At Christmastide 1497 a great fire broke out in Henry VII’s private chambers in the mainly wooden mediaeval palace at Sheen in Surrey. It burned for 3 hours destroying a large part of the building but it was reported that the king “does not attach much importance to this loss. He purposes to build… all in stone, and much finer than before.”
Henry did just that. His new palace became his favourite home and was used by successive monarchs up until Civil War. Then, along with all the other royal estates it was confiscated and sold. The new owners rapidly demolished it for its building materials. There is now almost no trace of it left and if it wasn’t for one man we wouldn’t really have a clue what this spectacular Tudor palace and its gardens looked like.
I’m mid-way through running a course on Tudor Gardens for the Gardens Trust and when preparing it I was reminded of how much we owe to this one individual not just about the appearance of Richmond, but also the palaces and gardens at Hampton Court and to a lesser extent Oatlands and Westminster as well of the entirety of the city of London at this time. So today can I introduce you to him: Antonis van den Wyngaerde…and please don’t be put off by his unpronounceable name
The images of Wyngaerde’s work that are available on-line are not always high resolution, so I have obtained them from several different sources rather than just the Ashmolean who hold the images I am discussing today. Some have also been “cleaned up” by others to make them more easily readable while those of the panorama are scanned from the London Topographical Society’s facsimile.
Van den Wyngaerde was Flemish, and his name I think translates literally as Anthony of the vineyards, certainly in Spain where he spent much of his later working life he is known as Antonio de las Viñas.
We know little about his early life, not even when he was born, but the scholarly consensus now seems to be that, because of the known dates of his earliest works, it’s likely to have been around 1512.
He probably came from Antwerp, the economic and artistic centre of the Low Countries, which were then part of the Spanish Hapsburg empire ruled by Charles V, and it’s likely he trained with local artists in their powerful Guild of Luke. His talent took him in completely direction to most of his peers and he began to specialise in views of cities rather than portraits, religious or genre scenes.
There is equally a lot of uncertainty about his early career but he must have established his reputation whilst still in his twenties because, in 1543, international politics seems to have given him his first big break. Relations between Henry VIII and Charles V had not been good following Henry’s divorce from Charles’ aunt, Katherine of Aragon. Her death and mutual hostility to France brought about a short rather self-interested reconciliation between the two monarchs, and not long after that the young Wyngaerde travelled to London. There he embarked on a major survey of the city. There is no way a young foreigner would have been able to do that without immediately attracting suspicion and probably arrest and imprisonment, so the presumption must be that he had royal permission.
Henry VIII is known to have collected maps and topographical views, and been interested in mapmaking and surveying particularly for military and naval purposes. His reign saw big improvements in cartographic techniques and there are other examples of him employing highly skilled foreign artisans such as the astronomer and sundial and clock-maker Nicholas Kratzner, the painter Hans Holbein and the French map-maker Jean Rotz. We have no idea who invited Wyngaerde to London or who commissioned the panorama of the city that he drew in 1543 or 1544 but it surely can’t be ruled out that it was the monarch himself.
Wyngaerde’s drawing includes the entire city along its river front, from distant Greenwich in the east to Westminster in the west. It’s a huge piece of work measuring 10 feet by 17 inches, and covering 14 sheets – 7 for the north bank of the Thames which is where most of the city was, and 7, often sketchily finished, for the less developed southern bank of the river.
There is another additional sheet covering the palace at Westminster which may have been intended to be added to the western end. The panorama appears drawn from a single vantage point in Southwark, although of course that’s physically impossible, and it was actually drawn from a whole variety of viewpoints and then “merged” into a seamless whole. At the time Wyngaerde was working there was no map of the city, although there were some surveys and drawings of small sections of it, almost all now lost, so his panorama gives us our first ever detailed view of London. Its history is unknown until, in 1823, it was put up for auction in Antwerp. The original is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
The work is clearly just a preliminary drawing for a more polished piece, since in parts it is obviously very sketchily drawn. There is no detail of the riverside gardens of the great aristocratic palaces that lined the Strand and and there are even a couple of empty spaces. Significantly these blanks are for the royal palaces of Westminster and Bridewell.
Their omission is likely to have been because Wyngaerde intended to do much more detailed drawings of them, although If he did they have not survived. I can’t help wondering if the drawing was to be used as the basis for a topographical fresco or mural within one of Henry’s palaces, as was often done in Italian and Spanish palaces, later even including some by Wyngaerde himself.
The Tower too is well recorded together with two views of the open spaces of Tower Hill and Tower Green behind it.
More important to our understanding of the Tudor royal garden however is the insight it offers into the privy garden at Westminster where the chequerboard pattern and group of stick-like objects are proof of the placing of heraldic beasts around a central fountain . [If you’re not sure what the beasts are check out this post about them.]
The panorama is an impressive piece of work and there’s no doubting its visual impact, but we mustn’t be deceived into thinking its the Tudor version of a photograph – even a well photoshopped one. There are plenty of errors, some minor and some more serious, which have well analysed by Howard Colvin [reference at the end]. London is squashed both in its depth and its length, some buildings, notably the churches, are exaggerated in height and importance, and the spatial relationships between places are sometimes distorted. Nevertheless, if we remember that artifice and convention sometimes overrule strict accurate observation it is an absolutely unique piece of evidence for the mid-16thc city.
We have no idea how long Wyngaerde stayed in London but there is no more extant work until 1552 when he re-emerges in the service of Philip II it Italy, perhaps attached to the Spanish army which was campaigning there. By 1557 he was in northern France, again probably with the army, drawing views of several French and Flemish towns. While this was going on Philip had married Queen Mary and later Wyngaerde was to follow in his footsteps and document some of the places that Philip had visited during his stay in England. He was definitely back in England around the time of Mary’s death in 1558 and either stayed on or returned soon afterwards because we have a total of 18 drawings dated between 1558 and 1562 mainly of the royal palaces and gardens at Richmond and Hampton Court. It is these which are invaluable to garden historians.
Richmond Palace and its grounds extended over ten acres which included its own orchards and walled gardens. Henry’s rebuilt royal lodgings were built in brick but faced with white stone. Brick was becoming a more widespread material and from the mid-15thc acceptable, almost fashionable, for grand houses, perhaps following the fashion of the Low Countries. Certainly there were quite a few Flemish craftsmen recorded in England including at Richmond.
Henry built “sumptuously and costly”, making a statement of modernity, and helping show how England was in the mainstream of European culture. The new building had octagonal towers, pepper-pot chimney caps, turrets and ornate weathervanes made of brass, as well as much larger windows built to bring in more light than the tiny slit-like windows of a castle. It was filled with European luxury goods and for the remainder of his reign Richmond was the showplace of the kingdom.
On the western [left] side of the palace, overlooked by the royal lodgings, was the Great Orchard while on the east side were the palace gardens proper.
Thanks to Wyngaerde we know that these were encircled by two-storey galleries, open at ground level on the garden side, and enclosed above, where the court could walk, play games, and admire the gardens. These galleries were a feature which seems to have developed at the Burgundian Court in Flanders but were also to be seen in France too – which Henry had visited in the last stretch of his exile.
Luckily we also have some brief descriptions of the gardens because Richmond was the scene of the great festivities that followed Henry’s great diplomatic triumph – the securing of the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon to marry his eldest son Prince Arthur. After the wedding at St Paul’s everyone decamped to Richmond. An anonymous account of the proceedings described how under the king’s window there were “most fair and pleasant gardens with royal knots alleyed and herbed” while elsewhere were “pleasant galleries and houses of pleasures to disport in, at chess, tables, dice, cards, bills [bowls] butts for archers and goodly tennis plays.”Since Wyngaerde’s images lack details of what’s actually in the gardens these descriptions add a huge amount of additional colour and veracity.
There was topiary but also beds shaped as heraldic emblems “Many a marvellous beast, as lions, dragons and other such divers kinds, properly fashioned… carved in the ground, right well sanded and compassed in with lead.
A contemporary poem by Stephen Hawes gives us other glimpses at what the gardens might have been like. Although Richmond is no specifically named Hawes was a Groom of the Chamber to Henry VII and obviously had access to the palace grounds.
Then in we went, to the garden glorious
Like to a place, of pleasure most solacious
With Flora painted, and wrought curiously
In divers knottes, of marveylous greatnes
Rampande Lyons, stode up wonderfly,
Made all of herbes, with dulcet swetenes
With many dragons, of marveylous likenes
Of diuers floures, made full craftely
By Flora couloured, with colours sundrye
But of course a picture is worth a thousand words and Wyngaerde’s views help bring these places to vivid life.
Henry VIII was not so fond of Richmond preferring Hampton Court which he had acquired from Cardinal Wolsey. He had ordered major alterations to both the palace and gardens there and one in particular of Wyngaerde’s views show the new layout in the area between the palace and the Thames in considerable detail.
Looking from left to right we can see a series of walled compartment gardens. It appears these had openings in their boundaries to provide views through into the adding gardens. This may have been the area described by a Spanish visitor in 1544 as being “extremely handsome, with high corridors and passages everywhere, and in them are various busts of men and women.” There was also a double height gallery that ran along the river frontage.
Henry’s large privy garden occupied the central section. It was, at 300ft by 200 feet , about half the size of the current privy garden created by William III. As at Westminster it was an heraldic garden, divided into a series of square compartments like a chequerboard. These were lined with wooden rails painted in the Tudor colours of green and white, and continued a series of columns on which sat the single most memorable feature of all of Henry’s gardens: royal beasts.
Annoyingly Wyngaerde almost manages to hide the largest feature in the garden completely. He records the substantial water gallery of 1536 which acted as a jetty and boathouse as well as a grandstand for watching what was happening on the river.
But lurking just behind it can be seen an onion dome. This ornamented “the Great Round Arbour” which was not a small rustic timber construction but a brick and glass affair on the summit of an enormous artificial mount some 40 ft above the ground level. It’s estimated this used 256,000 bricks and was so big it contained which contained a kitchen and wine cellars. The slopes were covered with trained shrubs particularly rosemary. This tiny glimpse is the only image that exists, and there isn’t even the possibility of archaeology because everything was swept away when the gardens were completely remodelled in the later 17thc for William III. Finally in the background can be seen some of the boundary terraces and a series of small buildings on the wall which offered views out across the parkland beyond as well as for places for resting or assignations.
Without Wyngaerde’s drawings our real knowledge of Henry’s gardens would have been very limited indeed.
Sometime in 1562 or soon afterwards Wyngaerde returned to Europe where he spent the rest of his life working for Philip in Spain travelling round the country drawing views of all the main towns and also decorating royal palaces with topographical picture of places in his empire. He worked right up until his death in Madrid in 1571
According to Roger Kagan, probably the leading expert on his work, Wyngaerde wrote that “among all the joys that the delightful and ingenious art of painting has to offer, there is not one that I hold in higher esteem than the representation of cities.”
What a pity he wasn’t as interested in their gardens!