dames and divas

London’s National Portrait Gallery is one of the capital’s great free museums. Just off Trafalgar Square, it’s a mecca for Anglophiles and devotees of period drama due in large part to the historic paintings of Tudor and Stuart royalty that fill a handful of galleries. Yet it’s also a museum very much rooted in the present - eclectic and embracing multifarious media: from tempera and photography to LCD monitors utilizing integrated software. It’s one of the best places to wander without a map – you’d be hard pressed to find a room that doesn’t lead you off on a flight of fancy involving both artist and subject. It strikes at the heart of what I love so much about Britain: you can’t turn around without having your curiosity piqued.


on the steps of the palace

Spain’s grandiose Palacio Real quite obviously had designs on being heralded as an Iberian Versailles. The 2,800 room Italianate baroque colossus built by Felipe V never quite managed to challenge its European counterparts, but its soaring white facade is pretty magnificent – as are the fifty rooms open to the public; the highlights of which are the Royal Pharmacy, Royal Armory, the Porcelain Room, and the Throne Room with its Tiepolo ceiling and crimson velvet walls. Perhaps embarrassed by the imperial extravagance of it all, Spain’s current ruling family lives in more republican digs, dropping by the family manse only when duty calls. And while we’re on the subject of duty: all this pomp’s got me thinking I’m forgetting something royally important today …


coach and four (and more)

For many years the National Coach Museum was the only museum of note in Lisbon.  (That’s since changed.) It has also been derided among certain culturati for it’s royalist leanings and lack of panache, but remains, in my mind, one of the more interesting exhibitions of its kind. The collection of royal coaches is the largest in the world, ranging from a rare 17th century coach belonging to King Phillip (with a cleverly hidden potty seat) to the famous 19th century carriages sent by King João V to Pope Clement XI.  Also on view is a royal sedan built in London and last used by Queen Elizabeth II for a state visit.  The carriages – made in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Austria, France and England – make for fascinating historical snapshots; moreover, they trace the development of sculpture, gilt work and the applied arts over the course of two centuries.  For this we have to thank Amelia, the last Queen of Portugal.  In 1905 she saw the advent of more efficient means of transportation and to that end thought the royal collection worth preserving. A good thing she saved them when she did: three years later her husband, the King, would be assassinated; two years after that, the royal family was sent into exile with the establishment of the Portuguese Republic.



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