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Diary: Serenhedd James

29 March 2018


Pleasures of the flesh

A FRIEND of mine assures me that he has been to see the Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy (Arts, 9 February) 12 times, but he is a promising young art historian who works in Mayfair; so such excess is probably to be encouraged. It is, to be fair, a stunning ensemble.

Many of the works I knew well already; but much of the impact has been in the bringing of them together. The two great Van Dyck equestrian portraits of the Martyr King — one with the muscly horse with the unnervingly small head, from the National Gallery, and one from the Royal Collection — have been hung side by side for the first time, and the effect is overwhelming.

Other works are more homely, and the various presentations of the female form stand out. But for the style of her dress, Agnolo Bronzino’s Woman in Green (c.1530), with her raised eyebrow and penetrating gaze, might easily be on her way to burn down a church in the name of women’s suffrage. Bizarrely, in The Holy Family (c.1527) Dosso Dossi manages — intentionally or not — to make the Blessed Virgin look, well, a bit simple.

There is plenty of Peter Paul Rubens’s work here, on the large scale; and, set against some of his contemporaries, he still carries the day. Orazio Gentileschi’s women are plump, but Rubens’s are voluptuous, and far more sensual.

Anyone who has been eschewing such indulgences in Lent — and it is only fair to say that there are breasts aplenty — ought to hurry along to the RA in Eastertide before 15 April.



Shades of grey

IT REMAINS to be seen whether Prince Henry of Wales will be given a dukedom and the Garter before his marriage in May; but the Queen appointed the Duke of Edinburgh a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the end of November: another broad riband and star to add to his collection.

The Revd Professor Peter Gallo­way, doyen of all things chivalric, tells me that the last man before Prince Philip to be appointed GCVO after having previously received the Royal Victorian Chain was Geoffrey Fisher, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Coronation Honours of 1953.

Traditionally, the Royal Victorian Order has been regarded as being to the Royal Household what the Lambeth degrees were to the Church of England: a pat on the head for good work done for relatively mod­est return. I say “were”, because a statement on the Lambeth Palace website now proclaims that the Archbishop of Canterbury “does not plan to award any such degrees in the short term”.

Archbishop Welby has, instead, decided to hand out “a new set of non-academic awards to recognise outstanding achievement in various fields”. So much, then, for the his­toric right of the Primate of All England to award full degrees of the realm: an archiepiscopal power deliciously usurped from Rome, upheld by two Acts of Parliament, and used by successive archbishops down the centuries to recognise those who have served the Church and their neighbours with distinction.

The Church of England has once more become a little bit less colour­ful — literally, this time. The sumptuous scarlet robes of the Doctors of Divinity, Letters, Law, and Medi­cine, and the cream brocade of the Doctors of Music, have all been mothballed. Recipients of the “new suite” of awards instead receive an engraved medal from His Grace in shiny grey Fairtrade silver, set in a grey mount inside a grey box.


Perfect redemption

AN OLD friend of mine threw a lavish luncheon party to celebrate his 30th birthday, at the St John Restaurant, Clerkenwell, in London. It was a lovely gathering of musical chums, and many of us had sung together in the back rows of various ecclesiastical establishments of greater and lesser repute. A modest smattering of babes-in-arms pro­vided a timely reminder that the circle of life turns swiftly.

The St John occupies a former smokehouse just around the corner from Smithfield Market, and advertises “nose-to-tail eating”; but, when I worked from the Church Times offices, I generally restricted my prandial options to the immediate environs of Whitecross Street, and failed to venture into the here-be-dragons territory to the west of the Charterhouse.

A large sign at the coat racks proclaimed in bold letters that “St John does not accept any responsibility for personal belongings.” This hardly seems unreasonable: clearly, that burden rests with the inter­cession of St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of missing items. Equally satisfying, however, was the discovery that the St John has an arrangement with the Redemption Brewery at Tottenham.

This is, of course, excellent in and of itself; but the ample generosity of my friend meant that when I got to the bar to order my pint, I found that he had already arranged to pay for all our drinks in advance.

That, then, is how, on a grey day in the City of London, I sought Redemption; received it in full measure; and found that its cost had already been borne by the one who had invited me to the feast.


Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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