Rare palace remnants are given a home: David Keys reports on the first public view of Renaissance reliefs from an unparalleled creation of royalty

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RARE surviving elements of one of Britain's largest sculptures have gone on permanent display for the first time in 300 years.

Commissioned by Henry VIII, the huge masterpiece covered 21,600 sq ft and consisted of 1,300 bas-relief panels decorating the external walls of the royal palace of Nonsuch, which stood at Ewell near what is now the southern border of Greater London.

The mid-16th century building and its white stucco Renaissance sculptures were demolished in 1682. The remains were excavated in 1959 by Martin Biddle, now professor of archaeology at Oxford University. Most of the bas-reliefs were removed, and presumably destroyed, during demolition, but the dig unearthed about 1,500 fragments - 1 per cent of what had once adorned the palace.

The excavated sculptures went on public display at the British Museum yesterday in a new gallery dedicated to Europe in the 15th to 18th centuries. They include a Tudor rose, scallop shell, winged cherub, group of roses and fruit, ram's head and a Roman soldier.

The original bas-reliefs featured hundreds of figures, including classical gods and goddesses, scenes from the life of Hercules, and the rulers of Rome. Among the Classical deities were sculptures of Henry and his long- awaited son and heir, later Edward VI. The palace and massive sculptures were almost certainly designed in outline by Henry and played a key role in the introduction of Renaissance art and architecture in England.

The palace was built as a nonpareil - a palace without equal - and given the name Nonsuch. In terms of decorative art, it was arguably the finest royal palace built in England. Modelled to an extent on Fontainebleau, palace of the French king Francis I, it was commissioned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Henry's coronation and the birth of Edward, his only son, and was built as a sumptuous hunting lodge within easy reach of Whitehall and Hampton Court.

Henry, increasingly waxing 'hevy with sicknes, age and corpulences of body', rarely visited his new creation, and it came to be used as a royal furniture repository. His daughter Mary did not care for blood sports - at least not those involving animals - and gave Nonsuch to the Earl of Arundel, who filled the gardens with rare classical statues, whose whereabouts are unknown. Arundel's son established a 3,000- volume library, which later formed part of the nucleus of what became the British Library.

The end came when Charles II gave the palace to his extravagant mistress Barbara Castlemaine, who sold it to a somewhat philistine nobleman, Lord Berkeley. In 1682 he decided to turn the palace into a stone quarry. Most of the sculptures were probably used to make lime.

The building was rediscovered during excavation of the site in 1959 but there was no room at the Museum of London, which owns the sculptures, to permanently display them.

Information on Nonsuch is published in The Royal Palaces of Tudor England; Simon Thurley; Yale University Press; pounds 29.95.

(Photographs omitted)