The pavilion was born in 1572. Its walls were made of canvas. And like sails they were held up by a platoon of 40 ships’ masts – seasoned with mists, salt and the voices of fishes.
It was Elizabeth’s pavilion. A queen for fourteen years, she had grown tired of her palaces: Whitehall, a pale leviathan; rosy-colored Hampton Court; St. James, which still bore her mother’s initials carved into its guilty stone; Greenwich – where her father was born and Richmond, where she would die. These buildings were built on history, enmeshed in circumstance and ceremony. She needed something that reflected her wit, femininity and power – the unexpected whim of England’s unequaled queen.
So when the French envoys were to visit in 1572, with marriage proposals, land and trade agreements in their pockets, Elizabeth decided to entertain them outside. She hired 500 carpenters and artists to decorate and disguise the canvas walls. They would create a gallery suitable for those visitors most likely to return home with stories of the handiwork that was raised with a single wave of the Virgin Queen’s arsenic scented hand.
Above tables weakened by plates of spiced meats and sugar paste sculptures of cathedrals and chessboards, boughs of birch and ivy wept from the ceiling. Roses and honeysuckle were braided in a living fabric that pressed against the walls painted with trompe l’oeil stonework. The air of the artificial bower bloomed, growing fragrant and green. It mixed bravely with the sickly rancid scent that rose from the pomanders held close to the visitors’ noses.
The ceiling was painted with the curling vines of an exotic harvest: pomegranates, melons, cucumbers, grapes, carrots – reminders of the foreign lands within England’s grasp. Finally, rising out of the greenery, at the very top of the unlikely construction was a sweep of twilight, “spangled with gold and most richly hanged”, marked with constellations and sparks of stars marked with “lights of glass”. Gilt ornaments and lanterns decorated the deceptive evening, their fey light varnishing the crawling garden.
Elizabeth’s pavilion, the rippling façade of brick and botany, was meant to be used only once. But it was to remain standing for another ten years. And in that time the vines had rotted and the flowers had become gangrenous. Showers of dust, gilt and paint stood hypnotized in the shafts of sunlight piercing the ragged walls.
However, the scent of decay – the sweet repellent aroma from a diabolical boudoir – could somehow still beckon. Birds hatched through the dilapidated canvas, attracted by the death throes of the suffering forest.
They were tiny envoys, bearing tokens of music, color and spirit. Their whimsical movements, the audacity of their flight were an inspiration. Once, within that flimsy architecture, art had dared to imitate life. And within a decade it would be rescued by it. A mystery play of metaphysics, aesthetics and semantics had been re-enacted within a forest that was – like a sleeping Eden – in the process of being re-born.