The Power of Image: Versailles and The Sun King – An expertly curated display of seven of Ushaw Historic House’s ‘Cabinet du Roi’ collection of volumes, alongside 77 specially selected enlargements of key engravings captured in their pages (1669 onwards) – on display at Ushaw Historic House, Chapels and Gardens, Durham, April 1 – June 25
In a UK-first this spring, the pages of some of the rarest books in European history will be brought to life in an innovative exhibition in County Durham.
Never seen in public before, the first edition volumes known as the Cabinet du Roi, or King’s Cabinet, will be on display at Ushaw Historic House, Chapels and Gardens, a hidden gem in the county that welcomed more than 100,000 visitors last year.
The Power of Image: Versailles and The Sun King will bring a taste of Versailles as experienced by King Louis XIV to the arts and heritage venue, which lies just four miles from Durham city centre.
Alongside the books themselves, which will be displayed in glass cases, scores of the detailed engravings captured within their pages will be arranged at a spectacular scale, with some sections arranged to re-create the grandeur of parts of the Palace of Versailles that no longer exist.
Among these will be a complete representation of The Ambassadors’ Staircase, a reconstruction of the illusionistic ceiling, which was demolished in 1752. This is one of the exhibition highlights for its curator, Andrew Heard, who is visitor programmes manager at Ushaw.
He explained: “These enlargements will be a window into the life and taste of The Sun King, Louis XIV, at a scale that allows visitors to discern and appreciate many of the intricacies detailed in these beautiful plates.
“The resulting volumes, 15 of which reside at Ushaw Historic House, were designed to reflect the glory of the King’s reign and to promote his image within France and beyond. The illustrations include the plans and elevations of French royal houses, together with their decorative paintings and sculptures.”
It is not known how many series of the Cabinet du Roi remain in existence. However, the Ushaw set is thought to be the most extensive public collection of volumes in the UK, having most likely been part of an 8,000-strong donation of books made by Thomas Wilkinson of Kendal, a significant benefactor to the Ushaw library during its time as part of a Catholic seminary.
Ego or expertise
Andrew continued: “Louis XIV was Europe’s longest serving monarch, closely followed by our own Queen Elizabeth II, and he led a fascinating life, during which he established Versailles as his centre of power.
“Visitors to the exhibition will be able to follow the ways in which Louis – and the many thousands of people who worked on his behalf – developed the château and its gardens.
“Whether your view is that the Cabinet du Roi demonstrates Louis’ bluster and ego or his expertise as a master statesman, these volumes certainly offer us an incredibly rare insight into the formation of the Versailles we know today.”
Additional highlights to look forward to as part of the exhibition will be representations of the painted ceiling of King Louis’ Petit Gallery, from 1752, and The Grotto, a decorative feature in the gardens at Versailles demolished in 1684, 14 years after its construction, which depicted the central figure of the Greek sun-bringer Apollo, attended by nymphs as he rested at sunset.
Ushaw, a Georgian house, park and gardens, is also hosting activities inspired by Versailles and the exhibition, including print-making workshops, for spring and summer visitors.
The Power of Image: Versailles and the Sun King, thought to be the world’s biggest ever public display of the Cabinet du Roi, opens April 1 and runs through until June 25 in the William Allen Gallery, from 11am until 4pm daily.
Exhibition access is included in the price of admission, and you can find out more, including further detail about the many things to see and do year-round at Ushaw at ushaw.org.