Nonsuch Palace: A Tudor Grand Design?


Conservation Science
February 18, 2019

An investigation into the materials used to create the watercolour of this Tudor royal palace.

A little gem passed through the V&A Science Section at the end of 2016: the drawing of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel.

Nonsuch Palace from the South – watercolour by Joris Hoefnagel (E.2781–2016) © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Nonsuch Palace from the South – watercolour by Joris Hoefnagel (E.2781–2016) © The Victoria and Albert Museum

Henry VIII started building Nonsuch Palace in Surrey in 1538 to celebrate his 30 years of reign, and the birth of his long-awaited male heir Edward. It was intended to be his grandest, most lavish palace, without equal (hence the name ‘None such’), built to match the French king’s Chateau de Chambord.

The palace no longer exists – although you can still see the outline of its foundations from the air – and we now only have very few drawings that record what it used to look like. I was asked to investigate the materials used to make the Hoefnagel watercolour, and I set out to do that by using the best non-destructive, non-intrusive scientific techniques available at the V&A.

The first thing I wanted to check was the wonderful dark blue pigment used to render the plasterwork on the south façade of the palace.

Detail of the south façade of Nonsuch Palace © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Detail of the south façade of Nonsuch Palace © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Detail of the façade plasterwork. Photography by Victoria Button © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Detail of the façade plasterwork. Photography by Victoria Button © The Victoria and Albert Museum

And this is where I had my first surprise: under the microscope, the dark blue outlines of the figures were not blue at all, but black! Our visual perception of the black pigment (which I identified as carbon black) is altered by the use of a very bright white pigment next to it. But I can assure you there was not a blue pigment in sight in those areas!

Detail of the façade (left) and pigment particles within the blue-black outlines (right). Photography by Victoria Button and Lucia Burgio © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Detail of the façade (left) and pigment particles within the blue-black outlines (right). Photography by Victoria Button and Lucia Burgio © The Victoria and Albert Museum

The other materials identified included lead white, vermilion, hematite, azurite, lapis lazuli, brochantite and shell gold. Of these, brochantite is a bit more unusual than the rest: it is a copper sulfate that is normally a bright blue-green to the naked eye, while it looks more like aquamarine under a high-magnification microscope.

Particles of azurite (left) and brochantite (right) present on the drawing. Photography by Lucia Burgio © The Victoria and Albert Museum
Particles of azurite (left) and brochantite (right) present on the drawing. Photography by Lucia Burgio © The Victoria and Albert Museum

In February 2017 we were also lucky to have the watercolour analysed using multispectral imaging equipment thanks to our access to the EU-funded MOLAB. Multispectral imaging is a wonderful technique that uses visible and infrared light to reveal what may lie under the surface of an object. In our case, it showed clearly the original pencil sketch, and what parts of the inscriptions were made with iron gall ink (they disappear when viewed with an infrared source) or with carbon based pencils or inks (they remain visible), as you can see in the video below.

Note the writing in iron gall ink at the top of the watercolour, which disappears when viewed under infrared light, and the writing in carbon black at the bottom left, which remains visible throughout. Courtesy of Marco Barucci, MOLAB.

We are so lucky that at least some evidence of the existence and appearance of this truly magnificent palace survives, if only in a small watercolour!

About the author

Conservation Science
February 18, 2019

Dr Lucia Burgio is Senior Scientist (Object Analysis) at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She graduated in Chemistry summa cum laude from the University of Palermo, Italy and completed...

More from Lucia Burgio

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