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Jean Tijou’s Screen at Hampton Court Palace

The Adventurous Life of a Masterpiece

Date: 15 April 2024

Author: Daniel Jackson

The glorious 300-year-old Tijou Screen marks the southern boundary of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace, next to the River Thames. It was designed for William III and Mary II in 1689 by Jean Tijou – one of the greatest ironworkers who ever lived.

The screen is one of the most important pieces of architectural ironwork in the country, and a complex conservation challenge. We're halfway through a 20-year project to understand and conserve the screen, to help ensure its survival for another 300 years (at least!). Here, our Head of Historic Buildings Daniel Jackson introduces the screen, the huge project to conserve it, and its mysterious designer.

A formal garden with a white statue in the foreground and a ironwork gold screen behind

Image: The Tijou Screen in the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Who was Jean Tijou?

While Jean Tijou's revolutionary effect on English Ironwork and legacy at Hampton Court Palace is clear to see, he was a mysterious figure. The details of his life are not 100% clear, but we know he was born around 1650 in Paris, likely in the area of St Germain, just across the river from the Louvre.

Tijou trained as a metal worker, and there is evidence of him working for King Louis XIV, creating ironwork for the French royal palaces. He was a Huguenot, a French Protestant sect. As France became increasingly hostile to Protestantism, he fled his home and sought refuge in England in the 1680s.

Tijou was already a skilled and experienced metal worker and he quickly found patrons willing to pay him to continue his work. Though we don’t know exactly when he arrived in England, he is mentioned in the building accounts from Chatsworth in 1687, where he is paid for work on a stair balustrade by the Duke of Devonshire.

Tap to zoom

Ink on linen backed paper, undated. Showing intricate drawings detailing areas of one of the Tijou Screen panels: the central harp royal cypher representing Ireland, a rosette decoration, a sketch showing the construction of the swag decoration (located at the top of the central panel), and detail of a pilaster ornament.

Up Close: Panel Six of the Tijou Screen

An intricate drawing detailing areas of panel six of the Tijou Screen, including the harp royal cypher, representing Ireland.

Image: Reproduced by permission of Historic Royal Palaces / Historic Royal Palaces Enterprises Ltd under licence from The National Archives

Creating a Screen for a Queen

By 1689, Tijou had attracted the attention of Mary II, who commissioned him to work on the new royal palace under construction at Hampton Court. Initially undertaking small-scale projects, he clearly made an impression as he was then commissioned to make what would become one of his largest and most impressive creations, the 'Tijou Screen'.

The Tijou Screen was originally designed to sit in the Great Fountain Garden to the east of the Palace. We are not sure if it ever sat in the position it was designed for, as by 1702 it was erected at the southern end of the Privy Garden, to the south of the palace, where you can still see it today.

Changing Fashions, Changing Positions

Tijou’s work revolutionised metal working in England during his lifetime, and he created new ironwork for some of the most important buildings in the country. Following his death, few English blacksmiths possessed the skill to replicate his work, and the fashions of the time were also quickly changing to favour simpler classical designs.

Most of the decoration on the screen is repoussé work, a specialist metalworking technique where the material is shaped by being hammered from behind with a variety of metal tools to add depth and detail to the design. This technique was common in France in the 17th century, but was largely overlooked by English ironworkers. It is a time-consuming and difficult skill to master, which makes Tijou’s work all the more impressive, and also difficult to repair and conserve.

Considering its size, the Tijou Screen has had quite an eventful life. At Hampton Court it has been moved around the estate at least three times as different royals sought to show it off in new positions. In 1860 the screen was reported to be in a terrible state of repair and was taken from Hampton Court to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The screen’s adventures didn’t stop there: between 1870-1900 the individual panels were sent to different museums and art galleries. This period saw the screen on display in Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Nottingham, Dublin and Edinburgh. The screen finally returned to Hampton Court in 1901 when it was re-erected where William III wanted it, in its current position at the end of the Privy Garden.

The screen is not only exposed to the elements, its position against a public footpath means it has also been a target for thieves and vandals. In March 1998 the thistle emblem from the centre of panel seven was removed and assumed to have been stolen. Following investigations it was decided to send divers into the river next to the screen where, happily, not only was the thistle found but several other parts of the screen which had been removed and disposed of over the years!

Dark grey intricate ironwork panelling in a conservation studio

Image: The harp panel during conservation works. © Historic Royal Palaces

Dark grey intricate ironwork panelling in a conservation studio

Image: © Historic Royal Palaces

Conserving the Screen for Future Generations

The screen has seen multiple periods of repair since the middle of the 19th century. Every generation tried hard to replicate Tijou’s work and preserve this important work of art. Due to the complexity of the design, and the skill of the original maker, it’s an incredibly difficult task and unfortunately, some of the early conservation work couldn’t match the quality of the original material.

At Historic Royal Palaces, we have undertaken huge amounts of historic and scientific research over the last decade to make sure we understand how the screen was originally constructed, and how it has been changed over the past 300 years, to return the Tijou Screen to its former glory.

Jean Tijou screen post-restoration

Image: The Tijou screen post-restoration. © Historic Royal Palaces

In 2021 we undertook the total conservation of panel 12, the panel furthest to the right if you are looking at the Tijou Screen from the palace. This involved lifting the whole panel onto the back of a lorry and driving it to a forge in Kettering, where it stayed for several months. The project was generously supported by 2021 COVID Recovery Grant funding and was completed in 2022. In 2023 the team's hard work was recognised when the National Heritage Ironwork Group (NHIG) named the Tijou conservation project the winner of their National Award for Heritage Metalwork Conservation.

We have much more work ahead of us, and we have moved on the next panel which needs our attention. Over the next decade every part of the screen will undergo conservation, and the screen will once again be in a condition fit for a king.

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