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

Country Life Every Week - - Books - Tim Richard­son

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

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