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I must have walked down Whitehall a hundred times, past one stone façade after another, and not realised that such an important building lay just beside me. I knew about the old Palace of Whitehall, which was a key royal residence until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. And I knew that the banqueting house was the only surviving building. However, somehow I failed to visit it before now!
So much has been built around the Banqueting House, designed to match the Inigo Jones design, that you can barely tell the buildings apart and I am still pretty oblivious to which buildings are old and which new. I feel this is why the Banqueting House is often missed by tourists, travelling between the key sights at Westminster and Trafalgar Square. This is also not helped by its location opposite Horse Guards Parade and The Household Cavalry Museum, which means that tourists are drawn towards the guards on horseback for photographs.
I purchased membership to Historic Royal Palaces recently, so made a real effort to visit the last attraction on the list that I hadn’t been to. This isn’t always easy as the Banqueting House is used for a lot of corporate functions and so can close unexpectedly. They advise you to ring ahead if you wish to visit. It was closed when I arrived but I returned a few hours later and it was opened. I happened to be the BFI London Film Festival Awards happening there that night, so there was part of the stage set up there already.
When you arrive at the Banqueting House, you are treated to a short video explaining the history of the house, which is pretty useful. They also had some images on display of the Banqueting House surrounded by smaller buildings, which really makes you realise what an magnificent building it really is – something that gets missed now that it is surrounded by similarly grand buildings on Whitehall.
Whitehall Palace was created by Henry VIII from a mansion owned by Cardinal Wolsey. The first permanent banqueting house was built for James I but was destroyed by fire in 1619. This prompted a brand new house to be built in a completed different style from the existing Tudor buildings. The Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622. It was one of the first buildings built in the neo-classical style in London, a style which went on to transform London, particularly the west, from medieval and gothic structures to grand Palladian mansions.
Charles I succeeded James in 1625 and focused on the arts. He visited Spain and was an admirer of Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez. He commissioned Rubens to paint the magnificent ceiling of the Banqueting House, the main attraction for visitors today. This is the only room of the building open to the public now, apart from the basement area, and you will spend your entire visit looking at this painting.
The painting is titled The Apotheosis of James I and is a glorification of James and an allegory of his son Charles’ birth. It is certainly a piece designed to promote the king to guests who attended events at the Banqueting House. However banquets became less common at the house after this point, to avoid candle smoke damaging the painting.
Charles I made the Banqueting House what it is today, not only in his artistic additions, but also in providing the most famous historical event that occured there. After Charles I was arrested and sentenced to death, he was brought to the Banqueting House to be executed. It is thought that the scaffold was erected outside the central window of the house, so that, on 30 January 1649, he stepped through the window to be beheaded in front of a crowd on Whitehall.
This is something that I feel Historic Royal Palaces should make more of in the visitor experience, since it is such a famous and important historical event. I would like to see some kind of monument on or outside the front of the house to indicate where Charles I was executed, so that even passers by not visiting the house are made aware of the pivotal event that took place where they walk.
There is a fabulous exhibition currently running at the PM Gallery, which is part of Pitzhanger Manor House in Walpole park, Ealing. Entitled Out of the Shadows: MacDonald Gill, it displays the work of MacDonald Gill, illustrator, architect and mapmaker, who created some wonderful pictorial maps of London.
Gill has been hugely influential in the field of graphic design and some of his images are well-known. Most famous perhaps is the ‘Wonderground’ map, made in 1914 for London Underground which shows a fantasy version of the Tube.
There are many detailed and humorous maps of the London streets, as well as some interesting educational maps and posters depicting aspects of the British Empire, produced for various companies and government departments.
His professional success was also underpinned by major national commissions including the design of the alphabet for standard military headstones (for the Imperial War Graves Commission); the procession map and title page for the official programme for the Coronation of King George VI; a new logo and posters for the General Post Office.
The exhibition also contains more personal objects from Gill’s life and career as well as architectural drawings, letters and photographs. This is a small but very rewarding exhibition, a little off the beaten track for visitors to London, but should certainly be visited by everyone.
The only thing I wish they had was a gift shop or information about how to buy copies of the maps since I would love to have some of them as posters. Many of the objects on display have been loaned from the London Transport Museum and other archives so I am contacting them to find out. The exhibition lasts until 2 November and the nearest tube station is Ealing Broadway on the Central Line.
I went to the Design Museum on the South Bank to visit The Future is Here exhibition, which focuses on new design and manufacturing techniques. It has a quick introduction to the breakthroughs of the industrial revolution before flagging the dawn of ‘a new industrial revolution’, with advances in robotics, new materials and 3D printing.
We are in the midst of a transformation in the way we design, make and use the objects that we depend on. It is a transformation that will affect commerce, industry, and the way that we all live as profoundly as any previous Industrial Revolution. The exhibition explores how the boundaries between designer, manufacturer and consumer are becoming increasingly blurred. See some of these manufacturing techniques demonstrated in The Future is Here Factory and find out how they will change the designed world around you.
The exhibition had some fascinating objects showing new materials and new ways of designing products, but the best exhibits were the machines themselves in action. They have a 3D printer and woodworking machines as well as some robotic demonstrations and videos of products being designed and materials processed. They also have some examples of furniture which you can have manufactured to order online from downloadable designs, before assembling the parts at home. Even the exhibition itself was built from cardboard, stacked and carved to create light but solid tables.
The main collection exhibition is Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things, on display until 2015, which I actually found more interesting. The Design Museum have selected 150 objects from the collections to explore their history. It includes some fascinating examples of British design, including a feature on the design of road signs and the London telephone box. It’s also interesting to see some not-so-old examples of design, such as the Apple iMac, which look so dated now.
Six design stories offer a diverse look at design tracing the history and processes of contemporary design. The show includes furniture, product, fashion, transport and architecture alongside a selection of prototypes, models and specially commissioned films.
Another smaller section at the museum is Designers in Residence 2013, which to be honest I found a little pretentious, except for the very moving work of Chloe Meineck, who designs memory boxes for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
The Future is Here is on display until 29 October 2013 and is open daily between 10am and 5.45pm. The gift shop is also worth a visit, even if only to look at the products. There are some really interesting things there, but as you might expect everything’s very expensive.