David Starkey's Royal River – Power, Pageantry and the Thames at the National Maritime Museum

By Ben Miller | 30 April 2012
A photo of a man in a suit looking at a model of a ship on a table inside a gallery
Historian David Starkey inspects one of the exhibits from his detailed look at the history of the Thames© Courtesy National Maritime Museum
Exhibition: Royal River – Power, Pageantry and the Thames, National Maritime Museum, London, until September 9 2012

Though much might be made of David Starkey's assemblage in the swish basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum, his curatorial task appears a wheeze within metres of passing Canaletto's widescreen view of the Thames, on a mid-18th century Lord Mayor's Day.

For beyond it, past a squiggling line showing the aqua vein joining Albion's principal palaces, lie iron-eating ostriches, scores handwritten by Handel, bassoons, wooden swans, piledrivers intrinsic to the unprecedented construction of Westminster Bridge, a full Admiral uniform once worn by Prince Albert and more, encased in wide rows of cabinets and hangings, dimly lit.

An image of an oil painting of an 18th century river full of boats crossing a city
Landscapes of the river and the backdrop of London signpost the show© Courtesy National Maritime Museum
There is the dizzying prospectus of new quays, sketched in staggering detail in 1825, sprawled under Bazalgette's semi-biblical contract drawings for the embankment.

There are the celebrated or underappreciated players and the tools their dreams became realised with - a Samuel Drummond painting of Marc Isambard Brunel aside a trowel commemorating the first laid stone of his Thames Tunnel, a portrait of William Timms, the bargemaster to three Dukes of Northumberland, accompanied by the heavy red coat of the royal watermen, and a tale of the 5th Duke, whose hefty annual wedge failed to abate his stupendous final debt of £593,000.

It's brimming, yet the density is made subtle, perhaps by the twinkling splendour of the seafaring outfits, or the magnificently-carved coats of arms, with heads which cast shadows and feel like they might come alive in the silence.

A central animation lines the open sections, merging pearly gates into 360 views of boiler rooms, maps into royal characters and panoramas into monochrome photos of boatracers.

An image of a golden statue of a regal maritime figure
Centuries of maritime memories are captured by statues and figureheads throughout the display© Courtesy National Maritime Museum
Starkey doubtless relished his task, yet his response to its demands deserves applause: there is too much to surmise within a space which would always be too small, so the river becomes a backdrop to a thousand stories, as it has been a platform to a thousand scenes of pomp and circumstance and change.

These occasions bookend loosely chronological or transient sections, allowing Samuel Scott's dusk portrayal of the building of the bridge and Holman Hunt's sight of the confetti-strewn marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, in 1863, to stand out as much as Gascar's 17th century Duke of York, and West's The Immortality of Nelson, an epic of beasts, fire, oceans and angels, originally intended as the altarpiece of a wall monument honouring the fallen Nelson.

Sacks of miniatures serve to punctuate the space rather than the concentration, so it somehow doesn't feel cluttered. The underlying air - of Jubilee-encrusted triumphalism, ribboned with a portrait of the Queen at the end and a departure runway of a final panorama of the city - seems an afterthought when the details are so rarefied.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission £5-£11 (family ticket £14.50-£24.50). Book online.
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