The palace nonpareil

This exquisite watercolour of Henry VIII’s once-lavish royal residence is of real significance, writes Chris Smith – and its acquisition by the V&A saw the export-stop system functioning at its best.

One of the great privileges of being Art Fund chair is that five times a year, at our trustees meetings, we sit round the board table to decide on the various applications from museums and galleries around the country which are seeking our help in acquiring works of art. And around us on the walls of the room are the works of art in question. We not only get to see the works close up, for real, but we also have our expert trustees on hand to give us all a masterclass in why a particular work truly matters.

So it was that back in the summer of 2016 we had in front of us the watercolour Nonsuch Palace from the South, by Joris Hoefnagel (probably the foremost topographical artist of the latter part of the 16th century), and an application from the V&A for £250,000 from Art Fund towards a total purchase price of £1 million. I’m delighted to say that we agreed, and the work now sits proudly in the British Galleries at the V&A.

The work had, in fact, already been sold by its private owner to the Yale Center of British Art, and it had been export-stopped by the Reviewing Committee, with the V&A given until August last year to come up with a matching offer in order to keep the work here in Britain. Sadly, the export-stop system doesn’t always work as it should. But happily, in the Hoefnagel case, the system worked, and the watercolour has stayed where it should, here in Britain.

Nonsuch Palace from the South is uniquely important for three reasons. First, it is an exquisite work. The detailing of the grand façade of the palace and its towers is extraordinary: so beautifully and finely done that its quality is breathtaking. There is an immediacy about the depiction of the stucco decoration on the palace that enables you to pick out tiny details with remarkable clarity – a horseman, a pair of wrestling figures, a number of mythical heroes – even when done on a minute scale. This is artistry of the very highest standard.

Second, this is arguably the earliest British landscape watercolour in existence. It was painted in 1568, and predates all the other architectural and landscape depictions in watercolour that we know of. Its place therefore really did have to be in the V&A, where we not only have our main national collection of watercolours but we also have our major national archive of architectural drawings.

And third, most importantly, this is the very best depiction of the lost palace of Nonsuch that we have. The palace was originally built (at huge expense) by Henry VIII, and was staggeringly and lavishly decorated because it was going to put every other palace to shame. He almost finished it, but after his death Mary Tudor sold it to the 12th Earl of Arundel, who set about sumptuously completing it and who was almost certainly the person who commissioned the Hoefnagel painting. After Arundel’s death in 1580, Nonsuch passed to his son-in-law, who ceded it to Elizabeth I in 1592. She frequently stayed at Nonsuch, which (it was said) ‘of all other places she likes the best’. The palace, alas, was demolished nearly a century later, between 1682 and 1688. We now have only the paintings and drawings to go on.

There are a number of representations of parts of Nonsuch, some of the gardens, some of the lesser north façade, some that are more or less copies of the Hoefnagel, but this is the best and the template depiction of the grand south front. For this iconic palace it is entirely fitting that a painting of this exquisite quality should be the means by which we get to know and understand what it was like, how it looked, and what it represented.

During the past year we have been able to help with the securing of some truly important parts of British history. The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I was the most important, safeguarded with the help of thousands of Art Fund members. The Nonsuch watercolour runs it very close. It’s just a delight to know that it is safely here at the heart of our national collections.

For more details of all the works of art we've helped buy with our members' support see our Acquisitions round-up: Spring 2017.

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