The cows have come home…?

When you’re wandering round an Oxfordshire town centre in 2018, there are certain things you don’t expect.  Such as random sightings of replica cows.  Milton Keynes, maybe; it has a reputation for concrete bovines.  But we saw a few as we pottered around Thame today.

Perhaps it’s no more than a useful reminder that Thame has been a market town for almost a millennium, and that the upper end of its high street was once occupied by a livestock market, with cattle and pigs penned into an area now marked by cobbles.  That would certainly help to explain the wide High Street and market place, with narrow entrances at both ends.  There still is a cattle market each Wednesday and Friday, along with a general market each Tuesday and a farmers’ market on the second Tuesday of each month.

Conservation efforts over many years have ensured that many other traces of the town’s history remain for visitors to find.  There’s the 15th century Nag’s Head, which used to be called the King’s Head… till a supporter of Charles I was hanged from the sign by Parliamentary soldiers during the Civil War.  Further along the High Street, by the corner with Church Road, the timber frame alms houses, founded in 1447 by Richard Quartermain, are almost trumped by the elaborate 19th century bandstand in the grounds.  Or there’s the Swan Hotel, whose Georgian facade belies the timber frame jettied construction inside, or the James Figg pub on Cornmarket, named after the world’s first boxing champion, who grew up in the town; or the plaque on Hampden House commemorating the heroism of John Hampden in the Civil War – he went to school in Thame, and died in Hampden House after sustaining injuries in battle in 1643.  And there are buildings with links to Evelyn Waugh and WB Yeats.

All in all, Thame is an excellent place to wander around for a day. A host of cafes can refresh you, and we thoroughly recommend The Thatch for lunch.  Maybe best to avoid the slow-braised beef brisket, though… just in case you catch a cow’s eye on your way back up the high street.

The show must go on? The Silver Caesars mystery

There’s always plenty to see at Waddesdon Manor, perhaps the most famous Rothschild house in Britain. At the moment, in addition to the many and various splendours on show all year round, there’s a special exhibition about the Aldobrandini Tazze, a collection of twelve standing cups which depict the lives of various Caesars of ancient Rome.

Each standing cup or tazza comprises a statuette of a Caesar, with four episodes from his life, based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (born c.70AD).  The narratives are almost wholly positive, in praise of the Caesars – though the Nero tazza shows him singing despite an earthquake and a fire, a version of the old saw about “fiddling while Rome burnt”.  Perhaps the creators thought this scene depicted a virtuous devotion to the arts – or maybe it was an early example of “The show must go on”…

More conventionally, the four scenes on the tazza for Vespasian (pictured above) show him putting an end to the rebellion in Judaea in AD 67-68; receiving a stray dog (who has brought him a human hand – how thoughtful) and an ox who bows to him while he is breakfasting; miraculously curing a blind man and a lame man; and returning to Rome in triumphal procession in AD 71 after military victory over the Jews.

At least five of the tazze entered various Rothschild collections, although their collective presence in this exhibition is the first example of all twelve being together on public display for over 150 years.  But the real mystery is this: who made them, when, where, for whom and for what purpose?  The Waddesdon exhibition suggests a hypothesis relating to a late 16th century Roman cardinal, Pietro Aldobrandini, and the Habsburg prince Archduke Albert VII of Austria. You’ll have to visit the exhibition, which is on until 22 July, to find out more. Whatever the answer to the mystery, the Silver Caesars together are a magnificent example of Renaissance art.

Hello from them: the men who fell to Aylesbury

Every town has its statues, and Aylesbury probably needs them more than most.  Since Henry VIII made it the county town of Buckinghamshire, its fortunes have been mixed. It suffered from an outbreak of plague in 1603-4 and from urban development in the 20th century.  The tower block that is County Hall dominates the skyline, like Sauron’s not so evil but decidedly grumpy younger brother.  Even the Aylesbury duck seems to have permanently flown south.  So the statues of John Hampden, a Parliamentary hero from these parts who helped to win the Civil War, and Disraeli, one of the most famous Prime Ministers in history, help to remind the town that it has also been in the presence of greatness at various times.  Without such reminders, visiting Aylesbury might be a God-awful sad affair.

On the other hand, many bright lights from the world of showbusiness have lived or worked here, including actress Lynda Bellingham and dancer Brendan Cole.  Marillion formed in Aylesbury, naming their first single Market Square Heroes in tribute, and the makers of A Clockwork Orange filmed some scenes (cut from the final film) in Aylesbury.

More recently, a statue and a sculpture within a short walk of each other have marked the town’s significance in the early careers of two giants of the industry.  Under the massive shadow of the Waterside Theatre sits a statue of the actor and comedian Ronnie Barker, who started out with Aylesbury Repertory Theatre, years before he found fame on radio and TV.  The statue of Barker is in character as Fletcher from sitcom Porridge, perhaps his most successful role outside The Two Ronnies.

If you cross the road from Ronnie and walk up towards Market Square, an extraordinary creation sits underneath an archway. Earthly Messenger, a bronze sculpture, depicts the many professional faces of David Bowie, who launched the albums Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in Aylesbury in 1971-2.  Bowie formed The Spiders in the Friars Aylesbury music club, which is still running today.  The first track on the Ziggy album Five Years refers to Market Square: “Pushing through the Market Square – so many mothers sighing.”  After Bowie’s death in 2016, the local councils approved the idea of a memorial in Market Square, provided that the funds were raised privately.  One crowdfunding project and over £100,000 later and Andrew Sinclair – a sculptor from Wendover who had, ironically, just moved to Devon – could start work.  The result, which features a leaping Ziggy and references to Ashes to Ashes, Labyrinth, Life on Mars, Blackstar and other Bowie projects, was unveiled in early 2018.  Speakers above the sculpture are intended to play a different Bowie song each hour.  Sinclair commented: “It’s a huge talking point in Aylesbury. We believe it will really help put the town on the map.”

For someone, this conspicuous creation struck an inappropriate note: the sculpture was vandalised within a week, with “Feed the homeless first” among the graffiti defacing the work.  (Taxpayers’ money had to be used to clean things up; presumably the vandal had not thought of that.)  But the majority sentiment seems to be in favour; there was even a petition to change the town’s name to Aylesbowie.  That may not happen, but we hope Earthly Messenger will encourage more visitors to Aylesbury… even if it’s just for one day.

Louis, Robert and Winston: traces of the famous at a Bucks historic house

Off the A418 between Aylesbury and Thame sits a historic house that once housed a French monarch for five years.  Hartwell House, now a luxury hotel under National Trust ownership, was home to the court of Louis XVIII of France (pictured above in a portrait by Francois Gerard) during his exile between 1809 and 1814. The court included Louis’s brother the Comte d’Artois (who succeeded him as Charles X) and Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden.

Perhaps less predictably, the advent of Louis’s court also saw the conversion of the roof into a miniature farm with cage-reared rabbits and birds and tubs of cultivated herbs and vegetables.  Emigrés fleeing from the post-revolutionary regime used Hartwell’s outbuildings as shops to earn some much-needed cash.

Over the centuries, Hartwell has had many famous connections, some of them international. For several centuries it was the property of the Lees, ancestors of US Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee – and US troops were stationed and trained here during World War II.  A later owner was Ernest Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook, whose temperance campaigns were the original inspiration for his pioneering work in travel and tourism.

But if you’re looking for an unexpected trace of the great and the good, go inside and look at the extravagant staircase of Jacobean origin. A fire damaged the balustrade in the 1960s and the replacement balusters include carved figures of GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill; the identities of the other, mostly rather grotesque figures are not known for sure.

The carelessness of Queen Elizabeth II

I admit it – that heading’s clickbait. As it happens, my view is that our current monarch is one of the more blameless people in British public life today. She has served, stoically and dutifully, for well over 60 years. She’s even had to put up with weekly meetings with 13 different Prime Ministers. So I’m not really criticising Her Majesty. But I do have a bone to pick with her team – or rather my wife does – and, as per the title reference to a well-known play and film about one of her predecessors, it does have something to do with George III. Tell me more, I hear you say…

It’s all to do with Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and one of HMQ’s official residences.  Surely the phrase “nothing to see here” was never less appropriate than here. You could end up with a permanently slack jaw and a cricked neck, and no doubt some of the hordes of visitors do.  Suit of armour, on a horse, by the Grand Staircase? Check.  The musket ball that killed Nelson? It’s here.  A special room to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo? Naturellement. And that’s before we even get to the State Apartments, built for Charles II and much altered since, or St George’s Chapel.

I could go on. But I shan’t. Because one of the best, if not the best line manager I ever had used to tell me: “Look for what isn’t there.”  Now Windsor Castle is justifiably proud, among other things, of its art collection. Some of it could claim your attention, and mental speculation, for hours if you weren’t in a hurry. For instance: The five eldest children of Charles I (Van Dyck, 1637) in the Queen’s Ballroom; is the dog unfeasibly large or are the children implausibly small?  But my attention is on a painting that isn’t there.

It used to be. George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room. The King commissioned it, the Prince was not in the preliminary sketches but sat for it later and the final work went to the Royal Academy in 1798.  A smaller version is in the collection (but not on display) at the National Army Museum.  The original was the work of Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), who escaped a possible career as a lawyer to specialise in painting portraits of royalty and other “people of quality” including Queen Charlotte and Lord Nelson.  Beechey may have been a bit of a toady to get all those commissions but his portraits, as someone wrote fifty years after his death, “have maintained a respectable second rank.”

William had two marriages – the second to a painter of miniatures – from which he fathered 21 children.  Of course, names do change, disappear and sometimes re-appear down the generations. But it so happens that my wife Helen’s maiden name was Beechey.  Since William came from Burford, not too far from the Buckinghamshire of my in-laws and their ancestors, a family legend has persisted that those ancestors include William.  It hasn’t manifested in an artistic career – Helen still remembers the woman who criticised a painting she made at the age of three – but that’s not the point. Art in the blood, as Sherlock Holmes said, is liable to take the strangest forms.

Anyway – George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room.  Then in 1992, the year of the great Windsor fire, it was the only painting at the Castle to be destroyed because – get this – it was apparently too large to move out.

Seriously?   These are people who ruled the largest Empire on Earth. They’ve come through war, revolution, industrialisation and hundreds of years of heaven knows what else, and they’re still our monarchs. And they couldn’t work out how to save one painting.  Well, if it was your (possible, and admittedly not likely) ancestor-in-law who’d painted it, you’d have something to say about that, I bet.

Twenty-five years later, perhaps it’s time to forgive and forget. Beechey’s work survives elsewhere. And – despite a bit of carelessness with one of his works – Windsor is still absolutely splendid.