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Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The King’s Apartments


The fire which swept through Hampton Court on Easter Monday in 1986 proved both a tremendous challenge and an unexpected opportunity for the curators faced with the daunting task of restoration. The fire started in Lady Daphne Gale’s grace and favour apartment within the Baroque wing of the palace. As King William III’s state apartments were directly below the conflagration they sustained the worst damage. Rather than restore the King’s Apartments to how they looked immediately prior to the fire, the curators decided to present the sequence of rooms as William would have known them. The curators’ task was made easier by the fact the royal archives contained detailed bills presented by the craftsmen who had first worked on Wren’s palace. The archives also contained comprehensive inventories of the tapestries and paintings at Hampton Court at the end of the 17th century.

Having first started work on Hampton Court in 1689, William lost all interest in the scheme following his wife’s early death. Ironically, it was a major fire within another royal residence that inspired William to resume his building project in earnest. The Palace of Whitehall had been left in ruins after a fire broke out in 1698. Only the Jacobean Banqueting House escaped the flames.  Daniel Defoe was much taken with the changes made at Hampton Court Palace.  In his "Journey from London to the Land's End" published in 1724 he wrote approvingly: King William fixed upon Hampton Court, and it was in his reign that Hampton Court put on new clothes, and, being dressed gay and glorious, made the figure we now see it in.
 
 

At the top of the King’s Staircase the first room in the processional route is the Guards’ Chamber. The walls are decorated with 2,871 pieces of armour, drums, pikes, muskets, powder horn, swords, knives and other items drawn from a 17th century armoury. This singular collection of weaponry is arranged in patterns devised by a certain John Harris in 1699.

The Guards’ Chambers leads into the Presence Chamber. One hundred years ago “A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2.” described the Presence Chamber as “one of the most stately of Wren's rooms, which remains practically the same as it was then. The original canopy of crimson damask is still fixed to the wall, with its rich embroidery of silver and gold somewhat dimmed by time.” I was able to decipher alongside William's crowned initials the symbol for England, a rose, worked in silver and gold thread along the front of the canopy. There was also a harp for Ireland and a thistle for Scotland. The warder pointed out that the fourth symbol was a Fleur de Lys. Intriguingly, a century and a half after England had lost Calais, its last possession in France, the English monarch still laid symbolic claim to the throne across the Channel.
Two large tapestries, originally made for Henry VIII, grace the walls facing the windows. They were retrieved from storage in Windsor Castle, where they had long languished. The archives revealed they had been displayed at Hampton Court during the 17th century. One tapestry depicts the 12 Labours of Hercules. Amongst the 12 Labours Hercules is shown killing the half-giant and equally naked Antaeus by holding him aloft and crushing him to death in a bear hug. Not being blessed with a classical education I was initially bemused as to what was going on, the more so as I mistook Antaeus death agonies for a look of pure ecstasy.     
Facing the throne is a large equestrian portrait of King William by Sir Godfrey Kneller. William does not cut quite as dashing a figure on horseback as  Kneller's painting of Mohammed bin Hadou, the Moroccan ambassador at the court of Charles II, which I first saw at Chiswick House.The painting of the king is titled: “William III landing at Torbay in 1697.  Neptune stands near to William, whilst the latter’s ships, carrying the soldiers who would help him defeat his father-in-law King James II, appear in the background. A goddess holding a cornucopia brimming over with fruit and wheat kneels at his feet and offers William an olive branch. Just as on the Antonio Verrio staircase, the clear allusion was that William’s reign would herald in an era of peace and prosperity. 
 

The Presence Chamber has two copper braziers and two Delft tulip holders near the fireplace. I believe the latter are decorated with an image of King William on the base but the warder was not so certain. We did agree that the painting above the fireplace was of James Hamilton. The son of a Protestant minister, Hamilton had worked as an agent for King James during the reign of Elizabeth I and had proved himself to be both a loyal and able courtier. According to the warder, Hamilton’s portrait above the fireplace signalled to visitors that loyalty and hard work on behalf of the crown would be rewarded. This was not a viewpoint shared by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey who had originally built Hampton Court Palace. As he lay dying at Leicester, en route to imprisonment and probable execution at the Tower of London, Wolsey was alleged to have made the bitter comment: “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs”.
 
 
Christian IV of Denmark
Several Mortlake Tapestries based on the Raphael Cartoons in the Cartoon Gallery are hung in the next room. Delicate carvings of sheaves of wheat above the fireplace by the celebrated Grinling Gibbons hint that the chamber was once the Eating Room. A portrait of King Christian IV of Denmark, William’s maternal great uncle, is set into the chimney piece. Christian was known to be a connoisseur of good food and bad women. The former can be attested to by the gargantuan size of his stomach. It is pure coincidence but somewhat apposite that he wears the Order of the Elephant around his neck. Christian’s fondness for women is evident from his complicated love life. His first wife bore him 7 children before she died. Having dallied with the odd mistress or two, Christian entered into a morganatic marriage with the teenage Kirsten Munk. Her canny mother insisted that Christian agree to the marriage if he wanted to bed her daughter. Christian had a further 12 children by Kirsten. Later, having accused Kirsten of an affair, the king divorced her and banished his former wife to her estates in the country. The king then entered in a relationship with one of Kirsten’s former servants, Vibeke Kruse, by whom he had yet more offspring. Kirsten Munk’s life had certain parallels with that of Sophia Dorothea of Celle, the wife of King George I. But it was Kirsten’s daughter, Leonora Christina, who suffered far harsher treatment than was metered out to either of the two other women. I became so engrossed in the strange tale of  Leonora Christina  that I decided to write a separate post about her, more of which anon.
 
A portrait of another ill fated member of a European royal family hangs above the white marble fireplace in the next room: this time being of King Charles I. The unfortunate king was imprisoned in the palace during the English Civil War. His children were held in nearby Syon House and were allowed to visit him from time to time. William III used this room as his Privy Chamber, hence his chair of state. One of the tapestries illustrates the martyrdom of St Stephen. I have no idea what the subjects of the other tapestry is though I assume it is Biblical in origin.

More prosaically, two marble topped pier tables and torchères have been placed against the mirrors by the windows as they would have been in the past, the better to reflect light into a room made gloomy by the dark panelled walls. In a similar fashion the plain sanded pine floors help to reflect as much light as possible.
 
 
A Mortlake Tapestry woven from Raphael’s Cartoon of St Paul preaching in Athens can be partially seen by the red damask bed in the State Bedchamber. It took me a while to identify it. Afterwards, when I compared the tapestry with a picture I had taken of a copy of the respective Raphael Cartoon  at the Old Royal Naval College, it dawned on me that the tapestry had been deliberately hung back to front, no doubt on the grounds of conservation. A portrait of William’s late queen, Mary, looks down from the chimney-piece. The painted ceiling features a charming if pagan allegory of night and day, with Night riding a crescent moon and Day springing from the sun.
As part of court protocol, William would formally go to bed and rise in the morning from his red damask four poster bed. It was deemed a singular honour to be present at such ceremonies. In reality, William slept in the adjacent and much smaller yellow bedchamber. The yellow silk damask was specially woven in recent years to match fragments from the original bed hangings. It used to be said that William would give certain Dutchmen, who he was particularly close to, the right to sleep in the beds in his absence but that is yet another one of those intriguing vignettes that is no longer related. The stacked shelves above the fireplace display vases from Mary’s private collection. There was another delightful painting on the ceiling: this time of a sleeping Mars with his head in the lap of Venus.


 
I can’t say I was very taken with William’s closet with its crimson damask wall hangings. I did find a jib door though, which seemed to lead to his dark closet. I had always thought it strange that William would have been obliged to slip out onto the cold stone stairs in his nightgown to get to his velvet  close stool, but it seems he would have used this door instead. I almost got into trouble trying to photograph the other side of this jib door from within the dark closet as my hand set off the alarm. Hoping they would attribute the alarm to the gaggle of school children, I guiltily beat a hasty retreat down the stairs. As I looked up I saw that the dark closet had once had glazed windows to allow light to stream in from the hall.
At the bottoms of the stairs I came across the snug little sitting room set aside for visitors to rest their weary limbs. I had often made use of in the past until I went up in the world as a member and had full  rein of an entire former grace and favour apartment.                                                                                
 
 
 
It seems William III was essentially a private man, so private in fact that the curators at Hampton        
Court are not sure how this sequence of chambers would have been presented in his lifetime or their     respective purpose. Consequently, I shall forbear from describing each room and simply highlight       certain features.                                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                                          
It is though that the room shown above would have been William’s bedchamber as the middle door leads to a dark closet. One of these rooms had a special set of locks which meant that the doors could only be locked from the inside, affording the secretive William even more privacy when he wanted it.
The carvings on either side of the painting depict various musical instruments including violins and recorders, which would suggest this had been a music room.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
What could be more appropriate than for a Prince of Orange, as William had been before becoming King of England, than that he should have his own orangery. I was always more fascinated by the fossils in the marble flooring than the statues. Thanks to my jaunts around stately homes, I am able to identify the Venus de Medici, the statue with the dolphin, at ten paces as well as Cleopatra being bitten by an asp.
 

I particularly liked the fact that from this closet you could catch a glimpse of an interior chamber. Up to this point, the procession of rooms was beginning to remind me of the Geffrye Museum rather than the private apartments of a king.
William would have had a portrait of his mother, the English born Princes Mary, on display out of affection and to emphasis his English roots and therefore strengthen his claim to the throne which he had won though a force of arms. The portrait of the young girl in a blue dress would have been painted during the Princess’ childhood in England.
The final room in the sequence is William’s private dining room. Normally there are more pictures of comely young women on display. Just as Anne Hyde had commissioned the Windsor Beauties in the Communication Gallery so her daughter, Queen Mary II, persuaded Sir Godfrey Kneller to paint a selection of the acknowledged beauties from her own court. It seems the pictures have been moved elsewhere in the palace in anticipation of a new exhibition to be held next year.

As the apartments were now all but empty I fell into conversation with Richard, the warder on duty. He explained that the palace had recently been used for location scenes for an upcoming film called “Jack the Giant Killer,” starring Ewan McGregor. It was based on the traditional fairytale Apparently, Fountain Court was turned into a medieval fair for the day. Richard also mentioned the BBC production of “Little Dorrit”, where the courtyards around the Tudor Kitchens served as the Marshalsea Prison. Exterior and interior scenes for this same production were also filmed at Chenies Manor House. I said how much I had admired the ironwork summerhouse prop which the BBC had left behind in the gardens at Chenies. We both smiled when we recalled “To Kill a King” which was partly set at Hampton Court. The lanky Rupert Everett was physically miscast as Charles I. The latter suffered from polio as a child and consequently only grew to around 5 foot 4. Rupert Everett is 6 feet 4 and as such a giant compared to Charles. I suppose Everett and McGregor could have joined forces and made a film called: Jack: To kill a giant king. Alas, King William’s life has never been deemed of sufficient interest to merit a film in its own right, other than one made for BBC North Ireland television in 2008. Even demolishing half of their palace could not dim the memory of the Tudors.

2 comments:

  1. I know I toured some of these rooms. The weapons room is unforgettable and I recognize some of the tapestries. But I don't believe I saw the king's private rooms. It's nice to have a peek, thanks.

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  2. It is possible they were not open when you visited. For example, the Queen's apartments are currently closed and are not scheduled to reopen until Easter when there will be a new exhibition launched. I think the curators are making a concerted effort to get more people to visit the Stuart and Georgian parts of the palace, hence the exhibition next year.

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