Sep 24th, 2013 | | Palaces | Portfolio | Residences | 4 Comments

The King’s Staircase – Hampton Court Palace

King's Staircase - Andy Marshall

The King’s Staircase (Credit: Andy Marshall – Fotofacade)

The balustrade to the King’s Staircase at Hampton Court Palace was designed and made by the Huguenot ironsmith Jean Tijou. Tijou seems to have arrived in England with William III and Mary II and was active here from about 1688-1712. His most notable work at the Palace was the screen composed of twelve panels, which now bears his name, and can be seen, where it was installed in 1701, at the river end of the Privy Garden.

Tijou Screen
One of the Panels of the Tijou Screen

The balustrade is of wrought iron in panels with scroll and acanthus leaf ornament and the handrail is of mahogany. It seems to have been installed in early 1700, for in January of that year, “John Tijou, smith”, was paid £265 “for 23 yds of iron rail in the great staircase” and there was a payment of £1 1s for 8 days for “a mason in helping the smith about the rails.”1

Antonio Verrio - Self Portrait
Antonio Verrio – Self Portrait. 1705-06

It seems likely that it was at about this time that Antonio Verrio2 painted the walls of the King’s Staircase. In the scheme (see above) Verrio showed William III in triumphal mode, dominating a group of Roman emperors who represent the King’s Catholic enemies, as well as a banquet of the Gods denoting the peace and plenty William had brought.

I was asked to see if it was possible to establish the original treatment of the balustrade. This was easier said than done and I was not hopeful as it has been stripped of its paint soon after the First World War.3

However, as with all the work that I have undertaken for Historic Royal Palaces I was provided with a comprehensive folder containing all that was known about the project. Even before starting the examination I had something to work from. I felt that by comparing the documentary information with any fragmentary evidence that I might find I would be able to draw some useful conclusions.

In 1700 there was a payment to Thomas Highmore4 painter:

“for priming the ironworke of the great staircase with a strong soak to prevent it from taking rust.”

This suggests that the balustrade was in place but that other works were being carried out in the area and that the initial scheme of decoration would be applied when this was finished. Presumably it was at this time that Verrio was painting the walls.

We next hear that in June 1702 Peter Cousins, gilder, was paid

“for 69ft 9in of gilding done on both sides of the iron raile on the great staircase and coloured twice over, gold and colouring”

Sadly no colour was specified but we do learn that it was gilded initially and clearly still was ten years later, for in about 1712 Celia Fiennes, the traveller and author, described the staircase:

“The cloysters lead to the royal staircase which is very lofty and spacious, iron railes carv’d and gilt, the wall black and gold painted with armory like a wanscoate”5

In the 1760s there is a further description of the balustrade being gilded

“on the opposite side of the second court is the great staircase, which has iron ballustres, curiously wrought and gilt.”6

Hampton Court - Kings Staircase 1819 - WH Pyne

Hampton Court – Kings Staircase 1819 – W.H. Pyne

The earliest known illustration of the King’s Staircase that provides useful information is this one of 1819 in William Pyne’s The History of the Royal Residences (1816–1819) which quite clearly shows a distinct pattern of gilding on the balustrade.

Even before the first samples were taken it was apparent that the balustrade had been gilded, but there was no information on the colour of the paint. Analysis provided a certain amount of information, however the evidence for the first scheme was not as clear as one would have hoped for and certainly not as helpful as the Queen’s Staircase.

Cross Section
Paint Cross Section

The ironwork was primed with an oil paint based on lead white7 and chalk with a large quantity of red lead added. This can be seen well in the sample above. Above this can be seen a pale rather translucent off-white layer. This was not in fact off-white but blue originally and this colour was achieved using the cobalt blue glass pigment Smalt.8


Smalt is not a pigment often seen in house-painting and seldom in easel painting. It is a potassium glass of a blue colour. The blue is due to small but variable amounts of cobalt added as cobalt oxide during manufacture. It has been found that potash (potassium oxide) glasses are less stable than soda glasses and that excess potassium may be leached out in an oil medium. It is also known that the cobalt ion migrates from smalt particles and that their subsequent interaction with the paint medium is another cause of the reduction of colour in the pigment.

Smalt was produced in several different grades and colours and came from a number of sources including Saxony, the Netherlands and, from the early seventeenth century, England.7

Cross Section with Gilding
Paint Cross Section with Gilding

The sample above was taken from an element that was gilded originally. Beneath the very thin layer of gold leaf can be seen a semi-translucent greenish gold size, which was used to adhere the gold. Underneath that to the right-hand side of the off-white layer can be seen two glass-like particles. This is smalt that has lost its blue colour.

It can be seen that the original scheme of blue (smalt) and gold survived for at least twenty years because the second scheme is a very distinctive blue colour applied over a dark grey undercoat. On this occasion the blue was produced using the new pigment Prussian blue. This is an important point because one of the earliest indications of its use in decoration was in 1722 in the Cupola Room (see below) at Kensington Palace.9 Prussian blue is unlikely to have been applied before this. This suggests that the first scheme must have remained for at least twenty years. It seems highly possible that it was carried out using a smalt with a high-potassium content and that the colour leached out during that time.

As with so many of my projects the decision as to which scheme to choose for redecoration (should that even be considered) is not immediately clear. It seems likely that the smalt scheme had been replaced by Prussian blue by the 1720s. Prussian blue itself might be an option, but what about later schemes? There again, the balustrade has been stripped for nearly a century, perhaps it is best to leave things as they are. Fortunately all I can do is to provide the information and then take part in subsequent discussions – others make the final decisions.

Cupola Room
Kensington Palace: The Cupola Room. Richard Cattermole. ca.1817.
Made for William Henry Pyne’s ‘History of the Royal Residences’.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Over the years I have carried out a lot of other work at Hampton Court – see also:
a) The Queen’s Staircase;
b) Great Gatehouse Ceiling;
c) The Tijou Screen;
d) Fountain Court;
e) The Cumberland Art Gallery;
f) The Tudor Garden, and
g) Numerous other smaller projects.

This is largely based on the research of Susanne Groom, a curator at Hampton Court Palace for many years, and to whom I owe so much.
1 It has been remarked that the balustrade to the King’s Staircase does not sit as well as it might do on the treads. It is thought that they were adjusted very early on and the steps made more shallow as King William was prone to asthmatic attacks and found the original configuration too steep.
2 Antonio Verrio ca.1636-1707. Trained in Italy, Verrio painted grand scenes for ceilings and staircases in many country houses and in royal palaces for Charles II and for William III.
3 J. Starkie Gardner described this in the Morning Post of 26th May 1919: “…a large staff were put on to burn off and repaint all the vast quantity of ironwork not only in the grounds, but in the interior as well, at Hampton Court Palace.”
4 Thomas Highmore (?-1720) was appointed Serjeant-Painter to King William III, and retained the Post under Queen Anne and King George I. He succeeded Robert Streater. Very little is known about Highmore apart from the fact that he painted the panels between the windows in the Chapel Royal. He resigned a few months before his death, and was succeeded by his apprentice and assistant, James Thornhill. He was uncle of the painter Joseph Highmore.
5 Wainscot, i.e. panelling.
6 A Description of England and Wales, vol vi. 1764.
7 Until the second half of the twentieth century the main constituent of most architectural paints was lead carbonate, a white compound derived from metallic lead.
8 Some information on Smalt can be found here
9 William Kent was commissioned to paint designs on the ceiling using the more expensive ultramarine pigment. However, he was later accused of having employed Prussian blue instead, whilst charging for ultramarine (History of the King’s Works (ed. H.M. Colvin 1963-82). Vol. V 1660-1782. HMSO. 1976.) 198-9).

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Comments (4)

The Queen’s Staircase – Hampton Court Palace | Patrick Baty – Historical paint consultant » 10. Jan, 2015

[...] the final decisions. An essay on the King’s Staircase at Hampton Court Palace can be found here. NOTES This is largely based on the research of Susanne Groom, a curator at Hampton Court Palace [...]

Cumberland Suite, Hampton Court Palace | Patrick Baty – Historical paint consultant » 11. Feb, 2015

[...] Tudor door that originally led to a stair turret which was demolished in 1690 to make way for the Kings Staircase. Other artists whose work is hung in this magnificent new gallery include Van Dyck, Georges de la [...]

Hampton Court Palace – A Tudor Garden | Patrick Baty – Historical paint consultant » 13. Feb, 2015

[...] other work at Hampton Court – see also: a) Great Gatehouse Ceiling; b) The Tijou Screen.; c) The King’s Staircase; d) The Queen’s Staircase; e) Fountain Court; f) The Cumberland Art Gallery, and g) Numerous [...]

Hampton Court Palace – Tijou Screen | Patrick Baty – Historical paint consultant » 13. Feb, 2015

[...] other work at Hampton Court – see also: a) Great Gatehouse Ceiling; b) The Tudor Garden; c) The King’s Staircase; d) The Queen’s Staircase; e) Fountain Court; f) The Cumberland Art Gallery, and g) Numerous [...]