Like trying to read a hundred poems at once | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for March 24th, 1856

We first went into Wolsey’s great Hall, up a most spacious staircase, the walls and ceiling of which were covered with an allegorical fresco by Verrio, wonderfully bright and well preserved; and without caring about the design or execution, I greatly liked the brilliancy of the colors. The great Hall is a most noble and beautiful room, above a hundred feet long and sixty high and broad. Most of the windows are of stained or painted glass, with elaborate designs, whether modern or ancient I know not, but certainly brilliant in effect. The walls, from the floor to perhaps half their height, are covered with antique tapestry, which, though a good deal faded, still retains color enough to be a very effective adornment, and to give an idea of how rich a mode of decking a noble apartment this must have been. The subjects represented were from Scripture, and the figures seemed colossal. On looking closely at this tapestry, you could see that it was thickly interwoven with threads of gold, still glistening. The windows, except one or two that are long, do not descend below the top of this tapestry, and are therefore twenty or thirty feet above the floor; and this manner of lighting a great room seems to add much to the impressiveness of the enclosed space. The roof is very magnificent, of carved oak, intricately and elaborately arched, and still as perfect to all appearance as when it was first made. There are banners, so fresh in their hues, and so untattered, that I think they must be modern, suspended along beneath the cornice of the hall, and exhibiting Wolsey’s arms and badges. On the whole, this is a perfect sight in its way.

Next to the hall there is a withdrawing-room, more than seventy feet long, and twenty-five feet high. The walls of this apartment, too, are covered with ancient tapestry, of allegorical design, but more faded than that of the hall. There is also a stained-glass window; and a marble statue of Venus on a couch, very lean and not very beautiful; and some cartoons of Carlo Cignani, which have left no impression on my memory; likewise, a large model of a splendid palace of some East Indian nabob.

I am not sure, after all, that Verrio’s frescoed grand staircase was not in another part of the palace; for I remember that we went from it through an immensely long suite of apartments, beginning with the Guard-chamber. All these rooms are wainscoted with oak, which looks new, being, I believe, of the date of King William’s reign. Over many of the doorways, or around the panels, there are carvings in wood by Gibbons, representing wreaths of flowers, fruit, and foliage, the most perfectly beautiful that can be conceived; and the wood being of a light hue (lime-wood, I believe), it has a fine effect on the dark oak panelling. The apartments open one beyond another, in long, long, long succession,–rooms of state, and kings’ and queens’ bedchambers, and royal closets bigger than ordinary drawing-rooms, so that the whole suite must be half a mile, or it may be a mile, in extent. From the windows you get views of the palace-grounds, broad and stately walks, and groves of trees, and lawns, and fountains, and the Thames and adjacent country beyond. The walls of all these rooms are absolutely covered with pictures, including works of all the great masters, which would require long study before a new eye could enjoy them; and, seeing so many of them at once, and having such a nothing of time to look at them all, I did not even try to see any merit in them. Vandyke’s picture of Charles I., on a white horse beneath an arched gateway, made more impression on me than any other, and as I recall it now, it seems as if I could see the king’s noble, melancholy face, and armed form, remembered not in picture, but in reality. All Sir Peter Lely’s lewd women, and Kneller’s too, were in these rooms; and the jolly old stupidity of George III. and his family, many times repeated; and pictures by Titian, Rubens, and other famous hands, intermixed with many by West, which provokingly drew the eye away from their betters. It seems to me that a picture, of all other things, should be by itself; whereas people always congregate them in galleries. To endeavor really to see them, so arranged, is like trying to read a hundred poems at once,–a most absurd attempt. Of all these pictures, I hardly recollect any so well as a ridiculous old travesty of the Resurrection and Last Judgment, where the dead people are represented as coming to life at the sound of the trumpet,–the flesh reëstablishing itself on the bones,–one man picking up his skull, and putting it on his shoulders,–and all appearing greatly startled, only half awake, and at a loss what to do next. Some devils are dragging away the damned by the heels and on sledges, and above sits the Redeemer and some angelic and sainted people, looking complacently down upon the scene!

From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for March 24th, 1856. From Passages from the English Note-Books.

The boldface emphasis on the sentences in the last paragraph is mine.

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