When Henry VIII and Francis I met for the treaty negotiations now known as the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, little did they realise than almost 500 years later, someone would have the reasonably insane idea of recreating part of that meeting in three dimensions out of sugar. Well of course they wouldn’t realise that, it would be stupid to think so, and even more stupid to consider making a sugar version as an idea; which possibly tells you more about me than anything else, as it was the first idea that sprang to my mind when my colleague Suzanne asked for ideas to link the family “make and do” activity planned for this summer with the work that the Historic Kitchens Team would be doing in the Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.
Her intention was to have something that any visitors to the Palace could participate in, that built in scale over the course of the event, was a genuine community effort but also allowed people to try real historic techniques and methods out…the only problem was that she didn’t have any idea what it could be as she didn’t want to suggest anything that the Kitchens Team wouldn’t be happy with…what did I think it could be?
Now, those of you that have followed the exploits in the Kitchens over the last quarter of a century (dear God has it really been that long!?!) might recall that the team have been responsible for a lot of sugar models in the past…I touched on some of them when we were talking about the making of the sugar knot garden a couple of years ago (HERE). You also might know that I’ve never been a great fan of this work, not because I don’t appreciate the immense skill that my friends and colleagues have in order to turn powdered sugar into stunning models, but rather that it is work that was never done in the room we have to work in and so by making confectionery models and such like we run the risk of giving a false impression of how the spaces were used in the past. That being said, sugar work can be ideal as a public interactive activity because if using the later sixteenth century recipes for sugar plate, as for example was published in the Second Book of the Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson in 1597, then you’re essentially working with edible modelling clay…ideal for kids of all ages to play around with.
So setting aside my reservations, I suggested sugar work to Suzanne and we were then merely faced with working out what this would be used to make.
In fact it didn’t take long, she mentioned that we could use the Field of the Cloth of Gold painting (held by the Royal Collection and displayed at Hampton Court Palace in the Young Henry exhibition) as a subject and I did the rest. As there would be a finite number of days that the build would take place over, we really needed a subject that couldn’t be finished…nothing worse than saying you’ll be building XXX over a month only to be so busy with helpers that you finish on day 2! That meant that the obvious candidate, the main temporary Palace in the foreground was out, yes we could have added lots of decoration, but how interesting is it to ask people to make a tiny brick or tile? Much better to be able to make lots of something, where numbers weren’t important…and what are there lots of in the image and what were there lots of at the actual meeting?? People and tents. All that was needed was a bit more focus and we’d have an idea to work from.
If you look in the top middle of the painting, you’ll see a large golden tent…no, not the fancy double ended one, just above that, the round one with the two kings in front of it all surrounded by a circle of tents in the Tudor colours of green and white. That was what we’d make, and if we had too much help then more tents or more figures could be made to bulk it all out. On the days that the guys in the Kitchens were making the “real” thing, people could also work in one of our other Palace rooms and help make more of the image in paper and card, that way everyone had the chance to try historic and modern methods of model making all to create a giant 3D version of as much of the painting as we could get done.
So with the flimsiest of ideas to work from, I dropped the news on the team that starting in just over a week, they’d have two and a half weeks to make as much of the image as they could, and that on 6 of those days they’d have as much help as they could coerce visitors into giving them…you can imagine how popular I was that day! They might have been fuming, but I was pretty confident in their skills and abilities and was sure that by the due date (21 August) there’d be something pretty spectacular to see. I walked back to my office to leave them to cogitate and come up with a plan and within a very short time, Adrian and Robin came up with a blinder.
Construct a large sugar central tent, possibly on top of a paste board framework to support it, and gild that. Make a Henry VIII and Francis I out of a combination of sugar plate and marchpane (almond and sugar paste) and paint them with natural food colours. Make a mould to construct sugar figures and press them out to make an army and the crowning glory of an idea, break the green and white striped tents down into individual stripes, make the white from sugar plate and the green from coloured or painted marchpane then when each “stripe” was sat next to the others you would build up a tent; all you needed was a “straight” piece and a wedge piece to make the curved tents (a bit like an [insert name brand here] chocolate orange)
All they would need to do would be to have people churn out stripes and wedges like there was no tomorrow along with a few dozen soldiers, while the team concentrated on the marchpane monarchs and the massive gold tent…easy! Well I say easy, because for me it has been…pop in to the Kitchen once in a while to see how things are progressing, take a few pictures in anticipation of this blog post, order sugar and almonds…a lot of sugar and almonds…then at the last minute, buy a load of gold leaf and go on leave for a few days leaving the guys to it for the final big push to the finish. For them, it’s not been as easy, but it’s been a genuine revelation in some respects.
Firstly there’s Jeremiah…who knew the hidden talents the man had?! We got our first inkling when he wanted to try his hand at sugarwork in the first planning week, so “had a go” at making a sugar playing card:
the man’s a demon with a brush…turns out he’s none too shabby when it comes to freehand modelling too as his marchpane Henry and Francis heads showed:
Robin once again demonstrated that for a man with what he describes as “builders hands”, the detail and finesse with which he can make things is astounding, from the bone modelling tools that the whole team used, to an alabaster mould for making tiny sugar figures
He also proved more than capable when it came to modelling marchpane
too…something that for years he’d never tried to do…perhaps we should have pushed him earlier?!
These are just some of the stand out examples in a sea of skills that have genuinely shone over the last few weeks of work.
Zak working wonders with kids and families alike, convincing them that making loads of identical tent pieces was something they should aspire to, and without that coercion and cooperation, there really would be so much less for you to see here. He was also responsible for finishing off the sugar part of the golden tent and helped add the gold leaf with Dave…when Dave wasn’t busy gilding children’s fingernails or noses to order!? [note to self…discuss profligate use of gold leaf with Dave 😎 ]
and all ably assisted by Robert and Liam who when not explaining what the others were doing, were providing the other daily cookery for visitors or helping them turn out tent sections, soldiers and a host of other sugary delights.
So, enough smoke blowing, how did they actually go about making the model I hear you cry?
Well the segmented green and white tents were ‘easy’, just pressed out in the moulds that Adrian and David whittled out of wood from the firewood pile in the Kitchen. Sugar plate was made following the Dawson recipe you can look at above (as with all the images, clicking on them should expand them to full size…or at least a larger size more conducive to viewing), and this was used like edible play dough. the marchpane was made by grinding almonds in a mortar and pestle…very ‘hands on’ for visitors…with a little rose-water and then powdered sugar was added and the whole pounded into a paste. You can see from the two images of the heads above that Jerry was a little less fussed about how fine his marchpane was ground compared to Robin, but either way the result is the same, a pliable almond modelling paste that can be coloured with natural colouring just like the sugar can.
Colours were made up from parsley juice for the green, cochineal for the reds (ideally we’d use kermes for this, but time and tide meant that the more readily available cochineal would have to suffice), woad powder for blue, oak gall ink for blacks and saffron for yellows. These were applied with brushes made from assorted hairs, furs and feathers, bound together to make tips and held onto wooden hafts with goose quills.
The main golden tent was always intended to be made of sugar, but this was highly unlikely to be strong enough to be self supporting, so Adrian got the first few groups of visitors helping with the project to make some paste board with him. This was easily made from our archival paper glued together with a flour, water and alum glue then pressed until dried and hard. This was then cut to shape and stuck together to form a board base upon which to place the sugar.
Initially Adrian had made moulds that included integral decoration so that a raised foliate design would be cast into the tent walls, but it turned out that the carving wasn’t quite deep enough to consistently guarantee that a panel would turn out with decoration on it…it was a fine line between not quite deep enough and too deep to easily come off the mould, so erring on the side of caution was probably the best thing he could have done.
Once turned out and set aside to dry, the panels were placed onto the pasteboard former and then a thin ‘mortar’ of liquid sugar plate was used to bond the panels together…and to the board it appears as Zak was quite generous with how much he used! When this was all complete and dried, the whole tent was painted with a saffron based paint, principally to act as a base to put the gold onto, but also as a fail safe in case I forgot to order the gold leaf (oh ye of little faith!!). Apparently the guys had planned for the painting to take at least a day, if not longer so that plenty of visitors could get a chance to help. Turns out that on that day all our visitors were budding painters as they covered the whole thing in a couple of hours or so…perhaps finer brushes to slow them down next time?
I think it was around the start of the painting phase that Jerry noticed that the tent in the original painting had a figure as a finial, so he knocked one up out of marchpane, but all I can see when I look at it is the
old magic robot game from the 1970’s….I still keep expecting it to spin round and point at things 😀
The final things to make were the wrestling monarchs which Adrian had intended to be made from sugar and marchpane and probably would have been about the same size as an Action Man figure, but Jerry ended up taking the reins and they turned out a little more in scale with the tent…and waltzing we think rather than wrestling.
Meanwhile, Dave started to gild the tent and when he wasn’t doing it Zak took over; together they plastered about 6 books of leaf onto the tent (about 150 leaves of gold)…less what Dave put on children or blew into the air to show how light gold can be when it’s very, very thin.
Finally all that was left to do was put all the pieces together to form the diorama…
So that’s that then. One roller coaster ride of a month, tens of kilos of sugar and almonds, innumerable bunches of parsley, 6 books of gold, the blood, sweat and tears of all the team, the help of hundreds of visitors all to make something that was designed to be ephemeral…displayed for a short time to show the skills of all concerned, then broken up and eaten….I think it was worth it.