Monday, 14 November 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The King's Staircase

In 1677 when Princess Mary, the daughter of the future James II of England, was informed she was to be married she did not know which was worse: being forced to leave the lively Restoration Court for staid Holland or marrying William of Orange, a man blessed with neither height, unlike her uncle King Charles II, or good looks.  However, although he did not cut a heroic figure in the flesh, William more than acquitted himself ably on the battlefields of Europe. Mary’s sullen resentment at the match eventually turned to a sincere affection for both her new homeland and her spouse. When they were invited back to England to jointly take the throne from off of Mary’s Catholic father, she was more than happy to concede the greater share of sovereign power to him.
Arnold Joost van Keppel
For his part William seemed to have grown fond of his wife, the more so when she died of smallpox in 1694. He had only ever had one acknowledged mistress, Elizabeth Villiers, during his marriage and she was dismissed upon his wife’s death. Rumour had it that her place was taken by the much younger Dutchman Arnold Joost van Keppel, who William created the 1st Earl of Albemarle. If that were true then young Arnold was merely paving the way for his descendants to become embroiled in ribald gossip regarding their closeness to certain members of the royal family: one descendant, Alice Keppel, was an acknowledged mistress of King Edward VII, whilst her great granddaughter caused an even bigger scandal in the latter part of the 20th century when she became the third person in the late Diana Spencer’s “crowded” marriage to the Prince of Wales. 
Even knowing something of William’s personal history I would never have been able to decipher the allegories contained on the King’s Staircase at Hampton Court Palace without a crib sheet. William commissioned Jean Tijou, a French Huguenot and master blacksmith, to make the ornate iron balustrades. Tijou had accompanied William and his wife Mary to England when they seized the throne.
I had unwittingly come across more examples of Tijou’s work when I walked passed the gilded screens separating the Privy Gardens at Hampton Court from the tow path. 
Antonio Verrio
The artist who painted the frescoes on the ceiling and walls was Antonio Verrio. He also painted the ceiling roundel depicting the classical myth of Ganymede and the Eagle within the Queen’s Closet at Ham House. Not being a Classical scholar I needed to peek at the notes in Ham House to establish what the imagery represented. I would have been completely stymied by what precisely is represented in the paintings around the King’s Staircase.
It seems William III is shown as Alexander the Great, which must mean he is the figure in the golden armour. If so he is depicted hovering above lesser mortals in the guise of Roman generals. The latter represent his enemies, the Roman Catholic rulers of the time. William was a staunch Protestant which was why he had been offered the throne of the Catholic King James. 
Elsewhere the gods are feasting. This allegory represents the abundance of food and the absence of war that William’s reign has heralded in. 
I am now very familiar with the various grisaille (monochrome or near monochrome) figures and motifs of war which decorated the lower parts of the walls, having encountered them at Syon House, Marlborough House, Knole and elsewhere.
 The frescoes are somewhat ridiculous but if you ignore the bellicose nature of them they are rather jolly and a great deal more fun than the average set of adverts plastered along escalators.