Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames

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Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames
© The Lobkowicz Collections, Czech Republic
London: The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day, Looking Towards the City and St Paul’s Cathedral, before 1752, Canaletto

This may be the best potted history of London we've seen in years. From the early sixteenth-century to the mid-1950s, 'Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames', curated by David Starkey, makes stately procession through episodes of lavish, water-borne ceremony, unravelling religious, social and political intricacies with a dexterity that showcases the museum's new wing as confidently as it spotlights the talents of the historian.

The show's main idea is to reveal the ways in which pageantry has been stage-managed across the centuries in order to affirm or assuage public opinion.

We learn how, in 1533 on the eve of her coronation, Anne Boleyn was carried as part of a grand flotilla from Greenwich to the Tower of London, in part to encourage popular support for her controversial replacement of Katherine of Aragon. More extravagantly, in 1662, the new wife of Charles II, the Portuguese (and Catholic) Infanta Catherine of Braganza was presented to Londoners in a 10,000-strong pageant known as 'Aqua Triumphalis'.

A contemporary etching by Dirk Stoop gives an idea of the spectacle, reckoned to be the most magnificent of all such ceremonies. An embroidered barge cloth commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Pewterers and used in the flotilla is a remarkable survivor of the period.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the most ostentatious and fanciful exhibits are not only of royal provenance. The exhibition's opener, Canaletto's 'London: The Thames on Lord Mayor's Day, looking towards the City and St Paul's Cathedral' (1752) – a painting not seen in London since it was dispatched from the artist's studio to Bohemia 260 years ago – reveals the conspicuous wealth of London's livery companies. A sense of their affluence is compounded by models of ceremonial barges, along with carvings – including an ostrich from the Ironmonger's Company, as the bird was believed to be able to digest anything, even iron and hot coals – badges, banners and uniforms.

Between the 'beryl streames' of William Dunbar's 1501 ode to the capital and the 'Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror' described by Benjamin Disraeli in 1858, 'Royal River' packs in a bewildering amount of information. That it is at all digestible is down to clear-minded displays that create chronological flow often from just a few, well-chosen objects while offering thematic offshoots, such as sections dedicated to the building of the Thames Tunnel and the tradition of swan upping. Linked by the Thames, the royal palaces between Windsor and Greenwich provide handy disembarkation points to study the lives of notable royals; 'mad' George III and Queen Charlotte at Kew Palace, for example.

In the main, this story of the Thames is unpolluted by the hoi polloi, though the bawdy entertainments of the pleasure gardens of Ranelagh and Vauxhall get a look-in and, via Bazalgette's grand sewerage and embankment projects of the 1860s and '70s, public health comes under the microscope.

The show ends with newsreel footage including scenes of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh returning from a six-month tour of the Commonwealth in 1954 to assembled crowds and a 'Welcome Home' banner attached, rather sweetly, to Tower Bridge. By that point the great days of royal river pageantry were long gone. The show doesn't explicitly chronicle their demise. But then, during a year of Diamond Jubilee celebrations culminating in a royal river pageant, perhaps that would be considered bad form.

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