Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Duke of Cumberland Suite (Revised October 2011)

It is one of those frustrating paradoxes of the 21st century that the authorities try their hardest to wean people off using their private cars, but then make travel at weekends in London on public transport an absolute nightmare. Sheer logistics obliged me to postpone a return visit to Osterley Park and House and make my way to Hampton Court Palace instead. My personal interest in English history reaches a crescendo under the Tudors and all but fizzles out after King Charles II. As a consequence, I rarely pay more than a cursory visit to the parts of the palace rebuilt by William III in the closing years of the 17th century. However, at the weekend I decided I would explore more thoroughly those areas I had hitherto neglected.

Before my perambulations around the Georgian Rooms I went into the Members’ Room. The foot of the staircase was roped off and the door on the upper floor firmly closed. Fortunately, I had taken advantage of an earlier visit to explore both. On this occasion I could hear a group of women talking loudly in the dining room. Some poor soul was the subject of a prolonged session of character assassination. I went into the kitchen, endeavouring to make as much noise as possible to signal my presence but they seemed oblivious to the fact they could be overheard, at which point I decided to leave.

 The sequence of Georgian Rooms start with the Cumberland Suite, which is located immediately above the Member’s Room and occupies the same space which constituted Henry VIII’s private apartments. The staircase to these rooms also leads to the Silver Stick Gallery on the third floor. It was on this upper storey that Jane Seymour died days after giving birth to Henry’s son and heir, Prince Edward. It is said that her ghost has been seen descending this staircase and making its way out into the courtyard in search of her only child. As regular readers will have long surmised, I have little time for Mistress Jane Seymour being a Lady Anne Boleyn woman to the core.
The Duke of Cumberland was a younger son and favourite child of King George II and his wife, Queen Caroline, and in 1734 had yet to go down in history as the infamous Butcher of Culloden for the savage way he suppressed the Jacobite uprising of 1746. The royal couple had become estranged from their eldest son and heir, Frederick. When Frederick’s grandfather, King George I, inherited the throne he insisted that his own son and daughter-in-law should accompany him to England but that their eldest son Frederick should remain behind at the royal court of Hanover. Incidentally, also in the royal baggage was one Henrietta Howard, King George II’s mistress and the future builder of Marble Hill House. Frederick was well into his twenties when his grandfather died and his father came to the throne. There was very little love lost between the new Prince of Wales and the reigning monarch, which was why he ended up being banished from court and setting up home at Kew Palace whilst his parents commissioned William Kent, who had also worked on Chiswick House, to design a sumptuous suite of rooms for their younger teenage son. In 1734 young Prince William proudly took up residence.
 The first room through the processional route is the double height Presence Chamber. It has the most elaborate of all the plaster ceilings, very reminiscent of the kind found in Jacobean ceilings such as in the Grand Salon at Charlton House. The walls have been painted a sage cream and the plasterwork picked out in gold leaf. The wall by the windows contained a jib door. As I speculated what lay beyond a warder fortuitously opened it. It seems little more than a dilapidated closet although it is possible that it leads into a Tudor staircase tower. On the wall opposite had been placed a marble topped side table with a highly ornate wooden frame carved with garlands of flowers and fruit. The portrait above it was of Sir Robert Walpole, known to posterity as the first British Prime Minister and as the father of Horace Walpole, who built Strawberry Hill Villa.  

A small passageway led to the Duke’s Bedchamber. En route I passed by the concealed Tudor spiral staircase which Henry VIII’s pages had used to fetch and carry garments for their royal master from the Wardrobe on the ground floor. I persuaded the warder to let me go inside yet again. 

I then asked him about the adjacent mystery room which was in a state of disrepair and not open to the public. He very kindly led me into this chamber and explained that it had been the Duke’s study but that now it was used to store foodstuffs when catered events were held in the apartments. As with the bedroom and the Presence Chamber the study looked out across Clock Court through Tudor style stone mullioned windows. I say Tudor style because the sash windows added by the Georgians were replaced with Tudor windows by the Victorians. The wooden shutters by contrast looked to be Georgian.

The.Duke’s bed would have stood in the purpose built alcove. Nowadays, one of his father’s red damask travelling beds has been placed there. It is simpler than other state beds with their elaborate canopies and plumes of feathers as it needed to be readily dismantled so that it could conveyed around the country with ease. On either side of the alcove was a closet: one known as the light on the right and the other the dark on the left. The latter was where the Prince’s close stool was kept. The other served as a dressing room.  The same warder who had shown me the spiral staircase and the study took me into the windowless dark closet (save for the a small oval window high up in an inner wall) so that I could see an extant Tudor door. It must have been used by Henry VIII at one stage, though in his younger days as it was not very wide and certainly not king sized. The warder said that no-one today was quite sure where it led to. Some thought to a void, others to the Painted Hall. There was not the budget to carry out a scientific survey to find out one way or the other. Simply forcing it open was not an option if there was the possibility of wall paintings on the other side. As we stepped back into the bedchamber a female warder teased her colleague for taking women into the closet. The plain white marble fireplace with its green marble pillars had a simple egg and dart motif which was repeated in the shutters at the windows. There were a number of paintings on display against the dark green damask wall hangings including a Caravaggio of a boy peeling fruit, and “A Sibyl” by Orazio Gentileschi. The latter had produced the ceiling paintings for the Great Hall in the Queen’s House at Greenwich, which had later been cu down and placed in the Blenheim Saloon at MarlboroughHouse. Another painting depicted the family of the first Duke of Buckingham. The Duke had been a favourite of both King James I and his son Charles I. He was far from being a favourite with Parliament, who tried to have him impeached. Charles I saved Buckingham by dissolving Parliament but the king could not protect his friend from a successful assassination attempt in 1628 a year after the family portrait had been commissioned.

The Prince’s Withdrawing Room, the walls of which were hung with a red silk damask, had the grandest marble fireplace of all. It was decorated with carved grapes, pears, Grecian urns and garlands of flowers. In the Duke’s day he would have been provided with the only armchair in the room. Everyone else would have used stools to emphasize their more lowly status. More paintings lined the walls including a self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, the talented daughter of Orazio. I once tried to overlay an image of the Partridge’s mother on to that of Artemisia for a Christmas card. The angle of Artemisia’s head in the painting proved too problematic to replicate successfully and I abandoned the idea.

I was rather pleased I had made the effort to explore the first of the Georgian Rooms in more detail. Had I not done so I might never have discovered the extant Tudor door. I shall return to the subject of the Georgian Rooms anon.