Aug 312017
 

Time to dust off a blog I did a year ago commemorating the death of a remarkable Frenchman:bougainvilleaEvery so often, I have a complete mental aberration and decide to write something nice about a Frenchman. What has prompted it this time? Looking out the window at the magnificent bougainvillea which has spread across the head of the steps leading from my terrace here in Spain. And yes, I am well aware that the brightly coloured red papery ‘ petals’ are actually bracts, not flowers. The flowers are small, white and insignificant. The plant grows like wild-fire, and has vicious spikes which retaliate if ever you try and prune the beast… a Louis_Antoine_de_BougainvilleBut the point is: it got me thinking about Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville, because he really was a remarkable man.

Yes, he was a thorn in the side of the British (perhaps that is why the plant was named after him!) but he was also a great explorer, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the world, and a very talented man. Born in  1729 (the same year as my ancestor Richard) he showed early signs of being a brilliant mathematician, publishing books on calculus. He then packed that in, and joined the French army, seeing service in the French territories of North America during the Seven Years War. 1759 was spent harrying British troops along the St Lawrence River, preventing them from landing, and cutting their supply lines.

 

He was involved in the battle on the Plains of Abraham  in which Quebec fell to the troops led by General Wolfe, and later became a diplomat, involved in negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the Seven Years War. So far, nothing very naval about him. As part of the peace settlement large numbers of Acadians – settlers of French origin who had established homes in what are now Eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces, (such as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Price Edward Island ) – were  chucked off their land and forced to return to France. Good old Bougainville felt bad about that, and out of his own purse set up an expedition to re-settle the Acadians…..in  the “Isles Malouines”. We know them as the Falkland Isles…. Bougainville accompanied the expedition which claimed the islands for France in April 1764. He must have been a tad miffed when the French then did a deal with the Spanish and ordered him to hand control over to the Spanish. It was after all his money which had financed it all, but he was “bought off” to the tune of 700,000 francs, and Spanish the Falklands became. At least until 1766 when Captain Macbride on the frigate ‘Jason’ called by, and announced that it was really a British colony after all….. a BougainvillegIn 1766 he was granted permission to establish an expedition to circumnavigate the world – something no other Frenchman had done before. With two ships called La Boudeuse and  the Étoile  and a crew totalling 330 men (well, 329 actually) he set sail on 15 November 1766.

One of those on board was the botanist Philibert Commercon, who was accompanied at all times by his valet, one Jean Baré (otherwise Jeanne Baret). Female, but always dressed in a man’s clothing. How she managed to conceal her gender from over three hundred randy Frenchmen for eighteen months is a bit of a mystery, but as a twenty-seven year old she was apparently able to masquerade as a young man in Tahiti, which they reached in March 1767.  She later returned to France, the first woman to sail round the globe, and died at a ripe old age in 1807, taking with her to her grave the story of her remarkable life. Bougainville wasn’t the first to discover Tahiti, but he thought he was, since he was unaware that an Englishman called Samuel Wallis on HMS Dolphin had landed there in the previous year. a -Bougainville_Voyage_around_the_World_1772Bougainville published his travel-log as Voyage autour du monde  in 1771, translated into English and re-published the following year as A Voyage Around the World. It created  a sensation, with its description of the noble savages of Tahiti and their idyllic existence.

He didn’t have a chance to put his feet up for long: he played a crucial part in the French victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake, a turning point in the American War of Independence, and which led to the eventual defeat of Great Britain. At the age of 52 he then decided to get himself married, fathering four sons (including one poor blighter lumbered with the name Hyacinthe…) all of whom went on to serve in the French armed forces. In 1782 he got caught up in the Battle of the Saintes in which Admiral Rodney dealt a crushing blow to the French Navy in the Caribbean, led by  the Comte de Grasse. Somehow Rodney failed to press home his advantage, and Bougainville was able to slip through the net, extricating eight ships of the line and sail them to safety. His action prevented the defeat from being a catastrophe – in itself, a sort of victory.

Gillray's caricature of Admiral Rodney presenting the sword of de Grasse to George III

Gillray’s caricature of Admiral Rodney presenting the sword of de Grasse to George III

He then apparently decided to explore cooler waters, and proposed a trip to the North Pole! The French government was not enthusiastic, and he had to abandon the idea. In 1787 he was made a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and in 1804 Napoleon made him a Grand Officier de la Légion d’honneur . Four years later, Napoleon conferred upon him the title of count (the Comte de Bougainville), and when he died on 31 August 1811 he was buried with great pomp at the Panthéon in Paris. His name lives on – as the plant, as an island in  Papua New Guinea, and in ‘Port Louis’ in the Falklands. I have also had the pleasure of reclining languidly under the Seychelles sun on Anse Bougainville, and very pleasant it was too!

Indeed, I hope to include Bougainville in my list of talks I will be giving next year when I go as guest speaker on board the Boudicca, as she visits Reunion, Mauritius, The Seychelles and the Comoros Islands. It is not that Bougainville did a lot of exploring here, but the French were hugely important in this part of the Indian Ocean, and his name will be as good a peg as any other on which to hang a talk!

I will do other talks on treasure hunting, on castaways, but possibly not on pirates as I fear that this might be a tad too close for comfort, given that the Comoros Islands are well within reach of the modern day pirates based in Somalia… And I will definitely include the story of sixty slaves abandoned for FIFTEEN YEARS on an otherwise uninhabited  strip of coral sand known as L’Ile de Sable. When they were finally rescued, only seven people were found alive – plus one baby. Given that all the rescued adults were women, it does raise the question – who was the daddy and what happened to him? How on earth did they survive on an island without any trees, without crops or fruit? How did slaves, captured from the highland areas of Madagascar, cope with adapting to living in a fishing community, and how on earth can you live off  sea birds and turtles for fifteen years? And why were there no traces of the 53 adult slaves who didn’t survive – what happened to them? Oh, and in case you are wondering, the Europeans who were accompanying the slaves all got off the island in a boat  – but there wasn’t room for the slaves so they abandoned them. Well, they did promise to come back for them, but it apparently escaped their minds … for fifteen years. Not a very edifying tale, but one which deserves to be told.

In Britain we remember Captain Cook, who was an exact contemporary of  Bougainville, but I certainly never learned about the French equivalent to Cook when I was at school all those years ago. No wonder we are such an insular and ignorant lot….

Aug 282017
 

Lyme Park – southern façade overlooking the lake

On my recent Northern Progress I visited Chatsworth and, on the following day, Calke Abbey. As I have blogged on both it seemed only fair to blog on the third stately pile I visited, Lyme Park near Stockport, not far from Manchester.

Most people seem to know it from the famous Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt scene from the BBC 1995 mini-series of Pride & Prejudice (although that was actually filmed in a water-tank using a body-double). The exterior scenes of the fictional Pemberley were filmed at Lyme, and it is quite interesting to see how shots have been ‘cut and pasted’ to make vistas seem adjacent to each other.

 

 

Lyme was originally of Tudor origin, although rather less of this remains because of the Palladian and Baroque overlays.  The house, the largest in Derbyshire, was redesigned by Giacomo Leoni as an Italian palace, around a courtyard, in the 1720s, and thus two of the facades are rather impressive and satisfying. The other two, to my mind, betray their attempted  modernisation in the Victorian era and seem far less pleasing.

The exterior clock face

Clock mechanism for the exterior clock

The garden and lakeside setting is lovely and I found much of interest in the interior of the building – the views of distant follies, the grand reception rooms, the elaborate ceilings, as well as the displays of items collected on foreign travels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One room even contains not one but four clocks by the great clock maker Thomas Tompion

Thomas Tompion eight-day clock with Dutch mechanism

In the Library visitors can see the Lyme Caxton Missal – one of the most complete versions of a book of the liturgy of the Mass, printed by William Caxton in 1487 and bought by the National Trust, with Heritage and Lottery funding, for the best part of half a million pounds  nearly ten years ago.

The long Gallery at Lyme

I particularly liked some of the Elizabethan rooms – the long gallery, the stag room and the drawing room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprise, surprise, I was slightly less taken with the Victorian bastardisations introduced by the architect Lewis Wyatt, but you can’t have everything.

There are fine wood carvings, attributed to Grinling Gibbons, and there are a feast of goodies to look at.

What was nice, on a warm August day and notwithstanding full car parks, was that the fellow tourists appeared to be spread quite thinly around the rooms – often you could find yourself alone, and able to explore at leisure. I suspect that everyone else was out looking for Colin Firth….

The staff were particularly knowledgeable and helpful, so well done to the National Trust and their happy band of volunteers.

View of the gardens from the roof

The Orangery

Lyme Hill, from an engraving on copper dated 1812

Aug 222017
 

An historic painting showing Calke Abbey before the rot set in…

Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous: the day after going round Chatsworth, where millions of pounds are being spent on keeping the building in its glorious splendour, the next day I visited Calke Abbey, an extraordinary edifice which has been neglected for almost its entire 300 year history. It is situated in Derbyshire, right on the border with Leicestershire. It was transferred to the National Trust in 1985 in lieu of some 8million pounds in estate duty, and what they took over was a building which has a remarkable past. So many houses fell into disrepair after the First World War and were allowed to fall down or were destroyed, but this one somehow survived and is being preserved as a sort of time capsule of neglect. If damp has got into the fabric and left wallpaper damaged and in tatters, the Trust carefully removes the paper, repairs the damp – and then reinstates the damaged paper so that to outward appearances it looks unchanged.

We aren’t talking here about ‘shabby chic’ – we are talking plain shabby!

The auricula theatre

The house was built between 1701 and 1704 by Sir John Harpur, 4th baronet. The Harpur’s seem to have been an odd lot, and by all accounts were not exactly sociable. For a start there is no grand set of steps leading to an impressive entrance on the first floor. Instead, the only entrance is into the servant’s rooms on the ground floor. Clearly, the Harpur’s did not want visitors. Equally they didn’t want change. The telephone did not arrive at Calke Abbey until 1928 It was presumably used in 1962 when a family member asked an electrician to come round. He must have had the shock of his life when he discovered that he wasn’t just doing a spot of re-wiring – he was installing an electricity supply for the very first time.

The 7th Baronet

The rot started, literally and metaphorically, with the seventh baronet. He was a loner, and a bit of an eccentric. He was also in receipt of an income of around £10,000 a year. He rather went against convention by marrying one of the maids, called Nanny Hawkins, and he died in 1819 when thrown from his carriage and landing on his head. Successive owners  inherited his reclusive nature and spent their time collecting things. Dead things mostly, or at least they were by the time they had finished with them. They particularly liked collecting birds, which they then stuffed and put into glass cabinets. There are literally hundreds of these. And if going to bed sharing your room with half a dozen cabinets containing stuffed seagulls is your idea of bliss then this is the place for you. Then there are the sea shells and mineral samples. Room after room after room, crammed full with  assorted rocks and old shells. No attempt has been made to tidy them, The National Trust must be grateful that a previous attempt to pay death duties had meant that many other collections (butterflies, stuffed animals etc) had already been sold.  What remains is an impressive cull of wildlife – there are stags heads and horns everywhere.

I was interested in the caricature room – a small room off the entrance hall where caricatures by Rowandson, Gillray  et al are pasted all over the walls. I had assumed that gentlemen collected these as sets and kept them in portfolios where they could be inspected at leisure, but the Harpurs obviously preferred them as wallpaper. Weird. Unfortunately the light levels are kept so low that you can barely make out the caricatures in the perpetual gloom which pervades the display, but that is true of most of the house. Daylight will otherwise destroy what little  has been left.

The gardens at Calke Abbey

The National Trust have halted the decline and in the case of the beautiful gardens have done a fine job of showing what the place would have looked like. There is I am told a rare early example of an auricula theatre – actually the staging is used to display pelargoniums, and there isn’t an auricula in sight. One of the two gi-normous walled gardens has been brought under control and  has been planted up with vegetables and soft fruit, and work is underway to restore some of the tunnels which were presumably meant to enable the gardeners to move around without ever having to bump into his Lordship. There is a brewhouse, an orangery, and a fine stable block. There is also a grotto and an ice house. And there is a wonderful old deer park full of fallow deer and rotting tree stumps.

The ornate bed hanging, which has never seen the light of day….

It certainly makes for a different day out – seeing how the other half lived ie surrounded by money but in absolute squalor. But there is one item on display which really is remarkable. When George II got married his bride Catherine of Ansbach had a number of bridesmaids, one of them being the daughter of the Duke of Rutland. When the girl got married, to one of the Harpur clan, the Queen kindly packed up and sent round a wedding present of a sumptuous bed hanging. But there was a problem : the bed needed to display this opulent gift would have been higher than the ceilings in the principal bedrooms, so the gift was packed back into its mahogany cases, and left. It was therefore still in all its magnificent ‘as new’ state when the Trust decided to display it 250 years later. Ironically the one room where the right-sized bed could be accommodated was in the servants’ quarters and so you have this odd spectacle of  passing through from one poorly lit  room to another, filled with junk and servanty-things, before encountering this wondrous bed with all its drapes. I must admit I had to go back to the National Trust shop to buy a postcard in order to see what it really looked like, because you cannot really make out the vibrant colours in the all-pervading gloom, and the images on this blog either come from the NT, or via Wiki.

All in all a strange place to visit. Part beautiful, part melancholy, part impressive and part pointless. But certainly a contrast to Chatsworth. And that bed has to be seen to be believed….

Aug 182017
 

Following on from my recent post describing how to catch a boat to France in 1750, and looking at the problems of post-chaise travel on French roads, I thought it worth looking at Paris itself.

First, a reminder of the French monetary system prior to the French Revolution:

The Louis d’Or was first issued in 1640 on the order of Louis XIII and showed a portrait of King Louis on one side of the coin; the French royal coat of arms on the reverse. It actually came in multiples of one, two, four and eight , along with fractions of a half and a quarter. This is what the 4-Louis d’Or looked like, and a mighty fine coin it was:

The half ecu. or as the book describes it, the demi-ecu equivalent to three livres and similar to the British halfcrown, was a silver coin:

½ Écu - Louis XIV - obverse½ Écu - Louis XIV - reverse   As the guidebook explains, the livre was a unit of value but was not represented by an actual coin. It is interesting to see from the explanation below that whereas in Britain coins remain legal tender from one monarch’s reign to the next, meaning that coins were often in circulation for a century or more before they got hopelessly worn and illegible, the French called in their currency whenever the king died. Presumably French coins were therefore  kept to a far higher quality than British coinage and French coinage was therefore less susceptible to counterfeiting. British coins, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, were generally rubbish and stayed that way until the Great Re-coinage in 1814.

There follows the writer’s list of where to stay en route to Paris:

Amiens (a good champagne and a merry landlady) is obviously an excellent place to stay, but perhaps Luzarche is even better with its reference to ‘good things and a handsome Landlady’. France then, as now, has so much to offer….

So we have it: you will be thoroughly searched when entering the city of Paris, but the good news is that for 30 sous a day you can get away with not having to feed your servant because he will make do with your left-overs! That still leaves the food itself….Handy to know what it will cost you for your ‘water bottle, bason and towels’ and very good to know that your tea-making perquisites are obtainable, albeit at a price.

Ah, here we get to the nub of the problem: the Beef and Veal are not much good, so it is always wise to choose the Mutton; the soups are so poor no self-respecting Englishman will go near them  and. as the guide says “I must again remind you, that ’tis dangerous either to drink much Water, or too great draughts of their small wines, for so doing will most assuredly throw you into a violent Looseness, and no Place in the elegant or delicate World is so ill-provided with Conveniences for such a condition as Paris is: Wherefore, that you may have no extraordinary Calls to use them, mix your Water always with the common Wines of about 30 sous a bottle, and drink no wine under that price, for the low pric’d wines are only fit for the servants ….”

So there we have it: the loos in Paris are terrible, and if you fail to water your wine you will assuredly get the runs and live to regret it.

Thomas Rowlandson’s sketch of the Place des Victoires, Paris

The guide goes on to describe the various attractions in Paris which the tourist should see – the Tuileries, the Louvre and so on, before extending the French experience by visiting Versailles. Then, as now, it must have been an impressive sight for the English traveller.

But to end with, the Holy Grail, the list of wines which were drinkable for the visitor to Paris. I like the idea that whereas the knowledgeable wine connoisseurs of England drank fine ‘Burgundies and Clarets’ Parisians had no use of them. They stuck with the ‘tolerable’ Preignac – wine from the Gironde area which we would probably know better as Barsac and Sauternes, I’ll drink to that!

Aug 152017
 

In my current book,  ‘In Bed with the Georgians, Sex Scandal and Satire’ I mention the small-but-beautifully-formed ‘pocket rocket’ known as  Gertrude Mahon. As a teenager she decided to run away to France to get married to an impecunious Irish fiddle player, much against her mother’s wishes.  Bow Street runners were sent to intercept the pair before they could leave Dover, but the resourceful Mr Mahon invited his captors to have a few libations with him before he returned with them to go before a judge. He promptly drank them both under the table thereby enabling him to escape to France with young Gertrude. Once in Paris he got  married, got Gertrude pregnant, and then left her for another woman.

It raises the question: just what was it like travelling over to France, both in terms of the Channel crossing, and in terms of packing, safety, cost and so on? My ancestor Richard Hall kept a delightful little guide describing a five-week trip across the English Channel in order to visit Paris and Versailles. Richard  obviously operated a sort of lending library for his close friends, since this volume was numbered 15 and he refers to loan books, by number,  in some of his papers.

The original booklet was published in 1750, priced one shilling, and although the name of the author is not given, the booklet ends on page 38 with the words “I am, Dear Sir, your most assuredly, A.Z., Middle Temple, June 15, 1750”. I thought it might be fun to reproduce part of it, since it gives a vivid picture of what travel was actually like in the middle of the eighteenth century. All aspiring historical novelists please note – this is a chance for you to tell it as it really was….!

So, you started with your portmanteau trunk, acquired your ‘common necessaries’, got yourself a French dictionary and called on your banker for a letter of credit. The writer recommends taking twenty guineas in gold, and as the note at the foot of the page explains, he is assuming a budget of £45 for a single gentleman, £25 each for a pair  travelling together, and a very reasonable £20 a head for four people. Clothing costs were extra…

Extract from R P Bonnington’s ‘Seascape off Calais’, showing a packet boat approaching the shore, and shown courtesy of the British Museum.

For one guinea you could cross the Channel in a ‘tight but good vessel’ and it was handy to be reminded to take a collation of cold meat with you in case the pangs of acute hunger set in. The three bottles of wine probably helped with the tedium. And for those who preferred not to have to travel with hoi polloi, there was much to be said for forking out the five guineas and having the vessel all to yourselves.

It is interesting to hear about the procedures for clearing French customs (apparently the Governor’s aged cook was known to perform the checks of your person, presumably giving you a good pat down with a wooden spoon….). I was intrigued at the idea that your suitcase would then be searched before being plumbed, i.e. sealed with a lead seal so that you were unable to access the contents before you reached Paris.

Handy to know that half a crown slipped into the pocket of the guy at the Customs House was all that was necessary, plus a few pence to the porters and half a crown (three livres) to your attendant ‘who is himself too proud to carry anything bigger than a small hand-basket.’

A nice comment about French horses – whereas in England we are used to good strong steeds, the French will palm you off with something little bigger than a greyhound, so goodness knows how it will cope with a heavy trunk. But in general, with good roads, you will cover six miles in the hour – described as being ‘one post’. Handy hack: always carry a lot of binder twine with you because the French will rip you off if you try and buy cordage to tie your cases down. 5 or 6 livres for a ball of string! Outrageous conduct, quite appalling….

Thomas Rowlandson’s The Paris Diligence

Good to know that the Silver Lion and, later on, the Red Lion, are to be recommended, and Handy Hack number 2 is to insist always on a  carriage  that is hung upon springs and with good glasses (ie clear windows for looking out at the French scenery). I rather like Handy Hack number 3 – ‘pray observe not to be too free with their small wines, which, like the water in Paris, will certainly flux you, if you drink them in draughts.’ Oops, gotta run…

Ah the joys of French bedding! Handy Hack number 4 has to be that you insist on seeing that the linen on the bed is properly dried and aired before use. I like the mental image of French beds piled high with mattresses, topped with damp, clammy sheets. I recall reading a similar complaint in a letter from one of George I’s ministers, complaining about wet bedding on his frequent trips accompanying His Majesty back home to his beloved Hanover.

At this point I will leave off the summary of the “do’s and don’ts” when travelling through France: next time. French money, French wines – and the appalling state of French loos.

My ancestor’s paper cut-out of a coach and four

Aug 112017
 

I should have made it clear on my post yesterday that the images were from the Chatsworth webpage. Here are a few more odds and ends which I found interesting, using my own images….

Hand-painted wall covering in Chinese style

Underside of the staircase, with fine decorated walls and ceiling above

Splendid swag decoration above the doorway

You want painted ceilings, and statues in niches… you got it!

And to end with, one of those really tiny insignificant items which make Chatsworth so interesting – the Sixth Duke’s own theatre tokens, in ivory. Somehow going to the Vue cinema, or wherever, is not the same when you don’t have your own personalised entry token. Times have changed, and not for the better I fear!

Aug 102017
 

I was interested to get the chance to visit Chatsworth again, in the beautiful Derbyshire Dales. The occasion was the exhibition currently being shown there (on until 22 October) entitled “House Style, Five centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”.

The range of exhibits is impressive – bits and pieces from the early days of the house, shown here in an early ‘birds eye’ painting, as well as a number of portraits etc relating to Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire,  and various things belonging to the Mitford sisters.

There are large numbers of fancy dress costumes used at Cavendish family parties over the years and some of them are most impressive.

And of course you also get to see the magnificent garden setting, influenced by William Kent and by Capability Brown, as well as the staggering interiors of this fascinating house. Many believe that it was Jane Austen’s inspiration for Pemberley and of course it was used in the film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice; starring Keira Knightly. So, it was interesting to walk up the magnificent staircase and look at the painted ceilings, to check out the fantastic wood carvings and architectural mouldings, to see the marble statuary such as the veiled Vestal Virgin, and to admire the hand painted wall coverings in the bedrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was especially interested in some of the memorabilia relating to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – her various portraits, as well as letters and jottings which she sent to her children – and miniature portraits of her daughters ‘Little G’ and ‘Harryo’.

All in all a most interesting visit. Not cheap, at £19.90 a head (no discount for doddery OAP’s) but it is a reminder how being a member of the National Trust spoils you by making you forget what it costs to maintain these historic houses and how much a realistic entrance fee has to be if it is to cover the enormous repair costs. You could spend days looking at the rooms and the exhibits. As it is, a long afternoon is fairly exhausting, but leaves you with the feeling that this really is the best of the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take your pick – above, a pensive Georgiana in an unfinished portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and below it a wondrously lovely hat, with Georgiana somewhere underneath it, by Thomas Gainsborough

Aug 042017
 

On Tuesday, it was great to get the chance to get up to London and visit the Royal Mews, next to Buckingham Palace, at the invitation of the Royal Collection Trust. Complete with Press pack, it gave the opportunity to have a close look at the State landaus, Semi- State landaus and royal carriages used by the royal family from the Victorian period to the present day. OK so I wasn’t especially impressed by various  modern cars driven by Her Maj, and some of the modern replica carriages, complete with electric windows, hydraulic suspension, heating and so on are “interesting” but somehow are not ‘the real thing’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

For that, I didn’t think you can beat the Gold State Coach, used by every monarch at his or her coronation since George IV. I remember seeing it  when Queen Elizabeth attended her coronation back in June 1953 – and I recall playing with  a tinplate model, complete with eight miniature grey horses. Seeing the original, close to, was fascinating.

It is housed in the Royal Mews in its own room, and it is vast, with the main carriage having a body 24 feet long and 12 feet high. It weighs in at a massive four tons, and needs to be pulled by four pairs of Windsor Greys, each of sixteen hands. That’s an impressive horse power, but necessary for something of that weight. Indeed once those giant golden wheels start rolling, it takes some stopping. A footman has to apply the brake – and even then it takes 30 feet to roll to a halt.  For that reason the carriage is only ever drawn at walking pace, so that the grooms can walk along side it and are on hand in case anything goes amiss. Four pairs of postilions  ride the horses, and by the time you add in footmen/grooms and so on, it is a highly labour-intensive means of moving the monarch from Palace to Abbey.

Somehow it is rather satisfying to know that it is excruciatingly uncomfortable. William IV, otherwise known as ‘the sailor king’ described the motion as being like being tossed in heavy seas, while Queen Victoria hated it for its ‘distressing oscillations’ and in the end transferred her affections to other means of transport such as the Imperial Coach. Poor George VI – he reckoned that it gave him “one of the most uncomfortable rides I have ever had in my life.”

The irony is that it was never actually available for use at the coronation of the monarch who commissioned it – George III. He ordered it to be made in 1760, and splashed out £7562 – that is the equivalent of well over a million pounds nowadays, and for that you got a really spectacular set of wheels, adorned with tritons, cherubs and mythical creatures. The actual coach was designed by architect William Chambers, and was constructed by coach-builder Samuel Butler

Construction took longer than anticipated and George didn’t get to use his new toy until he attended the State opening of Parliament in 1762, and it must have caused quite a stir. The panels are magnificently decorated by the Italian artist Giovanni Cipriani – full of allegorical images of Peace and of Roman gods of War. What I found especially impressive is the thought that there are still people with the skill to repair and renovate a masterpiece like this. My first father-in-law was a coach builder, and I spent many a happy hour watching him apply layer after layer of paint to hand finished panels, rubbing them down with meticulous care, and then using gold leaf to form decorative devices. I remember that the gold leaf was kept inter-leaved in something the size of  a small notebook, and was applied with the softest of brushes. Goodness knows what gold leaf like that would now cost, given the current price of gold…. The end result was as smooth and reflective as a mirror, and it is good to see that these skills are still being practised.

The other rather impressive thing is that all the way round the display room is a huge long painting, by Richard Barrett Davis, entitled “The Coronation Procession of William IV”. Above is just a tiny extract. It was painted in 1831 and shows the procession – all the great and the good, occupying carriage after carriage – as well as showing the golden State Coach in splendid pomp. The catalogue accompanying the display also shows this picture of the carriage being used to convey George III to the Houses of Parliament on 25 November 1762:

George III in procession to the Opening of the Houses of Parliament, attributed to John Wootton

The carriage  is exhibited in a long hall, and is so big that moving outdoors into the Mews courtyard involves dismantling doors and windows. It is just part of a really interesting tour of the Royal Mews. You can see the horses, the tack room, and the stables in the building housing the horses and designed by John Nash.  Well worth a visit, and the exhibition is open through the autumn. There are particular displays linked to the Buckingham Palace Family Festival which opens tomorrow, Saturday 5th August. Details are at www.royalcollection.org.uk