Nonsuch Palace – Henry VIII’s Favourite Heaven, or Haven

A sixteenth century watercolor of King Henry VIII’s “lost” palace expected to fetch up to 1.2 million pounds ($1.9 million) at auction. WOW.

The ink, chalk and watercolor painting was believed to be the only surviving impression of this, the favourite palace of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth 1, recording for posterity what it actually looked like. London Auction house Christie’s offered the picture in December 2010 but sadly it failed to sell. They said it was special, because it had originally been painted in situ by Joris Hoefnagel in 1568, as a record of the most important buildings in Europe. There were four contemporary impressions made. The others however were later representations. Apparently this image had only been displayed in public twice before and had last been seen some twenty five years ago in America. The watercolour of the south front facade of the legendary palace was one of the earliest, and most detailed depictions known to exist of Nonsuch – named because it was considered at the time that there was ‘None Other Such’.

Remnant of gilded slate excavated from the site of Nonsuch Palace, there was certainly none other such as it in existence

Due to Henry’s  health, the distance to the planned Palace of Nonsuch could not be too far from Hampton Court. Henry chose a site near the small village of Cuddington, which was surrounded by forests and a wonderful place for the King and his friends to enjoy the hunt. He was very envious of his rival, the French King Francois 1 (1515-1547), who was the last product of chivalry and first modern King of France. Francois collected around him men of letters, thinkers, humanists, painters and architects, each of whom played their part in building up the setting against which the King wished to be seen. Francois’s palace at Fontainbleau in France was renowned for its incredible interiors and its master of entertainments, the ageing artist Leonardo da Vinci. It was also near to a beautiful forest where the King could hunt.

Throughout their lifetime Henry and Francois continually tried to outdo each other by making one more extravagance after another, Henry wanted to provide evidence of his ability to do better.  It had become for him a matter of honour. He was in a good mood at the time as his heir and son had just been born. On completion Nonsuch Palace emerged as a palace known throughout Europe for its unrivaled splendour. Originally built from 1538 the façade we are told, had elaborate stucco decorations and heraldic beasts, while the tower on the left contained water cisterns that supplied the whole house with running water. At Nonsuch the main timbers of the palace were hung with the wonder material slate, as much as one inch thick. Each slate tile was deeply carved and the image gilded and then attached to a timber frame. When complete the whole effect must have been quite sumptuous, as well as dazzling as they glinted gloriously in the sunlight.

The walls of the Inner Court, surrounded by the royal apartments, had three levels of decoration: 32 Roman emperors (above), 30 Roman gods and goddesses (in the middle), 16 Labours and Adventures of Hercules and 16 figures of the Liberal Arts and Virtues (below). All bore mottoes to teach Henry’s heir Prince Edward the duties of a king in- waiting. The use of slate during this period was quite unique.

Ben Taggart and his marvellous model of the demolished Nonsuch Palace

The tiles were so deeply moulded Anthony Watson, the rector of Cheam School when visiting the palace described them as virtually leaping off the walls toward him. He said ‘The stonework was carved with the ‘living image’ of plants and animals, the ground floor walls of stone, the upper storey of timbered construction whose stucco panels were decorated with a variety of classical motifs in high relief’

His important fluid eye witness account of its splendour was recorded between 1582-92 and is valued because Nonesuch was demolished by King Charles II’s mistress Lady Castlemaine, Baroness Nonesuch in 1687. She wanted something much easier to maintain, and live in, and so now Nonsuch is only a historical fact.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that Nonsuch had a simple stone clad outer court, which only emphasized the glories that lay within. This layout view was painted in 1660 when Charles II came back to the English throne. It depicts avenues of trees.

It was Charles, who encouraged intensive tree planting in Britain at this time,  primarily oak, intended at providing supplies of timber for the British navy following deprivations of the forests and parks under the rule of Cromwell and the Commonwealth. English writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn, who is attributed with introducing the word ‘avenue’ into the English language, was involved.

The view reveals, that unlike other houses of the Tudor period, the central courts at Nonsuch were only approached through a gatehouse and up a flight of steps. Once inside the steps leading to the inner court slowed the approach down in order to heighten the impact of its highly showy and elaborate Renaissance splendour and recorded opulence.In the inner courtyard the visitor found themselves surrounded by huge stucco figures of gods and goddesses from mythology.

Diarist Samuel Pepys visited Nonsuch on September 21, 1665, and wrote in his diary ‘all the house on the outside [is] filled with figures of story, and good paintings of Rubens or Holben’s doing. And one great thing is that most of the house is covered, I mean the posts and quarters in the walls, covered with lead and gilded.’ No contemporary interior views of Nonsuch are known and to speculate one would have to use imagination or study paintings of interiors of the period in order to appreciate the opulence of this Tudor Palace. The publicity surrounding the watercolour did stir up a lot of interest and spurred others into action. Professor Biddle, Emeritus (retired) Professor of Medieval Archaeology at Oxford University, who is now in his 70s, was an undergraduate when he directed the excavation of the site of Nonsuch palace in 1959.

Professor Biddle revealed that the nearest replicas of the corner towers of Nonsuch were found in the castle and palace architecture of northern Italy, and notably had parallels in sketches by Leonardo da Vinci for a tower or towers intended for the Sforza Castle in Milan. He spent years analysing all the available contemporary illustrations, archaeological evidence, written sources, and surviving fragments of stucco and slate excavated from the site of Nonsuch. He has pieced together how it once looked and the huge challenge it posed for craftsman.  This research provided the basis for Ben Taggart’s marvellous model. Measuring 2.2 m by 1.2 m. It was publicly unveiled by the Friends of Nonsuch Museum on 6 September 2011.

An elaborate large-scale model of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace, the model apparently cost more to build than the original palace, not allowing for inflation

Ben Taggart, who is a master modelmaker and has also made models for exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum took 1,250 hours to complete the project.It cost £40,000 to build, £15,000 more than the Tudor masterwork, reputed to be the most luxurious residence in England, if not in Europe back in the day. Applying inflation to the building costs it would now cost about £10.3m. The superb model will be a permanent feature at the Service Wing Museum in Nonsuch Mansion, Nonsuch Park.

There is a group of antique timber chests that also take their name from the palace. The so-called Nonsuch Chests bear images of architectural decoration, which is deeply inscribed. For a long time they were thought to have represented the palace, although it is more likely they were just fantasy creations.

Nonesuch Palace during its time was a centre where foreign artists executed elaborate and very costly work, confirmed by the excavations carried out by archaeologists in 1959-60 of the site where it had stood. It certainly proved there was ‘none other such’ palace in existence by revealing none of the secrets within to those who approached its all encompassing walls.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010, 2011

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