‘Nonsuch’ a Palace ever existed.


Last week I found myself wearing my BBC Bargain Hunt hat in Surrey, between the noble boroughs of Cheam and Epsom, to be precise.


For those of you who are required to work, or who simply do not watch daytime television, let me briefly explain the premise behind the programme.  It’s a competition between two teams, designated as red and blue, who are both given £300.00 and set the task buying three items, within an hour, one of which has to have a purchase price of £75.00 or more. This are then to be sold on at auction, with no reserve prices having been set - such is the BBC’s hunger for real jeopardy!


The team which makes the biggest profit - or the smallest loss - wins the day. By way of ‘insider knowledge’, and before you ask, everything is unscripted, entirely above board, and without a classic car to be seen – that’s another show entirely called The Antiques Roadtrip !


So, having established the format. let me further explain that I share the role of presenter in rotation with three other colleagues - Natasha Raskin, Charlie Ross and Christina Trevanion.


One of the highlights for all four of us are the illuminating cameos shown alongside the competition itself, that usually involve visiting nearby historic venues or places of interest. One such interlude required me to be despatched to a massive country park, teaming with people an innumerable small children and dogs of all descriptions, a significant proportion of which were attired in fashionable country casuals and inventive wellies (the people - not the dogs).


Suffice to say that I was required to stand in a field at 7:30 in the morning, with the temperature hovering below freezing. I was (imperceptibly) warmed by the knowledge that it was the site of a once-magnificent Tudor mansion which had taken nine years to construct from when building began in 1538; the beneficiary of this project had been King Henry VIII


In size, the edifice rivalled the likes of Hampton Court and Greenwich Palace (the King’s birthplace). Regrettably, however, the upkeep and growing repair costs eventually became unsustainable even for the notoriously extravagant Henry and his successors to maintain, and the Palace fell in to disuse and disrepair, before being totally dismantled in 1683; other than the park which bears its name, there is no remaining trace of the main structure.


I first became aware of Nonsuch Palace many years ago – so named because it was said that there was “none such which may rival its magnificence” – and had often wondered what might remain of such a building – it was of no little disappointment to discover that it had, essentially, disappeared in its entirety.


Henry’s primary reason for initiating such a project in the first place was to celebrate the birth of his son and heir who was later to be crowned King Edward VI; it was also to some extent purported to be an attempt to out-do the construction of the Château de Chambord – an equally flamboyant undertaking by Francis I, King of France – very much an instance of ‘anything you can do…’ but on a somewhat elevated and suitably regal level…


On the completion of the works, Nonsuch was – probably quite rightly - considered to be one of the wonders of the world, although Henry did not live to see the finish of his vanity project, having expired in 1547.


Although there are very few contemporary illustrations of the original building still extant, it is possible to see a remarkable scale model of the monumental structure commissioned by The Friends of Nonsuch charitable trust.

Housed at the Friends Gallery within the Park, the model is protected by a massive perspex cover that allows you to get up close and marvel at the incredible - and I mean incredible - attention to detail taken by the modeller Ben Taggart during each and every one of the estimated 1,250 hours which it took to create. In the neighbouring room there is a quite wonderful display of 17th and 18th century stained glass artefacts that is well worth a visit in spite of the fact that the pieces are not ‘Nonsuch originals’ dating back to Henry’s reign; the glass was recently discovered having been locked away in a drawer of the kitchen dresser for well over fifty years; the curators of the display have not been able to establish how and why such a collection found its way to the Surrey stockbroker belt…


My firm favourite of this part of the exhibition is a piece which features a handsome green parrot, the likes of which I noticed flying from tree to tree in the park outside.


The parrot is depicted perched on a tree, front and centre stage before an incongruous, pastoral landscape which includes a windmill, a fisherman and other rustic sorts going about their business. The composition is made all the more remarkable for being signed and dated E Margt Pearson 1776.


Both the stained glass and the incredible model of the palace can be viewed on Sundays only at Nonsuch Palace Gallery, SM3 8AL from April to September (between 2:00pm and 5:00pm) and from October until March (from 11:00am to 3:00pm).


Anyway – back to my day’s filming on site, and having finished our piece on the collection at the former palace, we decamped to the Peacock Stained Glass studio, five minutes away in Cheam itself, to shoot a further insert.


Personally, I have long had an interest in all manner of stained glass since tender age of fourteen when I was a member of the Nelson and District Vernacular Architecture Society.


Visits to amazing British cathedrals provided the bedrock for my preoccupation with the art-form, with their visual depictions of religious and historical subjects. The art was revived in the Victorian age by William Morris in league with Edward Burne-Jones and William De Morgan. along with many others under the remit of the Arts & Crafts movement.


At the Peacock Studio I was introduced to the husband and wife duo of Jim and Natasha Barber who, it should be noted, quickly found favour with my camera crew by the prompt arrival of morning coffee.


The Barber’s offer a service that covers restoration, design and reconstruction with Natasha specialising in the production of replica pieces to restore broken or missing elements of period panels – I was seriously impressed!


The object of my visit was to learn the basics of glass cutting which, needless to say, is very much more complicated than you might think – especially whilst kitted out in the now mandatory gloves and safety glasses.


Watching Jim cut supremely complex shapes added to the existing mantle of inadequacy which shrouds all my DIY-related endeavours – initially tailored, as it was, by the knowledge that at least three of my friends had won the admiration and ultimately the hands of their spouses by virtue of their dexterity with an electric drill, power saw or paintbrush.


I was greatly reassured by my director that some equally skilled work in the editing suite would ensure that my practical shortcomings would not be exposed when the final cut was aired – he even hinted that they might be able to make me look a dab hand, but I have my doubts unless the very best CGI trickery is brought to bear…


However, always the realist, I would urge you to undertake professional advice should you require any glass repairs to be undertaken, especially for priceless Tudor heirlooms; steer clear of the DIY option, and minimise the risk of a trip to your local A&E department – should you be fortunate enough to still have access to one…


Take Care out there


Eric Knowles FRSA

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