The balustrade to the Queen’s Staircase at Hampton Court Palace was designed and made by the Huguenot ironsmith Jean Tijou most probably in 1694-96. 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.
The balustrade is of wrought iron in panels with scroll and acanthus leaf ornament and the handrail is of mahogany. It seems not to have been installed until some five years after completion as most of the work on the Queen’s apartments was halted on her death, in 1694, and only resumed in 1699.
In July 1700 Alexander Fort was putting in the panelling of the Queen’s staircase. In October 1700 the masons were
“cutting holes in the flight of stairs going to the Queen’s upper storey for the smith to put up his iron work and in December a day bill is put in for mending the post, rayles, steps and halfe pace of the queen’s great stairs.”
In January 1701 there is an account for priming the rich ironwork for the great staircase which is immediately followed in the same sentence by
“taking down the ruff steps of stairs and partitions and shoring the half pace of the queen’s grate stairs”.
The paving of the Queen’s staircase also takes place in this month, making it possible that the ‘great staircase’ in this instance, refers to the Queen’s, rather than the King’s Staircase. But it is possible that the ironwork when it was primed, was still in Tijou’s workshop.
There is no account for initial colour or of any gilding of the Queen’s staircase.
It was still a number of years before the Queen’s Staircase was completed. Indeed in May 1734:
“the staircase leading to the Queen’s Great Apartments at Hampton Court was never completely finished and the wainscot whereof is much out of repair for which reasons we humbly are of the opinion that it would be advisable to take away the wainscot and embellish the walls and ceilings of the same staircase which are at present only whitewashed with ornaments painted on canvas and chiaro oscuro, the charge whereof if it be your Lordships’ pleasure, £456″.
The ceiling in the Queen’s Staircase was painted in 1734 by William Kent, who also designed the Duke of Cumberland Suite in the Palace. The ceiling of the Queen’s Staircase has a trompe l’oeil dome with the star of the Order of the Garter at its centre. On the west wall is the painting Mercury Presenting the Liberal Arts to Apollo and Diana by Gerrit van Honthorst, of 1628.
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.1
Twenty samples were taken of the minute fragments of paint that had survived. The majority of these were found in the folds of the leaves or in the centre of the scrolled elements. In very few was there a clear stratigraphy and, even then, it was never complete. However, two samples showed quite clearly that the balustrade was blue originally and that this colour was achieved using the cobalt blue glass pigment Smalt.
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.2
Just one of the twenty samples displayed a complete initial sequence. Rust and tiny pieces of iron could be seen at the bottom and the balustrade was painted twice with an oil paint composed of lead white3 and small amounts of chalk. A base coat of lead white in oil with small amounts of smalt was followed by a top coat with more particles of smalt.
The smalt had lost its colour over time and one could see that it was only the few larger pieces in the top coat that were still quite blue and that the smaller ones were a washed-out blue-grey. As the larger pieces could only be seen in the top coat it is possible that the smalt in this first scheme had been ‘strewn’ i.e. scattered onto a still-sticky first coat. Strewing smalt was generally coarser than oil smalt.
A second and third smalt scheme were employed and these were made up of larger and more colourful particles of the pigment. At some time the newly-invented Prussian blue was applied. Evidence of later green and black schemes could also be found.
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 schemes had been replaced by Prussian blue by the time that Kent’s paintings had been completed. Prussian blue itself might be an option, but what about the green or even the black? 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.
Over the years I have carried out a lot of other work at Hampton Court – see also:
a) The King’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 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.”
2 Some information on Smalt can be found here
3 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.