‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow’
The oak is celebrated as England’s national tree and plays a role in many myths and folk tales. Stories say the Royal Oak protected Charles II when he hid in its branches after defeat at the Battle of Worcester. This protection allowed him to flee the country safely, and also return later to be crowned king. The acorn had been a feature of royal life long before this, as you can see from its inclusion in these designs found at Hampton Court Palace.
This wallpaper fragment has a cream base with a woodblock printed design on top using a dark ink. The ovals contain the emblem of the Kingdom of England as formed by King Henry IV in 1406. The text surround reads in middle French “Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it)” and is the motto of the Order of the Garter started by King Edward III in 1348. Pairs of acorns still on the branch sit in an urn full of oak leaves, grapes, strawberries, and possibly a quince. This arrangement serves as a winter bouquet filling the space between the repeat of the emblems. The different designs are separated by geometric patterning similar to the ornate ceiling decoration often found in 16th century houses.
Saint George and the Dragon
Just above the emblems is the remaining half of an image of St George slaying the dragon. This design symbolises both the King’s Welsh heritage (the dragon) and his English heritage (St George). This combination of decorative, architectural, and heraldic designs helps to show the role of interior decoration in communicating subtle political messages. Though this archaeological fragment is loosely dated to the Tudor period, it celebrates the lineage of monarchy stretching back to the Middle Ages.
17th Century Wallpaper
Hampton Court Palace is huge and some of it is very hard to give the public access to. A few of these apartments hide amazing treasures. This section of wallpaper is still on the wall, hidden in a derelict toilet! The photograph is a close up of a larger panel and is estimated to date to the 17th century. In this detail, objects are not drawn to scale as this acorn is the same size as a bird as well as looming much larger over the trees just below. Traces of pigment still remain on the oak leaves and trees below defining them in contrast to the background or the natural tone of the acorns. Other sections of the design show a partial figure and roof lines of buildings. Sadly extensive damage means the overall scene is not able to be reconstructed.
Though these two wallpaper fragments were produced roughly a century and half apart, the conventions of the acorn’s illustration remain more similar than not. In both designs short contour lines reveal the roundness of the nut and crosshatching illustrates the texture of the cap, as well as being shown in number on a leafy branch.
This variety of objects brings the acorn, an unassumingly small part of nature, indoors in a celebration of what would become England’s national tree. Placed within the interiors of the royal court these acorns double as a visual cue of the support for or the incarnation of the monarchy in early modern Britain. See if you can spot any more acorns on your next visit to one of our palaces.
Carson Woś, Bard Graduate Center Curatorial Intern 2017