Objects Unwrapped – Leather mâché putto

Before Henry VIII rode into Hampton Court and transformed it into a Palace, Cardinal Wolsey had already developed the Surrey residence into much grander lodgings for his own use. From purchasing the property in 1514, Wolsey continued to develop and expand Hampton Court until 1528, when Henry acquired the property after falling out with his former advisor.

In 1526, Wolsey constructed new private apartments in the south eastern corner of Base Court. The rooms were elaborately decorated and designed for high-status use. This included a room with a decorative frieze depicting putti, accompanied by urns, flame-torches, swags and other grotesque motifs. Putti are representations of small male children often with wings, found in both religious and secular artwork. They were a popular form of decoration during the Renaissance, when classical motifs such as these underwent a revival.

This putto is composed of painted leather mâché, formed of brick dust, shredded leather and glue. The mâché would have been pushed into a mould and allowed to dry. This was a quick and cheap way of decorating a room; once painted it would have resembled a more costly stucco decoration. This technique was also used during Henry’s rebuilding of the palace. Leather mâché roundels were used to quickly but elaborately decorate the Great Watching Chamber ceiling, in preparation for Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in 1536.

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Detail of the leather mâché putto

Accounts of Wolsey’s construction works note that the majority of the state rooms would have been decorated with classical figures, such as this putto. However, only a few fragments of frieze remain within Historic Royal Palaces’ collection, providing just a glimpse of what Hampton Court would have looked like before Henry put his stamp on it.

It is thought that these fragments were found behind panelling or under floorboards, during rebuilding work; a common location for discovering objects associated to Hampton Court’s past. There may even be other objects still hidden away, waiting for someone to discover!

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