Dreams of Camelot
A contemporary book about Tudor palaces sheds new light on the buildings we thought we knew– and is compulsively readable, says Roy Strong
Architectural history Houses of Power Simon Thurley (Bantam Press, £30)
This is a landmark book. Nobody interested in Tudor England, whether student, scholar, novelist or, for that matter, playwright, can afford not to own a copy of this gateway into a lost world. For the first time, we have a comprehensive guide to the Tudor Court, told in physical terms through the buildings that were erected with both purpose and function in mind by monarchs who had a very clear idea of what they wanted and why.
Houses of Power is the summation of a life’s work on these buildings, some of which are still happily standing for us to visit, others long vanished, but now brought vividly to life.
i recall my own first encounter with Tudor palace architecture half a century ago or more, through the work, first of the Victorian Ernest Law and then of the postsecond World War architectural historian sir John summerson. The former offered architecture as anecdote, the latter architecture as the evolution of style.
A now forgotten figure, hugh Murray Baillie, was horrified at finding portraits of Charles ii’s mistresses hanging on the walls of the Presence Chamber at hampton Court in the 1960s and wrote what was then a seminal article on room function and use. Another pioneer was the swedish historian Per Palme, through his book about inigo Jones’s Whitehall Banqueting house, The Triumph of Peace (1956).
it was to be the next generation, however, that would pick up the thread that led to the creation of the society for Court studies in 1995 and simon Thurley was one of its founders. his new book takes to its logical conclusion the treatment of royal buildings as living organisms and expressions of political ideas and practical function.
Equally at home in his study as in the trenches of an excavation, he has orchestrated a vast repertory of literary, visual and archaeological sources to produce a compulsively readable account of the settings we thought we knew so well, but, as he now reveals, we don’t.
This is a book about rulership; about human beings and how they framed their buildings to express not just monarchical power, but also the system of governing the realm. Their palaces were dominated by such considerations as the private as against the public, security as against access and the do’s and don’ts of etiquette—all of which elaborated in the 16th century as the Court emerged as the centre of government and became more static than perambulatory.
Armies of people had to be accommodated and also entertained—hence gardens, tiltyards, cockpits. The Tudor palace at its apogee was a combination of the savoy hotel, Wimbledon and Ascot, with something akin to the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Royal Opera house thrown in for good measure.
From great halls to privies, no nook or cranny is left unvisited, aided by a wonderful collection of plans and diagrams that—my only criticism—call for a larger format. Once henry Viii hit the financial jackpot with his Dissolution of the Monasteries and wholesale confiscation of ecclesiastical wealth, building megalomania escalated on an unrepeatable scale, making his dream of Camelot a reality. in 1509, the King had inherited about nine ‘houses’. When he died almost 40 years later, he had 70.
Even when the money had gone, nothing stood still. it’s interesting to note that Elizabeth i was a chip off the old block, her novel penchant for cool, Classical taste in building anticipating the age of inigo Jones. Thanks to the author’s unfailing eye for detail, we learn that her close stool (glorified chamberpot) was enshrined within a tent with a canopy of cloth of gold and crimson silk. World of Interiors take note. Fiction A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towles (Hutchinson, £12.99)
This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. in a sudden and shocking reversal of fortune, members of the aristocracy—who had long been celebrated across Europe for their inordinate wealth and sophistication—were forced to run for their lives, lest they fall prey to the all-consuming Red Terror. This harrowing episode wouldn’t suggest itself to many authors as a subject for treatment in their fiction—at least not fiction of the frivolous variety.
Which makes it all the more surprising that Amor Towles should locate his new novel in the postrevolutionary Moscow of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and that his protagonist should be one Count Alexander Rostov, a cheerfully unrepentant recipient of the Order of st Andrew and former Master of the hunt.
One might wonder what place there could possibly be under the soviet regime for a man who, by the very fact of his existence, is so inimical to everything it stands for. Well, it transpires that that place is the luxurious Metropol hotel, where he is condemned to live out his days in a singular form of house arrest, generally unmolested, but entirely unable to leave. it’s a curious premise, but one that Towles—best known for his Rules of Civility, a shimmering fantasy of inter-world War Manhattan—pulls off with aplomb.
it helps that his urbane protagonist is so compelling. stripped of the appurtenances of rank and privilege and expelled from his grand suite to a garret with a window ‘the size of a chessboard’, Count Rostov yet holds on to the ebullience and inexhaustible good humour that made him so sought after in the high society of happier days.
Combined with humanity and philosophy, they prove to be traits that will serve him well: not just in testing times, but also in the pages of this spellbinding book. Martin Williams
Biography Very Heath Robinson Adam Hart-davis (Sheldrake Press, £40)
Heath Robinson is in the air. a new museum devoted to the life and work of the celebrated ‘contraption cartoonist’ opened in Pinner this year and now we have this handsome celebratory book, with a foreword by Philip Pullman, who notes that, ‘the quality most lasting of all in Heath Robinson’s work is the charm’.
that charm shines through in hundreds of line drawings and colour illustrations spanning the gamut of ‘modern’ subjects, from sunbathing and dieting to skiing. there are haircutting machines, a contraption devised for the elegant conveyance of green peas to the mouth and innovative new sports such as tortoise coursing. one or two of his subjects, such as the newfangled caravan, must have been difficult to send up because they might have sprung from his own imagination.
the cartoons upstage the text at every turn, as they should, but adam Hart-davis has produced a useful accompanying commentary that chronicles the social changes to which Heath Robinson was responding. His illustration work for books such as The Water Babies is given space—i hadn’t realised that he also collaborated with Rudyard Kipling early in his career—but the author is surely correct to lay most emphasis on his greatest achievement: the gadgetry.
as he notes, Heath Robinson’s world—like that created by P. G. Wodehouse—was entirely without malice. His cartoons poke fun in the gentlest way at officialdom, boffins, health fads and labour-saving devices, so perhaps it’s not so paradoxical that one of his most fruitful commercial avenues was advertising commissions for new real-world gadgets, such as Ransomes’ motor mowers. that one inspired the vision of a mower that integrated a record player ‘for keeping in dancing practice in the summer months without neglecting the lawn’.
Real boffins love these cartoons, of course. Perhaps the most telling nugget in the book is the fact that when, during the second World War, the bletchley Park codebreakers came up with a complex new machine that turned out to be the precursor of the celebrated Colossus, they named it Heath Robinson.
An architectural model of Nonsuch Palace built by Ben Taggart
A couple shows the right spirit in coping with meteorological adversity in A Near Thing, making the most of their chances under the mistletoe