Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Image provided by Christie's UK. All rights reserved.
The earliest and most detailed depiction of Nonsuch Palace – Britain’s most ambitious Renaissance commission – unseen in public for nearly 25 years
"That which has no equal in art or fame, Britons do rightly Nonsuch name."

Christie’s announce that they will offer an exceptionally rare and beautiful depiction of the ‘lost’ palace of Nonsuch at the auction of Old Masters and 19th Century Art on 7 December 2010. Commissioned by King Henry VIII in order to outshine the great palaces built by his rival King François I of France, the building of Nonsuch Palace began in 1538 and took 8 years to complete. It stood for less than 150 years having fallen into disrepair in the 1680s. The earliest and most important contemporary depiction of Britain’s most ambitious Renaissance commission, the present drawing is an extremely valuable record of the ‘lost’ palace and has been seen in public only twice before; at Sutton Place in 1983 and at The National Gallery, Washington, in 1986. Described by Martin Biddle as ‘the only surviving impression of what Nonsuch really looked like’, it is expected to realise £800,000 to £1,200,000.

Benjamin Peronnet, Director and International Head of Old Master and 19th Century Drawings, Christie’s: “This is an exceptionally rare and exciting picture; not only is it one of the earliest British watercolours and a work of art of immense beauty, but it is also the most exact pictorial record of Henry VIII’s great commission, Nonsuch Palace. Henry’s determination to build the grandest of palaces was fuelled by his rivalry with François I of France who was a great Renaissance patron of the arts and who built the palaces at Fontainebleu and Chambord. Nonsuch Palace stood for less than 150 years and there are only four contemporary depictions that are known to survive. Of these the watercolour to be offered at Christie’s is the earliest, and the only one to show a true impression of the ‘lost’ palace.”

The watercolour was executed by Joris Hoefnagel who provided the illustrations for Civitates Orbis Terrarum – an extremely important record of all most important buildings and cityscapes in Europe first published in 1572. Almost all of the 546 drawings made for this book are in public collections, with the majority, more than 60, in the National Library in Vienna. Hoefnagel executed the present work in situ at Nonsuch and used it to create a later, less detailed depiction that was used for the engraving. This later version is now in the British Museum. The present work was acquired in the mid-19th century by Sir Alfred Morrison of Fonthill – one of the most celebrated British collectors of the 19th century - and has since passed by descent.

After Hoefnagel’s two depictions of the Palace in the 16th century, no other representations are known until John Speed’s exaggerated thumbnail engraving of 1610. The only other known depictions of the Palace are those in the Fitzwilliam Museum by an unknown artist (1620) and a view by Hendrick Danckerts at Berkeley Castle (circa 1660). Nonsuch Palace is also extremely important as one of the very earliest surviving watercolours executed in England. Contemporaneous with the watercolours of Jan Brueghel, the drawing pre-dates by 60 years the comparable landscapes of Anthony Van Dyck – often considered the inventor of the English landscape watercolour.

Nonsuch Palace

The construction of Nonsuch began on 23 April 1538, the thirtieth anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne, on the site of the village of Cuddington, near Ewell, Surrey. The palace’s primary function was to serve as a hunting lodge; more importantly it was conceived as a visual expression of Tudor supremacy both temporal and spiritual, a celebration of the birth of Henry’s first legitimate son (the future Edward IV) on 12 October 1537 and, in flattening the parish church of Cuddington, it literally demonstrated Henry’s new dominance as head of the Church in England. Most importantly, it was proof that Henry was equal to the architectural achievements of François I of France. It was named ‘Nonsuch’ as no other palace could equal its magnificence.

Still incomplete when Henry VIII died in 1547, Nonsuch was sold to Henry FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, by Mary I in 1557. It returned to royal hands in 1592, when Arundel’s heir Lord Lumley gave it to Elizabeth I in settlement of a debt. It was eventually granted by Charles II to Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, in 1670, when she was created Baroness of Nonsuch, Countess of Southampton and Duchess of Cleveland. In late 1682 she took the step of beginning to dismantle the Inner Court, as merely the first stage of an ordered demolition which enabled her to sell the raw materials for money with which to pay off her gambling debts. By 1690 the palace was all but gone, and for almost four hundred years its fabulous appearance was only known through written records and the few known visual representations.