Monday, 20 December 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: Fossils (Revised January 2011)

On the ground floor of the King William II’s apartments at Hampton Court is a gallery containing the usual suspects of Roman and Grecian sculptures including a statue of a naked Cleopatra being bitten by a snake.

But neither the statutes nor the view over William’s recreated privy gardens intrigue me as much as the red and white marble flooring.

For a number of years I was fascinated at the thought that they contained fossils which would have been seen by William and his entourage if they had bothered to look down. Had they done so, what would they have made of fossils in a pre-Darwinian era when the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, James Ussher, could confidently assert that the Earth had been created on eve of Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC. I have included a portrait of the Archbishop by the court painter Sir Peter Lely. The latter was also commissioned by the Duchess of York to produce a series of paintings commemorating the celebrated beauties of Charles II’s court. A portrait of the archbishop was not included in this collection.

My original enthusiasm has alas been dampened by the sober realisation that the gallery floor is probably not original to William’s time. On Easter Monday, 1986, that part of the palace, namely the wing added by Sir Christopher Wren, was subject to a major fire. It later transpired that an elderly resident of one of the grace and favour apartments had inadvertently set the place alight with her naked candle. Sadly the woman died in the fire. It took four years and a major project of renovation before William’s apartments could be restored to their former splendour. Consequently, I now sorrowfully believe that William’s marble floor might not have survived the conflagration. When I visit the palace again over the next few weeks, I shall be sure to ask the warders whether or not the current marble floor was laid down in the 17th century. I shall be greatly disappointed if the answer is a resounding no.

On the 2nd January 2011 I returned to Hampton Court. To my great delight one of the warders assured me that the red and white marble flooring in King William’s private apartments had escaped the effects of the conflagration of the 1980s unscathed and consequently were not replaced. Thus, I reiterate my point: what impression did the fossilised remains of sea creatures beneath their feet make on those people of the late 17th and early 18th century. Did they not wonder how a substance as hard as marble could have impressed upon it so many perfect images of shells? The warder said that there are even more impressive examples of fossils to be seen in the Mantegna Gallery. I had not time to see them on Sunday, but you can be sure I will be eagerly searching them out the next time I pop over to Hampton Court.

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