for the television (1994), the only surviving work from Barlow’s 1990s series Objects for… and major installations such as untitled: brokenstage/hangingcontainer, 2012/2013 and untitled: upturnedhouse2, 2012. The exhibition is free to enter. For more, see www.tate.org.uk.

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This Week in London – Royal portraits in Greenwich; Sir Roger Bannister to be honoured; and, drawing on the Tate’s Turbine Hall floor…

King Henry VII by unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505 (oil on panel) © National Portrait Gallery, London

More than 150 of the finest portraits of royal families over five dynasties are on show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, which is being run in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery, features famous paintings, miniatures, sculpture, photographs, medals and stamps from the Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor dynasties. Highlights include the earliest known portrait of Henry VII (also the oldest artwork in the exhibition) which was painted in 1505 by an unknown artist, Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s famous ‘Ditchley Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, portraits of Charles II and his mistresses, early 19th century domestic photographs of Queen Victoria and her family, and a selection of paintings and photographs of Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton and Annie Leibovitz. Runs until 31st October. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk/TudorsWindsors.

Westminster Abbey has announced a new memorial to Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run under a mile in four minutes. The abbey said the memorial ledger stone to Bannister, who later became a neurologist, will be placed in what is known as ‘Scientists’ Corner’ in the building’s nave, close to the graves of scientists Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin as well as the ashes of Stephen Hawking. “Throughout his life Sir Roger Bannister reached out for that which lay beyond,” said the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, in a statement. “As a sportsman, pushing himself towards a prize some considered beyond human reach, as a scientist ever eager for deeper understanding of neurology. We are delighted that his memory and his achievement will be set in stone in the Abbey. He ran the race set before us all.” Bannister is famous for having run a mile in three minutes, 59.4 second at Oxford on 6th May, 1954 – a record which stood for almost nine years.

Be among those transforming the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall into an “ever changing work of art”. Visitors are invited to join in covering the hall’s floor with their own jottings using coloured drawing materials as part of artist Ei Arakawa’s interactive installation, Mega Please Draw Freely. The installation, which can be contributed to until 29th August, kicks off UNIQLO Tate Play – a new free programme of playful art-inspired activities for families, being in partnership with UNIQLO, at the Tate Modern. The project, which has seen the Turbine Hall floor covered with a temporary surface allowing it to be drawn upon, is inspired by the Gutai group, radical Japanese artists who wanted to change the world through painting, performance and children’s play and, in particular, the group’s ‘Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition of 1956’ in which Yoshihara Jirō created the groundbreaking work Please Draw Freely, a large board on which people were free to draw and paint. Visitors can access Mega Please Draw Freely by booking a free collection display ticket online at www.tate.org.uk.

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London Explained – The Royal Parks…

Green Park, the smallest of the eight Royal Parks. PICTURE: David Adams

One of the most beautiful features of London are its Royal Parks.

The Royal Parks signage in The Regent’s Park. PICTURE: Elliott Brown (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The parks, which covers some 5,000 acres, are owned by the Crown and managed by a charity, The Royal Parks. They include eight of London’s largest open spaces – Hyde Park, The Green Park, Richmond Park, Greenwich Park, St James’s Park, Bushy Park, The Regent’s Park, and Kensington Gardens – as well as some other important open spaces such as Brompton Cemetery, Victoria Tower Gardens, Canning Green and Poet’s Corner.

All eight of the Royal Parks have historically been owned by the Crown with St James’s Park considered the oldest (while Greenwich Park is the oldest enclosed park).

Under an Act of Parliament passed in 1851, the Crown transferred management of the parks to the government. These powers were originally vested in the Commissioners of Works and later transferred to the Minister of Works in 1942. They now rest with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Royal Parks charity was created in 2017 when The Royal Parks Agency – a former executive agency of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – and the Royal Parks Foundation came together. It is governed by a board led by chairman Loyd Grossman.

Deer in Richmond Park, largest of The Royal Parks. PICTURE: David Adams

The largest of the eight Royal Parks is Richmond Park which covers some 2,500 acres in London’s south-west (it’s followed by Bushy Park which is just over 1,000 acres). The smallest of the parks is Green Park at just 40 acres.

Interestingly, Hampton Court Palace gardens, which are open to the public are not part of The Royal Parks but instead are under the care of Historic Royal Palaces.

Here’s one fact about each of the eight Royal Parks.

  1. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey gave Bushy Park to King Henry VIII in 1529 (along with Wolsey’s home, Hampton Court Palace).
  2. Green Park was initially known as Upper St James’s Park after it was enclosed by King Charles II in 1668.
  3. The Royal Observatory, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is located in Greenwich Park.
  4. Hyde Park became the location of the first artificially lit highway in the country when King William III, who had moved his court to Kensington Palace and found his walk back to St James’s rather dangerous, had 300 oil lamps installed upon a route which later became known as Rotten Row.
  5. Queen Caroline, wife of George II, gave Kensington Gardens much of its present form when, in 1728, she oversaw the creation of the the Serpentine and the Long Water.
  6. Horse Guards Parade is considered part of St James’s Park.
  7. Architect John Nash designed a summer palace for the Prince Regent which was to be located in The Regent’s Park but was never built.
  8. Prime Minister Lord John Russell was given a home in Richmond Park (Pembroke Lodge) by Queen Victoria in 1847.

This Week in London – Marking the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold; and, a new sculpture trail in Greenwich…

The 18 day meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, is the subject of an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace. Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King, which is being held to mark the 500th anniversary of the event (having been rescheduled from last year), is being held in rooms in Hampton Court Palace that were once used by the architect of the summit, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and features objects from the actual meeting as well as treasures from the courts of the two kings. They include the spectacular Stonyhurst vestments – woven from cloth of gold and chosen by Henry for use at the religious services held near Calais, Wolsey’s Book of Hours, and a unique tapestry which, manufactured in Tournai in the 1520s, depicts a bout of wrestling at the event with a black trumpeter shown among the brace of royal musicians. The display can be seen until 5th September. Admission charge applies. For more information and tickets – prebooking is essential, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

A free sculpture trail, featuring works by artist Josie Spencer, has opened on the King William Lawns at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Fragments in Time features life-sized bodies captured in dramatic positions, including fractured figures, which demonstrate the beauty and resilience of the human spirit while highlighting the fragility of life. The artist says the works have been chosen from a group of pieces that treated the figures as if they were the “archaeology of our time found in another century, in the future, when those then looking at them can see the fragility of our life now”. The trail can be seen until 6th August.

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London Pub Signs – The Pilot…

PICTURE: Matt Brown (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The former sign of this Greenwich pub made the origins of its name pretty obvious – it depicted the orange boat of the Thames pilot, one of the navigators who helped ships make their way down London’s great river (the current sign is a bit more subtle, depicting a gull flying over the river).

But there is an alternate theory for the pub’s name. William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1801 and then again from 1804 to 1806, is said to have once owned the land on which the pub was built. His nickname? The “Pilot”.

The timing for the latter fits, given that the pub dates from 1801 when it opened under the name ‘The Pilot Inn and Ferry’ (and is thus believed by many to be the oldest surviving building on the Greenwich Peninsula).

The front of the pub bears a plaque which features the names Ceylon Place and New East Greenwich and the date 1801 – Ceylon Place refers the row of terraced houses to which the pub is joined and New East Greenwich which was the name given to this development overall when it was built (in the apparently unrealised hopes that it would be at the heart of a much larger estate).

This atmospheric pub, which features exposed beams and a rear terrace, can be found at 68 River Way, a short walk from the O2 Arena. Acquired by the Fuller’s chain in 2006, it offers accomodation as well as meals. For more, see www.pilotgreenwich.co.uk.