Interview in Splashlight magazine, by Claire Saul, September 2011.
Lucy Worsley is the history teacher you always wish you’d had, making the stories of the nation’s past fascinating, informative and relevant to modern times. Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy is also a popular television presenter, author and speaker, who’ll soon be appearing at local venues to share her insight into the history of the home.
History is hot property at the moment; various television programmes, bestselling historical fiction, booming heritage visitor attractions…
Yes, we’ve had At Home With The Georgians, Edwardian Farm, Victorian Pharmacy, National Treasures Live and more. The Historic Royal Palaces [Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, the Banqueting House and Kew Palace] are doingreally well in terms of visitor numbers as are the National Trust properties and museums.
When times are tough, people seek security and reassurance from the past and they enjoy the escapism of history. I would love to say that our visitor numbers are just because of the excellence of our exhibitions but I must admit that there are economic factors too: a lot of people aren’t going on holiday so they may take a day out in London instead. We have many visitors from abroad at the moment too because of the attractive exchange rates.
The subject of your forthcoming talks is the history of the home, the focus of your TV series If Walls Could Talk which found you researching history first-hand.
Yes, such as sleeping the night in a rope-strung bed. Portraits often show people sitting propped up to sleep and after spending that night I concluded that it was for comfort because the beds were so saggy. I’d never have known that otherwise. My hands-on research was all just brilliant, I even enjoyed using urine to get the stains out of Tudor laundry, as they did! The least fun was when I went for a week on a Tudor personal hygiene regime, which meant no bath or shower, no shampoo, deodorant or toothpaste. Oh, it was awful!
With so much historical material to draw on, how do you focus your talks?
I show the audience pictures of the different rooms in my own home and then I take them through the history behind each room. One hundred years ago, the bedroom wasn’t a private place, you’d have shared it and even your bed with all sorts of people. Even your work colleagues, just think about that!
Bathrooms didn’t even actually exist until around then. Medieval people were happy to wash themselves, but then you get the so-called ‘dirty’ 16th and 17th centuries, when contemporary medical understanding meant that washing was considered dangerous. Bathing starts to come back in the 18th century and only really becomes a regular, everyday habit (for the rich at least) during the 19th century.
The living room is really fascinating because there, people tend to present the best side of themselves as it is the room where guests are going to be. In someone’s living room, you can really ‘read’ them from the sequence of clues spread out before you, books, photos, decorations, warmth, smell, light levels, cleanliness … all these things are quite revelatory.
Which era would you time travel to?
One after the invention of anaesthetics! I’d also like to visit Tudor Hampton Court to check whether the rooms that we have recreated are accurate and similarly, Kew Palace during the period of George III’s so-called ‘madness’.
Do you have a favourite artefact from the Historic Royal Palaces collections?
I am very, very fond of the Tudor piss-pot (their words, not mine!) that was excavated from the Privy Garden at Hampton Court. When the archaeologists examined it they discovered that it still contained traces of genuine Tudor urine. What a connection to history!
Talk us through the hot date with Johnny Depp that almost was …
He was at Hampton Court filming The Libertine and his location manager phoned and asked if I could stay late to show him around the rooms. I was supposed to be going out to a party with my boyfriend that night, so I had to phone him up and tell him I was going to be spending the evening with Johnny Depp instead. He was furious!
I waited and waited and eventually I had another call saying ‘really sorry but Johnny is tired and he has gone back to his hotel’. So I leapt onto a train and went to the party, where I told everyone there that I’d stood him up, instead!
Lucy’s new series Elegance and Decadence, The Age of the Regency is currently on BB4. Lucy will be talking on the history of the home in Chiswick, Windsor, Marble Hill, Henley on Thames and Walton in forthcoming weeks. If Walls Could Talk is published by Faber (hardwick rrp £20.00) and will also be out in paperback in early 2012.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley