Three hand-coloured plates from W.H. Pyne's History of the Royal Residences
The Great Staircase, Kensington Palace
Queen Mary’s State Bedchamber, Hampton Court
The Conservatory, Carlton House
Hand-coloured aquatint on paper
Each 31.7 x 25.7 cm (plate)
36.3 x 30.3 cm (frame)
Higher res images available on request
WHAT'S THE STORY?
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William Henry Pyne (1769-1843) was a watercolour artist, illustrator and writer, and his History of the Royal Residences, published from 1816 to 1819 was one of the most lavish graphic productions of its time. These exquisite hand-coloured views of the royal apartments, completed by some of the most skilled artists of the day, give us a glimpse into the sumptous royal interiors of the Regency period, many of which have since been swept away.
Pyne began his career as a watercolour artist, but in his thirties found success as a writer, when he supplied the text for Rudolph Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808) and became a principal contributor to Ackermann’s Repository of Arts (1809-28). Encouraged by these successful collaborations, Pyne decided to embarked on an ambitious publishing project of his own. He commissioned more than a hundred illustrations from ‘the most distinguished artists’ and engravers, each of which was carefully hand coloured after printing. Each plate is therefore unique, with slight variations in colouring and finish between the different watercolourists’ productions.
The History of the Royal Residences was released bi-monthly in parts, each containing four or five illustrations, accompanied by Pyne’s descriptions and histories of the royal apartments. The complete set was designed to be bound into three handsome volumes, and each part retailed at the eye-watering price of one guinea.
Unfortunately, Pyne overreached himself. The illustrations were so expensive to produce that they were priced too high to attract sufficient buyers. He was bankrupted, and subsequently imprisoned several times for debt in the King’s Bench prison. Fortunately for historians and art collectors, many of the engravings survive, either in complete volumes, or separated into individual plates, as with our three views. Many of the interiors depicted have since been altered or demolished altogether, and Pyne’s Royal Residences remains one of the most important sources of information about the royal palaces of Regency Britain.
Queen Mary’s State Bedchamber, Hampton Court (1 June 1816)
Richard Cattermole (artist), Daniel Havell (engraver)
This plate is one of the four illustrations in the very first number of Pyne’s History of the Royal Residences, published on 1 June 1816. The artist, Richard Cattermole, exhibited several watercolours of historic subjects and interiors at the Society of Painters in Watercolours in London between 1814 and 1818, but gave up painting when he entered the church and became the vicar of Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire.
Queen Mary’s State Bedchamber, which had been intended for Mary II, was never actually furnished during her lifetime. She had died of smallpox in December 1694, before Sir Christopher Wren’s new building at Hampton Court was complete. The Bedchamber was completed in 1715, for the new Prince and Princess of Wales, the future George II and Queen Caroline. They commissioned the rich red damask bed in the style of Daniel Marot, a French Huguenot designer who had worked extensively for William and Mary. The ceiling mural, The Abduction of Cephalus, was painted by Sir James Thornhill, who would soon after be appointed history painter-in-ordinary to the king. The mural, bed and its ensuite furniture, all visible in Cattermole and Havell’s illustration, can still be seen there today.
The Conservatory, Carlton House (1 August 1817)
Charles Wild (artist), Thomas Sutherland (engraver)
George, Prince Regent and future King George IV, was renowned for his lavish lifestyle and love of excess. He was also a connoisseur and an important patron of the arts, and the interiors of his London residence, Carlton House, were among the most sophisticated and luxurious of the day. From 1811, when George assumed the Regency, Carlton House became the leading royal residence, but its glory was short-lived, and it was demolished in 1826. Charles Wild’s watercolours for Pyne’s Royal Residences offer us a rare glimpse into its sumptuous interiors.
The gothic conservatory extended the enfilade of rooms in the south front into the garden, just visible through the doorway. It was a triumph of new materials, designed by Thomas Hopper in cast iron and glass that mimicked stone tracery but allowed light to flood in. The tall candelabra were manufactured from Coade artificial stone (one is now in the V & A museum, London). The colourist has skilfully captured the delicate play of shadows across the floor. It was in the conservatory that Prince George presided over his legendary fête of June 1811. Two thousand high-ranking guests crammed in to admire the magnificent display of silver-gilt plate, servants dressed in suits of armour, and a table decoration in the form of a river teeming with gold and silver fish.
The Great Staircase, Kensington Palace (1 April 1819)
Charles Wild (artist), Richard Reeve (engraver)
The King’s Great Staircase was built by Sir Christopher Wren in the early 1690s as part of his renovations to Kensington House (later Palace), after it was purchased by William III and Mary II as a retreat from the polluted air of Whitehall. The decoration, however, was completed in 1727 for George I by William Kent, who rose from humble beginnings as a coach painter in Yorkshire to become the most talented designer of his day. Kent could turn his hand to almost anything (with varying degrees of success): painting, gardens, architecture and furniture, but he is best known for his ability to create a unified interior aesthetic.
It was thanks to the support of his friend and patron, Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington, that Kent secured the prestigious commission to decorate the interiors of Kensington Palace. He drew heavily on his decade-long training in Italy, and the King’s Great Staircase has been described as ‘his best achievement in the grand manner of Italian 16th-century illusionist painting’. A fictive loggia extends across the walls, with people crowded behind the balustrades. But instead of the mythological figures more commonly found in mural paintings, they represent forty five real members of King George’s court. So far only twelve have been identified, including the King’s Turkish Grooms of the Chamber, Mehmet and Mustafa. Kent himself peers down from one of the ceiling lunettes, palette in hand.