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Bygone world

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review - Hampton Court: A Social and Architectural History By Simon Thurley. Yale University Press, 2003. 450pp. £35

Hampton Court has never had quite the same status in London as Versailles in Paris or the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Partly this is because it has strong rivals, particularly the Tower of London and Greenwich, which seem so much easier to get to - but also because it is immensely difficult to appreciate on a single visit. Apartments, closets and chambers are confusing in their number and layout, and their specific functions are hard to remember. Our present Queen, says Simon Thurley, finds it 'terribly confusing'; a response widely shared by more humble visitors.

This book will not dispel such confusion, though it is admirably written and superbly illustrated. Thurley aims to present the most up-todate understanding of the history and archaeology of Hampton Court, particularly derived from the research carried out for the restoration following the fire in the Wren apartments of 1986.

He is eager throughout to explain how design was related to use, especially the specialised functions of rooms in which the King or Queen entertained or received emissaries. Much of this is genuinely an exercise in archaeological retrieval - either because the room concerned no longer exists or because its function has subsequently changed. Each explanation is in itself convincing, but multiplied many times over it becomes easy to see why the building is so daunting, even to experts. This is a scholarly, densely-argued study, not a layman's guide.

Having said that, there are certain themes worth ferreting out. The most important of them is Thurley's argument that Hampton Court was an antiquarian exercise almost from the beginning. Cardinal Wolsey, who took a lease on an earlier building in 1515, was a genuine innovator in the works he commissioned, especially the 200ft Long Gallery which stretched into the garden like a seaside pier. But when Henry VIII took over in 1529, the architectural image of a feudal ideal came to the fore. In particular his Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, was, as Thurley puts it, 'a consciously nostalgic structure'. The central hearth was probably seldom used but like the rest of the room it evoked that sense of the chivalric past which Henry wanted to assert. His refurbishment of Wolsey's chapel was meant to have the same effect.

Henry's ideal was adopted by later monarchs, who had equally good reasons for wanting to evoke a dynastic heritage. The feudal setting which he had enjoyed set the tone for the way Hampton Court was presented in the reigns of Charles I and II. Even William and Mary, more normally associated with the demolition of substantial parts of the Tudor palace, used royal portraits to symbolise their historic lineage. So it is hardly surprising that Hampton Court attracted one of the earliest ventures of the Gothic Revival, when William Kent rebuilt a largely ruinous Tudor range in the 1730s.

And of course the Tudor or medieval theme immensely appealed to Victorian restorers, who almost outdid Henry VIII in their loyalty to a bygone world.

Historians have always shown dutiful respect towards Wren's work at Hampton Court, while admitting that it is really no match for the French models on which it was based. Thurley is no exception, but enters into an interesting discussion of the relative contributions of Wren, Hawksmoor and William Talman. Wren was a favourite of Queen Mary's but was less admired by William, who was alarmed by a collapse which occurred while the new south range was under construction in 1689. The analysis of this collapse - caused by badly mixed mortar used in cold weather - and the overall discussion of Wren's construction methods, form one of the best parts of the book.

Thurley's other main theme concerns the way in which Hampton Court has been presented to a wider audience. Long before the era of mass tourism, it was accessible to the public, either by tipping the housekeeper or, in the reign of George II, for the spectacle of watching the royal family at dinner. In 1838, when royalty no longer lived there, entrance to the palace was made free and thousands of visitors passed dutifully through its main rooms, looking mainly at the pictures and tapestries. It was a fairly lifeless place, demanding a lot of imagination to appreciate, until the revolution in its finishing and presentation in the 1990s.

Try as he may, Thurley can't absent himself from the final chapter because he was a key player in bringing Hampton Court alive again. Because of his involvement, the book ends on a slightly restrained note, and it lacks a proper conclusion. But until the final pages it provides an exemplary account of an underrated building.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

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