As befitting of a celebration of art and architecture of London, we felt that our contribution to Open House London this year needed to be themed around some of the beautiful Georgian mansions of Westminster. We chose to showcase these wonderful buildings using some of the resources that we have associated with them.
Being a Georgian history ‘anorak’ and self-confessed Byromaniac (a term coined for someone who dotes on the poetry and personage of George Gordon, Lord Byron), I decided to use my fairly extensive knowledge of the notable people and social history of the period as a linchpin for explaining some of our fascinating resources.
The first property on our list was the magnificent Spencer House, which was one of the homes of Lady Georgiana Spencer – later the famous (and infamous) Duchess of Devonshire. Anyone who has seen The Duchess will realise that she is immortalised by Kiera Knightley in that film. One of the resources we used from our beautiful Gardiner collection of prints in connection with the property was a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, “Procession to the Hustings After a Successful Canvass” satirising the Westminster election, 1784. The cartoon shows supporters of the Whig politician Charles James Fox marching towards the hustings during the election. The Duchess was a celebrated socialite, political campaigner and champion of the Whig party and it was said that she exchanged kisses for votes.
Another of the properties that we looked at was Apsley House, once the London home of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. It was perhaps most appropriate that we should showcase material associated with the Duke, as 2015 marks the Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo.
One small black mortar that was captured at the Battle of Salamanca (a great victory for Wellington) was unveiled in St James’s Park on the Prince Regent’s birthday in 1816, to commemorate the victory. The Prince Regent (later the uncelebrated George IV) had this cannon mounted on a plinth at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, surrounded by garish dragons – quite typical of his appalling taste in art and decor. It was subsequently nicknamed The Regent’s Bomb and was used against the prince by satirists in the caricature literature of the day. “Bomb”, sounds like the word “bum” and the prince was fairly rotund – which posited such satirical ditties such as:
“ON THE REGENT’S BOMB
Being uncovered, in St. James’s Park, on Monday, the 12th of August, 1816, His Royal Highness’s Birth-Day.
Oh! all ye Muses, hither come—
And celebrate the Regent’s bomb!
Illustrious Bomb! Immortal capture!
Thou fill’st my every sense with rapture!
Oh, such a Bomb! so full of fire—
Apollo—hither bring thy lyre—
And all ye powers of music come,
And aid me sing this mighty Bomb…”
This was far too irresistible a poem for us not to relate to the public and show this together with a picture from our images collection of The Regent’s Bomb. Where there’s social history there’s humour and connecting the social aspects of history with a celebration of architecture is one of the best ways of engagement. Give your audience something to remember!
A very enjoyable day was had by all and all of the organising was well worth it. We wish to extend a huge thanks to the staff and volunteers who made the day possible and also to our fantastic public for visiting us. We look forward to welcoming everyone again next year!