Henry VIII's lost palace of Nonsuch - V&A acquires a painting that shows us what it looked like

By Richard Moss | 09 December 2016

The V&A has acquired the earliest and most detailed depiction of Henry VIII’s famed lost palace of Nonsuch

a watercolour drawing of a palace with a main crenelated tower and dome
Joris Hoefnagel, Nonsuch Palace from the South, 1568© Courtesy V&A
The whimsical sounding Palace of Nonsuch was commissioned by Henry VIII in 1538 to rival Fontainebleau, the residence of the king’s arch competitor, the French king François I.

Built in Cheam, Surrey the palace was said to boast a towered façade decorated with elaborate plasterwork in a Franco-Italianate style and lavish stucco reliefs and carved slate decoration.

Sadly for the King, this elaborate edifice remained unfinished by the time of his passing in 1547, but it was purchased from Mary I in 1557 by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel (1512-80), who set about completing it.

It is thought Fitzalan commissioned the celebrated Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel to capture the scale and grandeur of his endeavour in 1568 and the fine watercolour he produced is today reckoned to be the best and most detailed depiction of what became known as the lost palace of Nonsuch.

After standing for nearly 150 years, and at one point being acquired by Elizabeth I who regarded it as a favourite residence, it was demolished between 1682 and 1688 by Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland, who sold its raw materials to pay off her gambling debts.

Now the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) has acquired the evocative watercolour - one of only six surviving depictions of the palace – to allow us to imagine its flamboyant and regal splendour after the artwork came to the market earlier this years and was subject to a temporary export ban.

a watercolour of a palace with stuccoed walls and towers
The Palace was built to rival Fontainebleau, the palace of Francois I.© V&A
Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Art Fund, the watercolour joins the V&A's national collection of British miniatures and watercolours.

Describing Hoefnagel  as “one of the last of the great Flemish illuminators and a foremost topographical artist of the day” Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Word and Image at the V&A, said the painting was “a rare and beautiful work of outstanding importance”.

“Among the earliest surviving English landscape watercolours, it brings to life one of the greatest monuments of the English Renaissance, now lost to us. We are delighted to acquire a picture of such quality and historical importance for our visitors to enjoy.”

Born at Antwerp in 1542, Joris Hoefnagel was a highly cultured painter who corresponded with humanists and ended his days at Vienna as court artist to the Holy Roman Emperor.

He travelled widely and the newly acquired watercolour proves that he visited England in 1568. Hoefnagel contributed over 63 topographical views to the atlas of world towns, Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published in Cologne in six volumes between 1572 and 1617.

This is his first major work to enter the collection of the V&A and it will go on display in the Museum’s British Galleries from Saturday 10 December.
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