After two decadent dinners and a day spent traversing London, Kaly left on Saturday morning. It made me sad: our time together had been deliciously comforting in a way that can only be if you share context and history...Why don't you appreciate the people your siblings have become when you haven't been paying attention until you're both so much older and your lives have taken divergent paths?
We woke early and had breakfast together before she went off. Without a companion to urge me to attack the day, I climbed back into bed and took a much needed nap. Waking at noon, I looked at the neat little list my sister had compiled for me: ‘Lunch at the National Portrait Gallery Café. Visit Apsley House. Charing Cross bookstores.’ Plus ça change….
Without Kaly’s unerring sense of direction in the city, my travel was not nearly as facile; but it didn’t matter. Her instructions on where to go and how to get there were precise. Entering the the National Portrait Gallery Café, I found it suffocated with hungry museum visitors who all seemed to be intent on having late lunches, like me. Desperately hungry and unwilling to wait, I exited and went into the Portrait Gallery. I knew there was a restaurant at the top; a friend and I had had tea there several years ago after I dragged him through the museum, intent on seeing every picture of every British monarch from the fifteenth century to the twentieth. That Pete still calls himself my friend is due in no part to an expansive generosity of spirit; even Hubby might not have been so forgiving. Climbing the stairs, I passed portraits from the Victorian and Jacobean reigns on the first floor; and on the second floor, I was delighted to realize that I would be passing through the Tudor gallery to get to the restaurant. The gallery is lined with portraits from the 14th and 15th centuries, from the last Plantagenet rulers, to their successors, the Tudors, and the Tudor court.
Portraits are a wonderland for me. Maybe others see paintings of long dead people who had some significance in history once upon a time; or maybe they are interested in seeing the works of famous court painters like Van Dyck and Winterhalter. I see personal histories – loves, lives, triumphs, disasters, and tragedies, played out in the public eye, a canvas and oil version of today’s celebrity magazines and True Hollywood Story programs.
Consider the painting of Sir Thomas More’s family. The original Holbein portrait was destroyed in the 18th century and this version, painted by Rowland Lockey in 1593, is based on Holbein’s original grouping, but depicts five generations of the More family. Passed by quickly, it’s just a painting of a dour looking family. But look closer and consider: Thomas More was a learned humanist who wrote the book and coined the term “Utopia.” In standing fast against accepting King Henry VIII’s self-proclamation as the supreme head of the Church of England, he knew that his refusal meant the end of his career – and eventually, his life; his daughter, Margaret Roper, one of the sitters in the painting, rescued her father’s head from its pike over London Bridge. What sits before you is not just a family grouping; it’s the history of a family justifiably proud of its learned and pious devotion.
Anne Boleyn, dark-eyed and alluring side by side with the regal but older and less attractive Catherine of Aragon -- any wonder that Henry VIII was so fascinated? Richard III, "Crookback," maligned by Shakespeare as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower -- portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, sexy as hell; but in this painting, showing neither deformity nor evil purpose in his pensive portrait: how much of a propagandist was Shakespeare?
And in the provenance (the history of ownership), there is an even richer minefield of the same high drama that defines a human condition (usually tragedy). There is a Holbein “cartoon” which once graced Chatsworth, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The cartoon is simply a full scale sketch of the Tudor kings (Henry VII and Henry VIII) and their consorts (Elizabeth of York and at the time, Jane Seymour). Composed of papers glued together, the cartoon is one half of what eventually served as Holbein’s blueprint for the fresco painted at Whitehall Palace. Pinholes were pricked along the outline of the drawing and dusted with chalk to insure an accurate outline transfer to the wall. When the ninth Duke of Devonshire died in 1950, mere weeks before a lifetime settlement established to protect the family and their estates from death duties took effect, the Cavendish family was dealt a staggering blow when death taxes were assessed at £4.72 million in cash. Houses that had been part of the family’s legacy including Hardwick Hall, home of their ancestress, Bess of Hardwick, were given to the National Trust to defray costs, while thousands of acres, and priceless works of art were sold. One of the items they were forced to part with to pay these taxes (which weren’t fully paid off until 1967) was the Holbein cartoon – the same which now hangs in the Tudor gallery of the museum. This is a significant work: look and you will see that Holbein’s rendering of Henry VIII, legs apart, hands clasping his belt in a bold, aggressive stance, is the defining image of the king, in much the way Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington is the de facto image of the president.
All this pathos, drama, and history in three rooms.
The Portrait Restaurant is located on the top floor of the museum, accessible by a flight of stairs at the entrance to the Tudor gallery. It is distinguished for its views of the Trafalgar Monument, Big Ben and the London skyline. The restaurant was slammed – so I put my name on the waiting list and went to the bar for some water. As I waited, an elderly lady took the seat next to mine, and picked up the menu. She turned and announced to me, “It would be quite easy for me to get drunk but I shall have coffee instead.”
I’ve seldom had the pleasure of being introduced to Batty Old Ladyship by the entrant herself and I was enchanted. She looked longingly at the list of martinis – then murmured to the bartender to bring her a coffee. Further conversation did not ensue as the hostess came over to inform me that my table was ready. Had I been in a less anti-social mood, I would have invited her to join me; I can’t even imagine what superb stories she might have told.
The restaurant offers a two or three course prix fixe menu, and at three o'clock, an afternoon tea menu. In my wistful mood, I wanted comfort food; and the dish of fresh tagliatelle with wild mushrooms and lima beans, fit the bill. It came, lightly coated in a cream sauce, bright yellow noodles punctuated with green peas and lima beans; topped with fresh shaved Parmigiano, it suited me perfectly: rustic, simple, soothing. Oddly enough, eating by myself made it easier to photograph my food (I didn't dare when out with Kaly). The pasta was followed a simple dessert: vanilla waffles topped with roasted figs and vanilla mascarpone.
Afterwards, I made my way back to the Tudor gallery to spend some time with the portrait of Katherine Parr. It's a full length painting, for a long time thought to be of Lady Jane Grey -- easily my favorite historical personage from this time.
What a great way to spend a Saturday by yourself in London.