He shouldn’t be there, should he?.
I stood in front of The Field Of The Cloth of Gold, marvelling. It is the sort of picture, my husband would say, that one should have in one’s toilet: endless detail to contemplate and re-contemplate, on which to speculate, to stare and stare and still see something new.
But when one is cruising Hampton Court with a clutch of three endlessly inquisitive children one does not have that luxury. And the painting wouldn’t fit in the toilet anyway. Well, not mine. So I took my camera and I snapped and I snapped and I snapped, detail after detail so that I could blow up images when I got home and put them on the wall and think about them.
But even standing there, this character jumped out at me.
What was a dragon doing, flying above The Field? This was the famous meeting between Henry VIII and King Frances I of France, which took place in June 1520. As far as I knew, anything resembling a dragon had died out some time before.
Ah, I thought, it is symbolism. The greatness of Henry, and so forth.
Not according to the Royal Collection, the curators of Historic Royal Palace’s beautiful things.
No: The dragon, they say, is a firework. It was released -or should I say, let off – on June 23rd, the day before the English packed up their bags and trundled back across the channel homewards. It was designed to hail the ceremonial mass said by arch-organiser Cardinal Wolsey.
Friends have to think very carefully before they holiday together. How much more, then, should the English and French have carefully considered a couple of weeks just outside Guînes?
It was a splendid event, sumptuous, with no expense spared to parade each country’s greatness. But the whole business had gone a bit sour. They jousted and wrestled, and on the occasions Henry lost he did not do so gracefully.
But Wolsey was a stickler for detail, and the closing ceremony went ahead as planned.
With a dragon firework.
I didn’t know they even existed. I thought dragon fireworks were a fancy of JRR Tolkein’s, a whimsical manipulation of gunpowder conducted by his arch-wizard Gandalf. Who can forget the astonishment of the Shire dwellers at Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party when dragons swoop over their heads? It is an aspect of Gandalf”s character of which we see little: he is a magician first and foremost, but he has a little sideline in science and technology. There is no magic about the gunpowder dragons: just mastery of the art of painting with explosives.
Gunpowder shapes have been around since the tenth century in China. But I always thought the Brits didn’t grasp it until the Arab nations learnt of it from China, and brought it across continents to Europe. My history books say fireworks came with the advent of chinoiserie - that fascination with all things Chinese which swept the continent in the mid-seventeenth century, resulting in a rash of Chinese-style ceramics and fabrics and stories.
So: he shouldn’t be here in 1520, this firework dragon.
Yet there he is, large as life.
There are so many jigsaw pieces missing here. How did the dragon journey across the world, and into the expert hands of Cardinal Wolsey?
As to whether a firework dragon is a possibility: look no further than the streets of Beijing, on January 23rd this year. It is the year of the dragon: and to celebrate, the most spectacular firework was sent up in the sky.
The most perfect Chinese dragon.