I went to the Press Preview of the new, vibrant, stunning new exhibition/experience at Banqueting House in Whitehall yesterday. From the 19th of July to 1 September 2013, Banqueting House has been transformed into the world of the 17th-century masque. All photos by me.
The original Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire, and the current building was designed by Inigo Jones for King James I. It was completed in 1622 for the purpose of court entertainments and state events. Inigo Jones was an English chap who was good at many things, and he knew it, and had travelled to Italy where he had been influenced by the architectural styles he had seen there, especially the work of Andrea Palladio. This English Palladianism that Jones then created is unique and that is why he is still so well known. (Learn more about Seventeenth-century Palladianism). Jones was not, however, only an architect, but he also was a set and costume designer for sumptuous masques, among other things.
With that bit of background information, let us proceed…
As one ascends the white staircase which leads to portraits of Charles I, and information pertaining to his execution in 1649, a previous visitor to Banqueting House may not be prepared for the visual extravaganza Historic Royal Palaces and Past Pleasures have created. Usually, the Banqueting House is rather empty, with lots of light streaming in from the many windows throughout the Palladian style building, the focal point being the red throne upon the dais.
For the next few weeks, however, as soon as you behold the interior of Banqueting House, you will probably be rendered speechless. The whole interior is set up in such as way as to draw visitors into the world of the masque, there are exhibits of music, costume, dance, poetry, and more.
What is a masque? You may well ask, as these entertainments are no longer performed. A masque was a sort of play that involved amazing sets, ornate costumes, and were a court entertainment. A Stuart masque was a propaganda piece, generally used to show the prosperity and happiness that resulted from the union of kingdoms under James I. In reality, things were not so great, and there is a sense that all this propaganda and this inherent belief of early Stuart kings that their power was divinely given, was one of the factors that led to Charles I’s beheading in 1649.
There are also glass cases in which are held some models of stage and set designs, including this one of a wave machine, as many masques had scenes that took place on the sea:
Whilst putting on a proper masque with all its costumes, equipment, and sets would set someone back several million pounds now, this creation is a taste of what it would have been like to attend a masque in the early 17th-century. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that the famous Rubens paintings that now adorn the ceilings so beautifully were not there during this time, as they were installed in 1636.
Did you notice my funny face above? :p
The actors, playing key historical character roles such as Inigo Jones and Queen Henrietta Maria, engage in lively and historically accurate interpretation and are skilful in drawing in audiences to participate (do not let this put you off, as they will not seek participation from unwilling or shy visitors!). These actors perform a rehearsal of the masque, Tempe Restored, which was performed in 1632, and we all enjoyed it heartily. I think the effects on the screen behind them and the period music perfectly set off the dialogue:
They are several workshops throughout the House, including one that has masque costumes for visitors to try on:
Past Pleasures designed and created many costumes for this masque, including the very beautiful dress that is worn by Queen Henrietta Maria as Divine Beauty, and Steph Selmayr, Costume Director of Past Pleasures stated;
Our sources for this costume were rich; a design sketch by Inigo Jones, a watercolour miniature by an unknown artist, depicting the Queen wearing an exoticised interpretation of the dress and this quote from a contemporary eye witness of Tempe Restored when it was performed for the King in 1632 – “The Queen’s Majesty was in a garment of watchet satin with stars of silver embroidered and embossed from the ground and on her head a crown on stars…”
Our own interpretation blends Inigo Jones’ original design with the other sources. A rich, pale satin was the closest we could find to ‘watchet’ – and the myriad of silver embroidered stairs along with other hand-sewn features have required many hours of detailed work. We hope visitors will be thrilled by the beauty of the masque.
Well, I certainly was thrilled!
Visitors can learn a 17th-century dance, which I did with Inigo Jones’ kind instruction. I was wearing a man’s costume this time, hence very unflattering! (I look like a large pumpkin, but that’s ok, I was having so much fun!):
I had a fabulous time at this preview, I spoke to several lovely people who have as much of a passion for this time period as I do and I was finally able to meet Melanie, aka Madame Guillotine, who is a very nice lady! HRP and Past Pleasures certainly did a very good job, and I was truly impressed.
My opinion: this is a DEFINITE must-see for 17th-century lovers!
On the 27th July, 2013, Banqueting House on Whitehall will host an opulent Stuart masque for the first time since 1635! Tickets are £28 per person and include a glass of wine on arrival. I really want to go to this, but I am not yet sure if I can. Tickets are available from Historic Royal Palaces.
For more about the UK’s leading professional live costumed interpretation, visit Past Pleasures.