25 March 2021
After the success of his The Costume of Great Britain (1804) – the subject of last time’s blog – which he wrote and illustrated but did not publish, William Henry Pyne embarked on a more lavish and, as it proved, much more risky venture: his The History of the Royal Residences (1816-1819). For this undertaking, Pyne wrote the text, commissioned watercolourists and engravers, hired a printer, and set out to be his own publisher, issuing the work in parts. It was not a success. The first part appeared in June 1816, but by December 1818 Pyne was forced to sell out to another publisher, who duly published the complete three volumes in 1820 (£25.4s.0d for a quarto edition, £37.16s.0d for the large paper edition). Always the true collector, Graham Watson’s collection has both, plus a rare uncoloured version.
Pyne’s was a pioneering project: the first properly illustrated survey of the royal palaces, accurately recording their condition and, with that, recording fashions and tastes, as well as attitudes to the past. It was also hugely ambitious, featuring 100 plates, the work of at least five artists, although with a remarkable uniformity of style.
The focus on recording interior spaces as historic and aesthetic assemblages would have many successors but had few predecessors of its type. One of the special values of Pyne’s work is that he was just in time to record some interiors that were about to change drastically or disappear.
Thankfully, this was not the case at Hampton Court, where time had stopped still sixty years before at the death of George II, the last monarch to live there. Pyne’s plates record both exterior and interior views that will be familiar to visitors today, such as the Tudor Great Hall (Plate 1) and the magnificent staircase leading up to the apartments built for William and Mary (2). By Pyne’s day the palace was home to ‘grace and favour’ residents, royal pensioners and hangers-on – William IV called it ‘the quality poor house’. After Queen Victoria instituted free opening to the public in 1838 there were 115,971 visitors in 1839, and 236,000 in 1882.
But at Windsor Castle Pyne’s plates were in time to record the State Rooms – created for Charles II in the 1670s by his architect Hugh May, with painted decoration by Verrio – before these were variously altered and destroyed by Wyatville in the 1820s.
These rooms were the first Baroque interiors designed on this scale in England. We can still see the parade rooms that the Windsor interiors inspired at Chatsworth, Burghley and Boughton, but significant parts of the Windsor original conception survive only in Pyne’s plates. So it is with the grandest parts of Charles II’s palace – recorded by Pyne but now destroyed – the Royal Chapel and Charles II’s St George’s Hall (Plates 3 and 4). The immense painted ceiling of the Hall depicted Charles in his Garter robes enthroned in glory, while the Black Prince returns in triumph to his father Edward III. The Baroque chapel had features modelled on Bernini’s St Peter’s, and visible behind the stalls are large amounts of exquisite carving by Grinling Gibbons, almost all of which would be destroyed a few years later.
Badly damaged by fire in 1809, the fate of St James’s Palace was uncertain in Pyne’s day, only secured later when the Government resisted George IV’s wish to demolish it. Pyne’s plate of the palace kitchen (Plate 5) is typical of the way he includes plates of kitchens and back areas of the palaces, concerned to show the character of these places. Pyne also surveys Buckingham House (bought by George III from the Duke of Buckingham), Frogmore (a satellite residence at Windsor) and the then-dilapidated Kensington Palace.
But perhaps the most striking visual legacy of Pyne’s book is that he devotes 20 of the 100 plates to recording a palace that, although still evolving when Pyne depicted it, would be demolished only a few years after his work appeared. This was Carlton House, the home of George IV while Prince of Wales and Prince Regent, a vanished extravagance of decoration that some contemporaries thought surpassed the palaces of St Petersburg in opulence.
The sumptuously elegant entrance hall (Plate 6) sets the tone for what is to follow, with its magnificent ceiling, siena marble columns and much marbling and use of porphyry. Beyond it lay splendid spaces like the Circular Room (Plate 7) with its scagliola columns and ceiling painted to look as if open to the sky. Astonishingly lavish effects are achieved in spaces like the Crimson Drawing Room (Plate 8), with wall coverings, festoons and valances of crimson satin damask, and the Blue Velvet Room, the Prince’s private audience chamber (Plate 9). In the former room was Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride and Rubens’s Landscape with St George, painted for Charles I and bought back by the Regent in 1814. In the latter room Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Ship-Builder and his Wife is visible, bought by the Regent in 1811. Indeed, many of the finest paintings now in the Royal Collection were bought to hang in Carlton House – an inventory of 1816 lists 453 paintings in the building. Signs of a new taste are the remarkable cast-iron and stained glass Gothic Conservatory of 1807 (Plate 10), and the Gothic Dining Room by John Nash of 1814 (Plate 11).
On his accession in 1820, George IV thought Carlton House would not do, and proposed rebuilding his parents’ relatively modest Buckingham House into a palace. Carlton House was demolished in 1826, replaced by two grand stuccoed terraces – Carlton House Terrace – and the proceeds used to defray the cost of Buckingham Palace. The portico of Carlton House (Plate 12) was re-purposed to become the portico of the new National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Pyne and the genius of the colour-plate artists happened to be on hand to capture this brief, vanished splendour. But none of that splendour rubbed off on Pyne who, after his Royal Residences venture, seems to have lived in serious financial difficulties, was more than once imprisoned for debt, and died in straitened circumstances.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts