Blurry Eavesdroppers


I strode assertively into the Great Hall, much as bluff King Hal had once done.

Hands on hips, feet apart as if astride a colossus, I fixed the red-suited Hampton Court attendant with a jubilant beam.

“Hello,” I said, Julie Andrews-style.
He eyed me uneasily. He had to smile- they all have to smile there- but behind the smile was the conviction that here before him was someone slightly unhinged. And last thing on a Sunday afternoon, too. That type(here he noted the unpredictable light in my eye) that type always turn up at four on a Sunday.

He returned from his musings to find me staring at the ceiling, monologuing.

“I wonder…” I said half to myself and half to the daughter, a few paces behind, who was busy trying very hard not to be in my entourage. “Do you think my new camera will catch them? Could it be possible?”

Passers by would have cricked their necks just looking at me, neck craned, intent on something up there.  It is a busy ceiling at the best of times, commissioned as it was in Henry VIII’s time to express his majesty and supremacy. Gaudy might be the word, except for those eavesdroppers.

You may know them: the head-and- shoulders figures which peer from those ancient rafters. Carved in wood and painted in bright colours, their original purpose: to warn courtiers that there was always someone watching.

Henry did like to intimidate, and he was jolly good at it.

For five years now I have been striding into the Great Hall with cameras great and small and attempting to take pictures of the eavesdroppers. But with my neck craned up to that great ceiling, a fairly murky light and far too much zeal, it has always proved an impossibility for me. I sway ecstatically back and forth like a Rolling Stone groupie who has had one too many phantasmagorical roll-ups. I think I’m standing still but it’s an illusion, a figment of my over excited mind.

When I arrive back home to look at my day’s photographic work, the results are rather like a psychedelic experience: where originally there was just one head I will see four or even five. Reality takes back seat to the unsettling faces of those  a tudor king set to watch his loyal servants.

Until Sunday. Because I arrived in Henry’s hall with a new camera, a camera with fixing-points, an anti-blur artillery. There was just the slightest chance that I might succeed today where I had hitherto failed miserably.

And I threw back my head and aimed the camera, and the world and the wary steward and the shrinking daughter all went away, and it was just me and the four hundred year old spies watching from the ceiling.

And lo: I got one. The new camera curbed my excesses and gave me picture after picture of those coveted faces, which have stared down for centuries on behalf of Henry VIII.

Henry, it seems, is still watching you.

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26 thoughts on “Blurry Eavesdroppers

  1. Spies! Lurking everywhere. Paranoia must have been rampant!

    Your patience has been rewarded. Have they, at some point in time, been restored? Their color is incredibly sharp.

    1. Oh, they have been royally restored by Historic Royal Palaces, Karen: the whole of Hampton Court is fairly pristine these days. Their chief curator is Lucy Worsely – do you know her? An ambassador for the corridors of time if ever there was one. Well worth a peek at her documentaries if they appear on that side of the Atlantic.

  2. I am completely amazed and astounded. Thats brilliant! What immediately crossed my mind was; Who were these people? They are so life like in one sense (they’re pretty wooden in the other) that they must surely have been the likeness of real people.

    Are you able to tell me who they are Kate, and if not why not? 😛 Somebody must surely know! When can I get an answer Kate, it’s fairly urgent believe me 😀

    1. Hi Brian – and here I am replying late to your urgent query. Apologies. And I have no intelligence for you, I fear: I have not been able to find out if they were modelled on anyone in particular, and suspect not. But I shall keep digging, never fear.

    1. I think it must have been a scary regime, Kathy. Just contemplating a post about one of the portraits in another gallery, Christina of Denmark, to whom Henry sent an offer of marriage. She replied in the negative, with the addendum that if she had had two heads, one of them would have been very much at the king’s disposal.

    1. My Nikon 5300 body 😀 I am like a dog with two tails; I downsized to the 3200 a while ago and found it troublesome. My lenses remain the same by the ‘fix’ is so much better!

  3. They are such interesting little spies! I love how colorful they are, Kate. I am certain your new camera will continually be put to excellent use, but I can easily relate to the excitement you share here with your first efforts to focus all the way up to that great ceiling. 🙂

    1. Ah, Debra, it was fabulous to have something that could do the job. I am rather avaricious with photographs. Taking good snaps is almost like possessing the object itself. And now my job in heritage is about capturing things no museum has yet seen, when they are still in private hands, on film and their stories on audio. I am a very lucky person.

  4. Love those little faces and also the suggestion of Rob that we work to include such things in our homes today. Also Kate, I loved your use of Julie Andrews. I thought, “what other person’s name can lend such deep description to our words and actions?” Not sure but you’ve got me thinking.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your photos. It is amazing how each figure has such personality and individual detail. I can imagine a great royal court such as that of Henry VIII would have been full of intrigue.

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