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There has been fast-gathering interest over the past 24 hours following the announcement that Christie’s is to auction a rare depiction of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace in December. Kicking off on art websites, the story soon reached the mainstream, including  BBC News, here.

Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel

Nonsuch Palace. Watercolour by Joris Hoefnagel, 1568, to be auctioned by Christie's.

Why the fuss? Well, everything about Nonsuch Palace is rare, a bit of a mystery. Until 50 years ago, virtually nothing was known about it except that it was a fabulous palace built by Henry in Surrey. That had been the situation for two and a half centuries. It almost had mythical, rather than historical status.

Henry commenced work on the Palace on 22 April 1538. His primary motivation, it is thought, was status-matching with Francis I of France, his great rival on the European stage. To this end, Nonsuch had plenty of Renaissance features and the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that he was employing Italian (in particular) master craftsmen.

But Henry did not live to see Nonsuch completed. Mary I sold it off to the 12th Earl of Arundel (not 19th per Wikipedia)  in 1556. It returned into Royal possession late in Elizabeth’s reign and remained in Royal hands until the Commonwealth. Charles II took it back and bequeathed it to his mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine, who didn’t wait too long before having it demolished. She sold the materials and spoil to meet gambling debts. A sole gatehouse was still standing in the very early 1700s, but after that, nothing.

Poor Henry. As with his new-build Bridewell Palace in London, his successors appear to have failed quite to share his enthusiasm for Nonsuch. Bolstered by the massive wealth he had farmed from confiscated church estates, revenues and treasure,  Henry could well afford such extravagant follies as this palace in the countryside. Those who followed him were not so positioned.  Nonsuch Palace was essentially a white elephant which nonetheless must have been magnificent to behold.

And that is where matters lay, more or less. For two hundred and fifty-odd years. After World War II, artifacts were discovered under the soil near Ewell which led some to believe it could be the site of Nonsuch Palace. A major archaeological dig was mounted through 1959-60, which captured the public imagination and was ground-breaking in many ways. Read the story in this issue of British Archaeology from 2001. Martin Biddle, who led the excavation, published two monographs about the project, also in the early 2000s.

The surviving images of Nonsuch Palace are few. The watercolour about to be sold by Christie’s is possibly the best of them. It shows the building from the south, its best side with most of the extravagant Renaissance decor. The front entrance on the north side has a more traditional medieval fortress design.

Update: It turns out that the picture remains unsold: it failed to meet its reserve. No other details apart from a single report on BBC web site. It was expected to fetch £1.2 million.

Update II 30 January 2012. A model of Nonsuch Palace has been made based on much of Martin Biddle’s research. It will be on display at the Nonsuch Palace Gallery every Sunday until March, in Cheam. More info.

Nonsuch Palace Engraving

Nonsuch Palace Engraving, also by Joris Hoefnagel, Government Art Collection

Nonsuch Palace

Nonsuch Palace from the north, i.e. the front entrance, showing the more traditional medieval side.

diagrammatic nonsuch palace

A more diagrammatic contemporary rendition, from the south.

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