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Fifteen gnomes have taken up residence in Hampton Court Palace’s gardens for the next couple of months and they’re feeling particularly chatty.
The gnomes have been specially designed by local community groups and each reflects a unique aspect of the palace landscapes. They also each have a unique tale to tell through the voice of Umbriel, a gnome who starred in Alexander Pope’s epic poem, The Rape of the Lock, which was set at Hampton Court Palace (in fact it was the first time the word gnome appeared in English). Umbriel, voiced by actor Stephen Mangan, will regale visitors with tales from the palace’s rich history – from the time a mole unhorsed King William III through to the time a periwig was left behind by its owner in the maze (the stories were all written by schools and community groups for the project as well as children’s author Francesca Simon, poet Michael Rosen, and Historic Royal Palace’s joint chief curator Lucy Worsley). The gnomes (and Umbriel) can be experienced until 2nd October. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/. PICTURES: Courtesy HRP

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Hampton-Court-Palace Hampton Court Palace turns 500 this year and the palace is conducting a programme of events in celebration of the landmark anniversary. Sadly, the first in a series of events – a night in which Historic Royal Palace’s chief curator Lucy Worsley, inspired by the recent BBC Two programme Britain’s Tudor Treasure: A Night at Hampton Court, will explore one of the greatest nights in Hampton Court’s history, the christening of King Henry VIII’s longed for son, Edward (later King Edward VI) – is already sold out but there are a range of further events planned (we’ll try and keep you informed as they come up through the year). In the meantime, HRP have announced that a rare 16th century hat which is rumoured to have once belonged to King Henry VIII is to return to the palace later this year after undergoing restoration. The story goes that the hat, which will become the oldest item of dress in the palace’s collection by almost a century, was caught by Nicholas Bristowe, the king’s Clerk of the Wardrobe, when Henry threw it in the air on hearing of the French surrender of Boulogne in 1544. Treasured by the Bristowe’s descendants, it has now been acquired by HRP and is expected to go on show in a future exhibition. We’ll be looking at the hat in more detail in a future post. For more on the palace, see www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/. PICTURE: HRP/Newsteam

The first major exhibition in the UK to examine the influence of Peter Paul Rubens on the history of art opens at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly on Saturday. Rubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cezanne brings together more than 160 works by Rubens and artists who were inspired by him both during his lifetime and later including everyone from Van Dyck, Watteau, Turner and Delacroix to Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Klimt and Picasso. The exhibition is organised around six themes: poetry, elegance, power, lust, compassion and violence. Runs until 10th April in the Main Galleries. For more, see www.royalacademy.co.uk.

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz will be marked at Westminster Abbey with a special service at 6.30pm on 1st February. At least 1.1 million prisoners died at the camp, located in south-west Poland, around 90 per cent of them Jewish. It was liberated on 27th January, 1945 by the Red Army. Tickets are free but need to be booked. Follow this link to book. Meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum London in Lambeth has invited people to mark Holocaust Memorial Day – 27th January – with a visit to the free Holocaust Exhibition which has a 13 metre long model depicting the arrival of a deportation train from Hungary at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1944, accompanied by testimonies from 18 survivors. Recommended for children aged 14 and above. For more, see www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-london.

In the first of a new Wednesday series looking at historic London garden squares, we take a look at what next to Trafalgar Square, is the most famous square in the entire city – Leicester Square.

Located in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square’s history finds its origins back in the 17th history when Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester acquired property on the site where the square now stands. Then known as St Martin’s Field and located within the parish of St Martin’s, Sidney purchased four acres in 1630 and constructed Leicester House on land now located at the square’s northern end.

Leicester-SquareThe earl raised the ire of locals, however, when – having subsequently fenced off the land to prevent people from wandering on to his property – he enclosed what had previously been common land.

The people appealed to King Charles I who appointed three members of the Privy Council to look at the issue. Their decision? That the earl keep a section of his land open for the use of the parishioners of St Martin’s.

First known as Leicester Field, it was this land which later became known as Leicester Square. Fine homes were built around the square (its proximity to the Royal Court and centre of government made it a desirable place to live for the well-to-do and those seeking influence) with the centre enclosed with rails (it’s pictured here in 1750).

The square’s reputation also had a royal boost when, in 1717/1718, Leicester House became home to Prince George (later King George II) and his wife Princess Caroline along with their court after the prince fell out with his father King George I and was banished from St James’ Palace (this story is recounted in marvellous detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court).

The prince remained at the house for 10 years and was proclaimed King George II after his father’s death at its gate. Interestingly, King George II’s eldest son, Prince Frederick, also lived here for a time after he too fell out with his father (King George II). Apparently their relationship was even worse than the previous generation’s had been.

Despite its royal attractions, even at this stage the square apparently had it’s darker side with some less than savoury characters attending the hotels and livery stables that were built there. But things were to get worse as the wealthy moved out – a situation not helped when Leicester House was demolished in the 1790s.

Leicester Square became known as an entertainment venue in the 19th century (among attractions was the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which showcased the best in science and art and Wyld’s Great Globe which contained a gigantic model of the earth) and received a new injection of life when theatres and music halls moved in, bringing the crowds back with them.

Shakespeare-StatueMeanwhile, the status of the square – and whether it could be built upon – remained a matter of debate well into the 19th century. That ended in 1874 when businessman Albert Grant bought the freehold of the land, had the garden created upon it and then donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works as a gift to the city.

Responsibility for the management of the square now rests with the City of Westminster. The square area – which is now known for hosting film premieres as well as the tourists who inevitably gather there – was pedestrianised in the 1980s and has just undergone a redevelopment and modernisation which was unveiled last year.

Meanwhile, work to restore the 19th century Shakespeare statue and fountain in the square’s centre is about to be completed (pictured). The square also contains a statue of actor Charlie Chaplin in the square as well as busts of scientist Sir Isaac Newton, painter and first president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century pioneer surgeon John Hunter, and painter William Hogarth.

The tradition of the entertainment continues in the modern era through the cinemas which now stand in the square and regularly host film premieres (an interesting, if oft-repeated, film-related anecdote connected to the square is that it was in a phone booth located at the square that during the 1960s a young actor Maurice Micklewhite saw a poster for The Caine Mutiny and decided to change his name to Michael Caine).

PICTURES (top) Wikipedia and (below) City of Westminster.

Found living ‘wild’ in the woods near Hamelin in northern Germany, in 1725, Peter was brought to London at the behest of King George I the following year (the king had heard of his plight while visiting his Hanoverian homeland and had initially had him taken to his summer palace at Herrenhausen). Peter subsequently spent time at the court of the king as well as those of the Prince of Wales, the future King George II, and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach.

On his arrival in London, Peter, believed to be about 15 or 16 years old when he was found, quickly acquired celebrity status – Daniel Defoe wrote a pamphlet, Mere Nature Delineated, in which he mused about his nature and Jonathan Swift wrote a satire on the excitement surrounding his arrival in London while a wax figure of him was exhibited in the Strand and along with other palace courtiers, he appears in a now famous painting by William Kent which still hangs on the king’s grand staircase in Kensington Palace.

Treated by the royals as something of a ‘pet’, efforts were made to educate Peter but later abandoned due to his apparent lack of progress. Many were also said to have been shocked at his lack of manners – something that may have helped contribute to his eventual departure from court.

When the king died in 1727, his daughter-in-law, now Queen Caroline, granted a yeoman farmer in Hertfordshire, James Fenn, a pension in return for looking after Peter.  He is recorded as having wandered off on a couple of occasions and, after one incident involving a fire in 1751, was fitted with a collar to prevent further escapes (the collar is still in the keeping of the Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire).

Peter subsequently spent the remainder of his life in rural England (where he was known to have developed a love for gin but was generally remarked upon as being timid). Meeting him a few years before his death, Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, recorded that while Peter could understand what was said to him, he could only say the words ‘Peter’ and ‘King George’.

Peter died in 1785, when he was at least 70-years-old. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church in Northchurch, Hertfordshire.

It is now believed that Peter may have been affected by the chromosomal disorder Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, thanks to the work of Historic Royal Palaces historian Lucy Worsley who, while researching the lives of courtiers at Kensington Palace for her book Courtiers, noted features such as Peter’s “cupid bow lips”, coarse hair and drooping eyelids in Kent’s portrait and passed on a description to a professor of genetics.

It is thought such a diagnosis may help explain why Peter ended up living alone in the German forest where he was found.