Sunday, April 20, 2008

The lost gardens of Richmond Palace

Those detailed scenes visible through a window behind the sitter in Renaissance portraits often seem like glimpses of lost landscapes. Here is a specific example, from the portrait of Henry Prince of Wales (1594-1612) by Robert Peake. The youthful heir to James I was a patron of the arts who sought to create a spectacular garden at Richmond.

In the words of James Maxwell:
To plant and build he had a great delight,
Old ruins his sole presence did repair;
Orchards and gardens forthwith at his sight
Began to sprout and spring, to flourish fair...
However, almost before these gardens had had a chance to flourish, Henry died, and work on it was halted.

Roy Strong, in The Renaissance Garden in England, discusses the evidence we have on the appearance of these lost gardens, which ‘must have constituted a remarkable spectacle, conceived as they seem to have been on a vast scale.’ The Works Accounts refer to the creation of three artificial islands, one of which may be discernable in the garden vista within Peake’s portrait of Henry. It is possible that one of the islands was created in the shape of a vast river god, modelled on Giambologna’s giant at Pratolino. A contemporary described the erection of a ‘great figure... three times as large as the one at Pratolino, with rooms inside, a dove-cot in the head and grottoes in the base.’ Salomon de Caus, the chief designer at Richmond, included a couple of illustrations of giants in his Les raisons des forces mouvantes (1615). The one here has an old bearded head like the giant of Giambologna and a rugged but strangely feminine body.

Like the vague and tantalising view in the portrait of Henry, there may be echoes and memories of the lost gardens at Richmond in the literature of the time. Roy Strong wonders whether Inigo Jones’ scenery for Ben Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue recalls an island giant: ‘The scene was the mountain Atlas, who had his top ending in the figure of an old man, his head and beard all hoary and frost as if his shoulders were covered with snow; the rest wood and rock.’ And then there is The Tempest, where we seem ‘to be wondering through a garden by de Caus where we are suddenly confronted by dreamlike monsters, or entering a wild grotto to be struck suddenly, at the turn of a stopcock, with surprise and wonder at moving statues and magical music, as gods and goddesses spring to life and enact an intermezzo.’


snarlerson said...

I have always thought of Richmond Palace as a sad place. Until Henry VII became king, it was called Sheen Palace and was renamed for his earldom of Richmond. Edward III died at Sheen and, according to some sources, he was abandoned by everyone. What a sorry end to such a triumphant reign. And then his grandson, Richard II, so devastated by the death of his beloved wife, Anne of Bohemia, there, ordered the whole palace to be destroyed. Henry VII died there too in the rebuilt palace, but I have little regard for him. However, if the son of Henry VII and Catherine of Aragon had not died at Richmond, we might have been spared the Reformation and the destruction of some many wonderful religious buildings and images. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was a stellar monarch, died there too. Refusing to lie down, she died on her feet. Now there is only a fragment of a gateway and a few outbuildings left which can be glimpsed to the west of Richmond Green. Like Nonsuch Palace, we have lost a great building with an even more evocative history.

Anonymous said...

Henry VII was never married to Catherine of Aragon so they certainly never had a son. She was the wife of Henry VIII and they never had a son either.

snarlerson said...

My earlier comment included a typo. It should, of course, have read Henry VIII. But Henry VIII and Catherine DID have sons, Henry, born on New Years Day 1511, was created Prince of Wales but died 56 days later. Another son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, survived only a few hours.