Picture perfect at Montacute House
I was glued to the TV adaption of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, Damien Lewis as Henry – and Montacute House as Greenwich Palace, the king’s main London home. When some friends came for a visit last weekend, in between knocking back large quantities of gin and knocking back large quantities of Prosecco, we decided to stagger, er I mean stroll, over and have a look around the house and take peep at the real Thomas Cromwell, whose portrait is on display in the Long Gallery as part of the current ‘Copying Holbein’ exhibition. If you haven’t been to Montacute House before (or not in years), I’d recommend a visit – we spent so long in the Long Gallery, we actually had to be asked to leave so they could shut up shop.
The house was built by Sir Edward Phelips, a big cheese in the late 16th century (Master of the Rolls, Speaker of the House of Commons and prosecutor of Guy Fawkes), and it’s stunning – all golden ham stone symmetry and lead-light glass windows – with elegant gardens, oh and a good selection of coffee and cake in the cafe (inside when it rains but on a sunny day in the pretty courtyard).
When the National Trust took over the house in 1931 it was completely empty, so the furnishings and pictures inside have all been bought, loaned or bequeathed from elsewhere. There are still-vibrant stained glass windows with coats of arms, huge Gobelin tapestries, some family portraits (the Phelips women were not lookers) and the former Viceroy of India Lord Curzon’s bizarre bath-in-a-cupboard. The whole of the top floor – the longest Elizabethan Long Gallery in England – is given over to an exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portraits on permanent loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London, mostly hung in smaller rooms off to the sides.
The exhibition is outstanding. There’s so much to see in every painting – the almost photographic fabrics and clothing, the symbols of status, the sometimes stylised, sometimes incredibly realistic faces – and lots to ponder, like why one of the ladies seemed to be cradling a ferret under her cloak and whether the jaunty angle of James I’s topper gave any clues to the nature of his relationships with his male courtiers.
The paintings in ‘Copying Holbein’ are 16th and 17th century copies of paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, of people in the court of Henry VIII, including Sir Thomas More, Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife), and of course, Thomas Cromwell…
This is a very nice way to while away an hour or two – even with kids– if you can get them in front of a painting, kids really look at art in a way that many of us adults don’t and there are puzzles and interactive trails as well. And afterwards, there’s that cafe and a gift shop to browse, too.