Monday, 1 April 2013






Sunday, 15 July 2012

Elizabeth II’s Image at the National Portrait Gallery

By Dorothy Wilding, 1952
By Alex David

There is still some diamond dust from the Jubilee floating in the air in London, and this weekend I followed it to the National Portrait Gallery to see The Queen, Art and Image, the third major exhibition on royal images in London this year (besides the one on Cecil Beaton I reviewed recently, there is another one in Windsor which I plan to see soon).

This show advertises itself as a major retrospective on how the Queen’s image has developed through her reign, but I must admit the results are mixed. To start, it is too small to be a retrospective at all, and it seems under-curated. The captions are somewhat trite and insipid, and there is no background at all on the development of the British royal image in general, which is quite shocking considering that the NPG has one of the largest collections of royal portraits in existence. In general, the show tries to be hip and modern while remaining respectful to the monarch, but it really ends up achieving neither goal.

I understand that the exhibition started its life in Edinburgh last year and just reached London recently after stopping in Cardiff and Belfast, so perhaps it was curated by someone other than the good people at National Portrait Gallery—my favorite place in London—which would explain some of its failings. These criticisms aside, however, the show has some very good points. In particular, it includes some works so compelling and iconic that they make you forget the show’s general imperfections.

The face that launched a thousand banknotes: Dorothy’s Wilding’s image of the young Queen has been one of the many images of Elizabeth II used on stamps and currencies around the world.

The first area contains classic works from the 1950s, the most glamorous decade for the Queen. There are some very beautiful portraits of Elizabeth as young woman here. The most beautiful ones are a 1952 handpainted photo by Dorothy Wilding where the glammed up Queen actually looks a little like Ava Gardner (above); and a supremely noble picture by Cecil Beaton (left out of the recent V&A exhibition), where a stately Elizabeth in garter robes and plumed hat sits before a painted background of Windsor Castle, looking the very embodiment of the gracious and noble queen of the National Anthem (below).

Noblesse oblige:
Cecil Beaton produced this image of a young cavalier queen in 1955.

The 1950s was a time when monarchs were still portrayed as regal and refined, and the chief example of this is Pietro Annigoni’s full length portrait of the Queen from 1956, the main showpiece in this section (below). Once again, the young Queen is depicted wearing the robes of the Garter but now she is standing on top of a hill before a Brueghel-like landscape, as if belonging to a gentler, more chivalric age. In one respect, the piece is a dream-like idealization, a magnificent piece of English nostalgia, almost Norman Rockwell-like in vision.  It is, however, also a true psychological portrayal of the novice Queen who stands ready to serve, her gaze fixed on distant duties. Annigoni himself said he wanted to show the Queen “gazing at the world from a position of isolation”, and funnily he achieved this by having Elizabeth look out of the window of Buckingham Palace at the people and traffic down below (surely nobody must ever have gazed at mindless traffic with such dedicated eye).

The first lady of the oldest chivalry order in the world: a young, purposeful Elizabeth posed in the robes of the Order of the Garter for Pietro Annigoni in 1956.

Pietro Annigoni was one of the great underrated artists of the 20th century (much like the Queen, really) with a talent for capturing the sitter’s inner disposition in outward styles and colors. His second portrait of the Queen from 1969, the centerpiece of the 1960s section, is a wonderful example of his ability (below). Long considered a beautiful example of late 1960s style (over substance), the painting in fact seems to me another striking portrayal of the psychological state of the Queen at that point in her life. Elizabeth, a mature 33-year-old woman in the second decade of her reign, stands dressed like a Teutonic knight before a tundral dawn, stern looking, almost peeved in fact. Gone are the soft earthly colors of the first Annigoni portrait, and she is now instead a sober-red figure enveloped by different shades of gray. She still looks dutifully in the distance but she now seems burdened by that gaze, perhaps unhappy about the lack of freedom that her duties bring. And Annigoni’s masterful trick here is that the closer you come to the painting, the more disagreeable and put off her face becomes. Was Annigoni trying to tell us how much the Queen had changed, or had been changed by her job, in the 15 years since he had last painted her?

The bloom is off the monarch: Pietro Annigoni’s second portrait of the Queen from 1969 showed the Queen as a solemn, unamused woman.

Then again, perhaps one of the reasons why the Queen was pissed off was the way her portrayals had changed in the 1960s, the age when deference went out of style in Britain. Many pictures from this time depict the Queen doing pedestrian things like standing under an umbrella in the rain, while artists like Gerhard Richter used her image for artistic experiments that had nothing to do with the monarchy or herself.

Among these…aeehm…interesting experiments there luckily is a classic photo by photographer Yousuf Karsh (1966) that emphasizes majesty over the mundane (below). Karsh wanted, in his own words, to capture the Queen’s “regal splendor in an increasingly egalitarian age,” and the result is truly imperial in kind. The bejeweled Elizabeth sits primly in a gigantic gold and red throne, as if ready to receive homage from colonial tribes, and looks very much like her great-grandmother Victoria in her younger days. The image feels like Europe’s last gasp of majesty, and ironically (then again, probably by design) it hangs right next to a newspaper photo of the Queen giving the World Cup Football trophy to Bobby Moore in 1966.

More like a Hapsburg than a Windsor:
this grand image of royalty was taken in 1966 by photographer Yousuf Karsh.

The exhibition tends to sag from here on. The 1970s are represented by a motley crew of boring pictures showing the Queen going about her work or hanging with her family. There is also the famous 1977 Sex Pistols record cover of God Save the Queen (a gagged and blindfolded Queen) which had really more to do with punk’s shameless self-promotion than with the monarchy. The only image of note here is Patrick Lichfield’s famous unrehearsed photo of the Queen in sunglasses laughing aboard the yacht Britannia (below), giving a glimpse of how the person below the crown amuses herself. As always, her dazzling smile is highly infectious—stand before this picture for longer than 10 seconds and see if you don't want to start laughing with her.   

The girl likes to have fun: Patrick Lichfield captured this off-the-cuff chuckle from the Queen during a vacation on board the royal yacht Britannia in 1971.

The section on the 1980s/1990s is odd in many ways. To start with, the focus on the struggles between the Queen and Diana is quite passe’ by now and makes you think the curator had an axe to grind about it. The pieces are also odd, including a larger than life portrait of the Queen by Hiroshi Sujimoto (1999) that is actually a picture of a waxwork, and that looks more like an old George VI in drag. Justin Mortimer’s portrait of the Queen from 1998 is also odd but at least it is artistically sound—even though the Queen looks like a shiny green bug crawling on a huge lemon (below).

Apparently the Queen liked this 1998 portrait by Justin Mortimer so much
that she asked the artist to do another portrait of her Lord Chamberlain—though
she might have meant it as a joke.

It is also odd to admit that the best artwork in the room belongs to Andy Warhol, something I am not likely to write ever again. Four of his trademark prints of the Queen’s face in different colors (1985) are on display, and they actually make Her Majesty look very beautiful, with perfect lips and stunning movie star eyes. The different colors in each print also make her look slightly different in each: elegant in aubergine, empathetic in blue, shocking in pink and supercilious in burgundy.

Some 1990s pictures focus on events in the Queen’s life, and include some photojournalism shots which, intentionally or not, are actually hilarious. One photo from 1992 of a shocked Queen looking at a burned out Windsor Castle is only missing the text bubble coming out of her mouth saying “YYIIKES!” (below).  Another one from 1997 where she reviews a row of pushed-up-breasted Spice Girls captures an expression on her face as if to say “Do you think I care to see those, dear?”

HOLY SUGAR!! The Queen sees Windsor Castle going up in smokes in 1992. Suspicions centred on Sarah Ferguson falling asleep with a cig in her mouth.
(Photo by Dylan Martinez, from

The pictures from the last decade are all about the Queen as an old lady, almost a pensioner really, though one who seems fair game for cruel jokes. The section starts with the little monstrous portrait by Lucian Freud where she looks like she’s just been in a watering hole brawl. It then goes on to another hideous likeness, a plastic carving called Medusa made of hundreds of little black toys, where she looks like a bug-eyed, bearded pirate.

In between these two extremes hangs a masterpiece in mediocrity: Thomas Struth’s recent portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle (below) where they look like a dowdy old couple freshly dumped in a nursing home (the way Philip’s trousers ride up his ankles and his jacket is one button away from bursting open is particularly pathetic). That’s not to say the photo is not a technical triumph with its wonderful tones of greens and gold shining in the Windsor castle apartments (a very rich nursing home!) but it’s just that the royal couple look more like accidental tourists to the place rather than its royal residents.

The other side of normal: Thomas Struth’s portrait of the Queen and Philip (2012)
makes them look too much like Fred and Mabel from the local nursing home.

I suppose it takes a real genius to capture old age in its true glorious state, and luckily this last section does contain such a masterpiece, one of Annie Leibowitz’ portraits of the Queen from 2007 (below). What most people today remember from that famous photo shoot is Leibowitz digging a hole for herself by telling the Queen that she looked too dressy with her crown on (which was actually a tiara, darling, not a crown). These anecdotal memories however will one day fade, and all that will remain will be Leibowitz’ stunning photos of the Queen. One of them is used as an epilogue to the exhibition’s visual journey.

Her Majesty, wearing a dark admiral robe, stands in the middle of Buckingham Palace gardens, among winter trees and with a beautifully foreboding copper sky behind her. Leibowitz said she wanted to emulate Cecil Beaton by using the same cape he had used on the Queen during a photoshoot in 1969, but the results actually echo someone else’s work. In the choice of pose and background, Leibowitz’s photo recalls elements from the two Pietro Annigoni paintings seen earlier in the exhibition, and in so doing, perhaps unwittingly, she completed a trilogy of visual milestones Annigoni had started in 1956.

Sometimes it takes a republican to show royalty in its best light. This portrait by American Annie Leibowitz from 2007 captures the Queen in all her autumn years dignity.

 Annigoni’s first portrait of the Queen, at the beginning of her reign, portrayed an idealized young woman showing dutiful curiosity in the royal road ahead of her. His second encounter with a mature monarch in 1969 left the impression of a woman in control of her job but somewhat struggling to breathe free in it. Leibowitz’s portrait of the Queen in old age—recalling the landscape from the 1956 portrait and the pose from the 1969 work—shows the Queen at the end of her journey, staring securely into the camera as a woman who has grown confident in her job, as someone who has weathered cloudy skies but still stands tall in the landscape, just like one of the sturdy trees around her (which incidentally were photoshopped from a separate shot). The picture not only depicts old age with outstanding dignity, it also shows that the young promising girl of 1956 did grow into an accomplished monarch. The three images, at different points in the show, act as a spread-out triptych marking the Queen’s life in stunning style. But they are not the most memorable work in the exhibition.

The Queen, like you have never seen her before.
This holographic portrait by Chris Levine from 2004 makes you feel you are standing before Elizabeth herself, with all her jewels, wrinkles and furs.

The last royal image closing the exhibition is a variant of the image opening the show, and both of them, by artist Chris Levine, lay claim equally as the most remarkable portraits in the exhibition.  Equanimity, at the beginning, and The Lightness of Being, at the end, are lifelike holographic creations that must be seen to be believed. The Queen is shown frontally in Equanimity (2004) wearing her familiar George IV coronet and staring forward, warts and all—and I mean warts. The holography in the picture highlights every feature in her face including unplucked eyebrows and more wrinkles than the moon has craters (above). In fact, the Queen’s often praised flawless complexion really takes a severe beating in this image, though her eyes remain famously limpid and blue. (I should point out that these are not holographic 3-D pictures like in Star Trek. They’re rather like those shiny cards you used to play with as a child where the image changes when you turn it this way and that).

The Lightness of Being (2007) is bigger and slightly eerier (below). The Queen is shown with her eyes closed, looking like a freshly deceased corpse with the crown still on, almost implying that she will die queen to the very end—though I am not sure if this was the intended meaning: the artist admitted this portrait was an afterthought based on a fleeting moment during the posing for Equanimity when the Queen was resting her eyes. Both portraits are based on an excellent idea brilliantly executed, and both manage to evoke a sense of closeness to the monarch that no traditional, two-dimensional work could elicit. They are a great mix of the modern (the technique) and the old (the subject) and are highly captivating. I found it very hard to take my eyes off the lifelike Equanimity and wondered if the same thing happens when you meet the Queen in person.

Dead or alive? This second holographic portrait by Chris Levine (2007)
gives an eerie corpse-like look to the Queen.

These holographic portraits are reason alone to visit this exhibition since no reproduction can replicate the experience of seeing them in person. The Annigoni-Leibowitz triptych is also worth a trip if only because the 1956 portrait, owned privately by the City Fishmongers Livery, is being shown to the public for the first time in 28 years. For the rest, the show is a mixed bag, and enjoyment is based on whether you are looking for the art of monarchy or the art of photography. The exhibition is good on photography but just the sum of its parts as far as monarchy goes—though they are very fine parts indeed.

The secret of Elizabeth II’s success? This quote was shown on a wall at the end of the exhibition, and does explain some of the howlers she chose to pose for through her reign.

The Queen: Art and Image runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 21 October 2012. For information on address, admission times and ticket prices click here. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Royal Thames History at the National Maritime Museum


After the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant a few weeks ago, I have been dying to see Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  I decided to make my way there today in the spirit on the exhibition by taking a waterbus from Waterloo to Greenwich. 

Despite being the first day of summer the day was just like the River Pageant a few weeks ago: wet and grey. But—just like the river pageant—that did not diminish the spectacle of sailing on England’s grandest highway. The ride started by the Palace of Westminster, looking majestic on the riverbank, and passed by the dome of St Paul’s rising over the City, the jewel-like Shard towering on the south bank, then under the majestic Tower Bridge bestriding the river like a great city gateway, and finally ended by the beautiful esplanade of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

The Royal River (on a sunnier day), with the City in the background.
(Photo: Alex David)
The exhibition is smaller than I thought in area, only about six large rooms, but it packs a lot of historical items in those spaces, some of them unique and on show in Britain for the first time. It is not so much about the Thames itself as about the history that has taken place in it, by it, or near it.  Often, the items on display have nothing to do with the river itself but with famous figures from English history with some association with the Thames, no matter how banal. That however works quite well since good history is about people, and an exhibition on a mere waterway would have been too insipid anyway. 

The exhibition has been marketed around town with images from a Canaletto painting, The Thames on Lord’s Mayor’s Day (1752), and the original painting is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition (it is also the first time it has been seen in London since it was painted). The work is part of a series of views Canaletto made while living in London and it shows the magnificent spectacle of a regatta on the Thames in the 18th century, so grand it almost rivals Venice. It is a very limpid painting and the level of detail is remarkable (as usual for Canaletto) not only in the representation of minutiae but also in the way that he married the splendor of the regatta boats on one side with muddy banks and workaday boats on the other side (see below). 

Canaletto's magnificent vision of the 18th century Thames,
suspiciously reminiscent of his native Venice.
(From the Lobkowicz Collection, Prague,

St Paul towers high above the roofs of the city, just like it did during my ride today, but instead of skyscrapers the landscape was then dotted by church spires. Apparently this was the painting that inspired the recent Thames pageant, and if only the weather two weeks ago had been sunny the painting would have been perfectly recreated on the water. As it was, our own river pageant turned out to be a grainy black and white version of the colorful original.

The historical memorabilia is packed thick either by theme or by period. It begins with some intriguing Anne Boleyn items (the connection being that Anne had a sumptuous river procession for her coronation in 1533). A personal prayer book, from the time of her romantic courtship by Henry VIII, bears a love note Anne wrote to Henry, poignantly scribbled below a picture of the Annunciation where an angel tells Mary that she will bear a son, something that Anne herself tragically failed to do. 

Heads or tails? One of the very few authentic likenesses of Anne Boleyn left in existence. All the other ones done in her lifetime were destroyed after her death.

We also get a precious glimpse of what Anne may have really looked like via a medallion struck in 1534 to commemorate that wishful yet unfulfilled delivery of a son (above). It is an extremely rare record since all authenticated images of Anne were destroyed after her execution (most portraits we have of her were painted years after her death) and, while a bit scratched, you can see the high cheekbones and long neck that must have captivated Henry VIII.

There is a great deal on show from the Stuart age when pageantry on the Thames came into its own, starting with a memorable spectacle in 1662 called Aqua Triumphalis, organized to celebrate the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (and to cover up for the fact that the Catholic Catherine did not want to have a Protestant coronation). One remarkable item from that procession is a large barge cloth from the Pewterers Company which is amazingly well-preserved despite being 350 years old, its material and embroidery so neat it looks like it was made yesterday. Its existence today is also a thing of wonder since it miraculously survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz in its storage place in the City.

London Ice Follies: feasting, racing and drinking during The Frost Fair of the Winter of 1683-84 on the Thames (1685) as painted by an unknown artist. Notice Old London Bridge with its houses on it in the distance.

Even more spectacular is what used to happen on the Thames during Stuart winters. Back when the river was wider and its tidal flow was slower (because of the breakwater arches of Old London Bridge), the Thames used to freeze over during the coldest winters, especially between the 17th and 18th centuries when Europe experienced a little ice age. People then descended upon the frozen Thames to set up Frost Fairs on the ice, including food stalls, sleighs and mass entertainments. Some items on show recall the most famous of these fairs, held during the severe winter of 1683-84, when the ice was so thick you could bait on bull on it, or roast one for that matter: apparently a whole ox was roasted on the ice in the presence of Charles II and his court. The joyful, chaotic atmosphere is captured in a painting (above) showing an entire avenue of stalls stretching between the two banks of the river, horses and carriages fleeting on the ice (it was that thick!) and happy people slipping on their asses with bottles in their hands. A poem from a pamphlet printed at the time captured the Thames’ magical transformation:

Behold the Wonder of this present age
A famous river now become a stage
Question not what I declare to you
The Thames is now both Fair and Market too!

The Pearl Sword
 Next in the exhibition is a section dedicated to the past glories of the Lord Mayor’s River Procession, a collection of magnificent relics including lavish uniforms, boat carvings and gilded statues (the river procession was discontinued in 1856 and transferred to the streets where it remains today). The stands out item here is the Pearl Sword (right), decorated with over 2,500 small pearls on its sheath, and almost looking like a cockney creation for the pearly kings and queens of East London (Oi!). In fact, it is one of the oldest treasures of London, a remarkable piece of history that was first presented to the City by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571. Ever since then, the sword has been used to mark every sovereign’s visit to the City of London, and was actually last used only a few weeks ago when it was born aloft before the Queen as she walked up the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral for the National Jubilee Service.  It is shown unsheathed here, its arabesqued blade showing some oxidation and the bottom of the scabbard some wear and tear, but otherwise it is another item on show remarkably well preserved.

The exhibition tends to jumps like a grasshopper across epochs, and you next find yourself in the Georgian age learning about G F Handel’s famous Water Music, which was first performed on barges escorting King George I on a river trip to Chelsea (that was before the invention of car radios) (see below). There is an early score of the composition on display, as well as one for the Music for the Royal Fireworks, plus a few 18th century instruments of the kind used to perform these pieces at the time. Interestingly, they include two horns used by the Sharp family which might be the same ones painted by Zoffany in their famous group portrait. (see previous post).

Georg Handel presents his latest composition, Water Music, to George I during a boat ride on the Thames. The King is impressed but also annoyed that there is no place in London where people would just leave him in peace.

A small section is then dedicated to Kew Palace and its royal inhabitants though I could not figure out why it was singled out among all the royal palaces on the river. Nevermind though, since it includes some of the most moving items in the exhibition: a few souvenirs made to commemorate George III’s first recovery from madness in 1789. We tend to forget today what a highly emotional drama the madness of King George was at the time, and how his recovery was the cause of national rejoicing. Items produced to celebrate the event included crockery, medals, and a special fan designed by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, with the words inscribed on it “Health is Restored to One and Happiness to Millions”, and that sold in great numbers. Equally moving in this display is a small portrait in a lavishly gilded frame that shows the king during his last bout of madness in the 1810s (below). Beaten both by lunacy and senility by now, old George is shown resting his bald, bearded head on his hand and just staring ahead forlornly like a beaten King Lear. It is a very poignant reminder that all the hopeful rejoicing for his earlier recovery had been ultimately in vain. 

Sad and tragic: by the time this picture was painted King George III's madness was so advanced he had to be kept in complete isolation at Windsor Castle.

Besides the human interest, there is of course a lot of didactic material on the history of the Thames. Quite a bit is dedicated to different kinds of watermen on the river. There is a bit of nostalgia about the Thames watermen of yore who used to ferry people up and down the river before the building of bridges. But we are warned against having too much sentiment for these people as apparently they were a very rowdy breed renowned for their swearing, so much so that they had their own beadle who would discipline them with nicely decorated but very sturdy wooden truncheons.

The building of new bridges and tunnels in the 19th century is retold also, albeit in a boring way. The only item that stands out here is a set of cutlery made from the remains of Old London Bridge after the famous crossing finally did fall down in the 1830s (below). (I suppose that finally completes the rhyme with “Breeeak it up for forks and knives, forks and knives, forks and knives…Myyy faaiir lady!”) There is also much to learn about the Doggett’s Coat and Badge race (the oldest rowing race in the world, started in 1715), the building of the embankments, Queen Victoria’s visit to the Thames Tunnel, and what’s involved in swan upping which is basically pointless pain and disfigurement to swans.

London Bridge fell down in the hands of speculators,
and was turned into into this lovely set of stake knives.

I thought a little less space should have been given to all this didactic information and more emphasis instead to a too small display on Lord Nelson’s funeral, the grandest event that has ever taken place on the Thames.  After the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was returned to London to lie in state at Greenwich, and then taken by river up to Whitehall in a procession that had all the grandeur of a black coronation, especially since there were mixed feelings of joy for the naval victory and loss for Nelson's death. It was the first time that a state funeral had been granted to a commoner, and the event had all the pomp of a Canaletto painting together with the emotional intensity of Princess Diana’s funeral. Nothing greater was ever staged on the Thames before or since, so perhaps the curators should have presented more than a few prints (below), a funeral program, a decrepit flag, and some tacky souvenir cups and mugs. The present poor display seems all the more baffling since the Museum owns a considerable collection of Nelson memorabilia including his fatal bullet-holed uniform on display in the main galleries.

This print shows the grandest funeral London has ever seen. The body of Lord Nelson is ferried down the Thames (in the third black barge from the left) as the city pays its obsequies. Just like Princess Diana's funeral 190 years later, people remarked about the absolute silence around the cortege.

There is little time to feel critical however as the last section offers a wealth of material history. First up is, in my opinion, the most remarkable item in the whole exhibition: the big, gnarled coat of arms that once hang on the stern of the Royal Charles (below). Little known today, the Royal Charles is one of the most famous ships in the monarchy’s history. Originally built by the republican Commonwealth in 1655 and christened the Naseby, to commemorate the Roundhead victory in the Civil War, it was renamed the Royal Charles at the Restoration when the figure of Cromwell on its stern was replaced by the royal lion and unicorn on display here. In its new guise, this was the ship that brought Charles II and the institution of monarchy back to England in 1660 (it was also the ship that bore Charles’ wife, Catherine of Branganza, from her home in Portugal to England in 1662).

An amazing survival from the Stuart age, this royal coat of arms once adorned the ship that brought King Charles II back to England from exile in 1660. Thanks to this exhibition it is being seen in England for the first time in over 300 years. 

Oddly, the survival of the ship’s most famous symbol, its royal coat of arms, is to be credited to one of England’s past enemies, the Dutch. The Royal Charles was captured during the Anglo-Dutch War of 1667 and taken to Holland as a proud spoil of war. The Dutch were so proud of its capture that when the ship was broken up in 1673 they kept the coat of arms as a hunting trophy, still to be seen today in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This is the first time the Dutch have allowed the old wood back to England—where ironically it would not have survived as long since the English do not have such sentimentality for relics.

Too adorable! After Queen Victoria dressed up her son Edward in this little outfit in 1846 baby sailor suits sales went through the roof.
(Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter) 

And when I say the English do not normally care for relics, that of course does not include the Royal Family since the last section in the exhibition contains a panoply of personal family relics kept by Victoria and her kin. It begins with the little sailor suit once worn by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) which is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of even the meanest Grinch (above), then it goes onto some items from the wedding of the grown up Edward to Alexandra of Denmark. The arrival of Alexandra to England is recalled by a large painting where she is shown disembarking among people’s cheers, and wearing a perky little bonnet a-la-Florence Nightingale (below). The actual bonnet is showcased to the right of the painting, remarkably preserved after 150 years, but it is even more remarkable that Alexandra apparently sewed it herself in the domesticity of the Danish court.

The landing of Princess Alexandra at Gravesend by Henry Nelson O'Neill (1864) shows the rupturous welcome given to the future Queen Alexandra as she arrived in England to marry Prince Edward, Queen Victoria's eldest son (next to her). If she had known then the adulterous ways of her future husband she would have gotten back in the boat and sailed home.

No one of course could outdo Queen Victoria for domestic sentimentality, or the creation of family relics, and one item showing both tendencies is displayed on the other side of the Alexandra painting. After their wedding, the Queen saved the paper and wax orange blossom that Alexandra had carried in her bridal bouquet, and kept it in an envelope with a card, written in her own hand, that says “From Alix’s and P. of Wales’ bridal wreath March 10/’63” (below). It might seem odd for the most powerful woman in the world at the time to save fake wedding flowers like one of Dickens’ poorest characters, but when you think about it there is actually something remarkably sane and human about her doing so, in an age when other European monarchs collected either jewels or battleships. It is in mundane little things like this that the British Royal family has always kept close to the heart of the nation.

A truly sentimental queen, Victoria saved this little paper flower from her daughter-in-law's bridal bouquet, and wrote down its provenance on this envelope in her own hand. Note how she covered up a mistake under the capital B.

The very end of the exhibition brings together items from some of the past royal yachts, particularly the Victoria and Albert III used by Edward VII and George V, but there are no memorable items here, or at least none that can distract the attention from the ghostly figure at the end of the room holding guard over all these royal heirlooms. Standing starched in a glass case, its epaulettes and decorations shimmering in suffused light, is the splendid uniform of George VI as Admiral of the Fleet (below). The Queen’s father had a close relationship with the National Maritime Museum, both as a former naval officer and as the person who officially opened the Museum in 1937, just a few weeks before his coronation. So it is fitting that he be represented at the end of this royal journey on the Thames, as a disembodied royal greeter bidding goodbye to visitors. What’s more, there is something very moving about seeing the kingly uniform that George VI was forced to wear, against his will, now stripped of its occupant. It is a reminder of the splendid, unbearable burden that eventually killed the body out of the uniform at the young age of 52.

Not just and empty suit: this Admiral uniform was once worn by King George VI, one of England's most beloved and most overburdened kings (aka the king from The King's Speech movie).

I spent so much time ogling all this memorabilia that before I knew it I had been almost four hours in the exhibition and I had to be thrown out at closing time, just like barfly drunk on history. I left very satisfied, though I must still point out some baffling omissions. Besides Nelson’s funeral, it is odd to stage an exhibition about the history of the Thames without any display on Old London Bridge, or to have this exhibition in Greenwich and not have any section on the Tudor Greenwich palace (though there are sections on other royal palaces on the river’s shores). And a little nod to Churchill’s funeral route on the river in 1965 would have been nice too. But that’s not to take away from the magnificent collection of items on display, a veritable kaleidoscope of English history made of the stuff of kings, artists, heroes and all the everyday people that have flowed down the waters of England’s noblest river.

The Queen, during a visit to the exhibition, finally figures out what happened
to her missing crockery.

Royal River: Pageantry, Power and the Thames runs at the National National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until 9 September 2012. Learn about admission times and prices here.