Cooking with copper

Kitchens with copper: Windsor Castle

VFC

admin


For the first post of this series, let’s start with “one of the oldest working kitchens in the world.”

Windsor Castle outside London has been continually inhabited since its creation in the 11th century. Its Great Kitchen is located in the north-eastern corner of the Upper Ward; the rectangular room, labeled “Kitchen Lantern” in the diagram below on the right, is aligned roughly east-west on its long axis.

 

According to Windsor Castle: Architectural history, published 1923:

The kitchen occupies the north side of the court and is oblong in plan. Its north wall is probably the 12th-century castle wall, but the rest of the building is apparently in substance a 14th-century rebuilding. A wide doorway of this date (now blocked) remains in the south-east corner. There is a wide chimney in the east wall, two in each of the north and south walls, and three in the west wall, all save one filled with modern gas ranges. The kitchen is lighted by a range of south windows, and by a lantern story to its wooden roof…

“The Kitchen at Windsor Castle,” painted circa 1818 by James Stephanoff, shows the structure of the room. The painter stands at the eastern end of the long hall; the north wall is on the right, and the southern wall, pierced by two high clerestory windows, is on the left. At the very top is the “lantern” — a raised enclosed vault with windows to let in light. The alcoves along the side walls are hearths with soot trails staining the walls. If this painting is reasonably historically accurate, the kitchen had a modest collection of copper pots and pans kept on a single set of shelves.

Starting in 1824, during the reign of George IV, Windsor Castle underwent a thorough restoration and modernization. For the Great Kitchen, the architect Wyattville updated the walls and roof to look more modern — that is, Victorian Gothic. The excerpt below from The Illustrated London Cookery Book depicts the kitchen in 1852, looking down the hall towards the eastern end of the room. The walls were significantly brightened and the alcove hearths replaced with stoves. The free-standing T-shaped structures appear to be lighting — gas or possibly electric. The clock has been relocated to the north wall. The windows cut into the south wall provide additional natural light. Note the full extent of copper running the length of both walls: “the great size and number of the culinary vessels displayed ostentatiously around the fire-places.”

The photo at right was taken in 1867 to inventory the kitchen contents in the storage alcove under the clock, and it captures the clock in greater detail. The utilitarian kitchen clocks serves a second purpose: the letters below read G IV REX 1828 to commemorate the King’s remodeling project.

The Great Kitchen appears to have stayed much the same for the remaining years of the 19th century. Two photographs taken decades apart — one taken in 1878, the other sometime between 1890-1895 — show complementary views of the same space. The photo at left below, dated 1878, shows the north wall with the George IV clock. The most significant change I see is that the plain shelves in the alcove beneath the clock as shown in the 1867 photograph have been replaced with a free-standing cupboard in 1878. The slightly later photo on the right, taken between 1890-1895, shows the south wall with its three tall windows. A carved wooden deer head has been mounted at the midpoint of the room.

The copper collection is magnificent, stretching the length of both long walls with additional pieces tucked into the alcoves. The pots are hung with their lids right behind them, making it easy to pull down the pot and the correct lid at the same time. (Now perhaps you can understand why great kitchens often numbered their pots and lids!)

 

The painting below, dated 1895, is titled “The Queen’s Christmas.” I like it because it depicts the kitchen in action: each table was a work station focused on a different task. The copper is hung by size to complement the architecture and I think it’s beautiful. The arrangement of the copper does not seem to have changed much since 1852: the large rectangular item hanging from the copper rack on the left side appears to be the same roasting pan in the exact same spot shown in The Illustrated London Cookery Book above.

The photo below was taken by F. G. O. Stuart, a prominent landscape photographer who began publishing his work in postcards (black and white as well as hand-tinted) between 1902 and 1923. This is how the Great Kitchen appeared in the early 20th century. The view is from the northeast corner, showing the windows along the south wall. The copper collection continues vast, with pots and lids still double-hung.

It would seem that the Great Kitchen continued unchanged for most of the 20th century. The next major event in the story came in November 1992 when a serious fire broke out at Windsor Castle. The fire began in the Queen’s Private Chapel in the northeastern corner of the Upper Ward — almost adjacent to the Great Kitchen — and burned for some fifteen hours before it was brought under control. The diagram below on the left is from a BBC broadcast at the time of the event showing where the fire broke out; on the right is a diagram from the Institution of Structural Engineers showing the final extent of the fire’s damage and where firebreaks were successful in halting its spread.

 

The damage affected 20% of the castle and restoration and repair of the damaged areas took five years.

I highly recommend this 2020 presentation by Peter Riddington of the Institution of Structural Engineers about the recovery and repair effort and lessons learned. The damage to the Great Kitchen and the repairs made are discussed starting at 26:39, and Riddington narrates a fascinating discovery.

There was always an assumption with the medieval kitchen that the roof had been replaced as part of Wyattville’s work because it has all these weird crenellations and iron brackets and things on it. But we actually discovered that it wasn’t a 19th century at all but it was medieval, and either Wyattville or Bloor had covered up the medieval roof structure with bits of wood and bits of iron and stuff to make it look like a Victorian Gothic roof structure. So this structure which is now part of one of the oldest working kitchens in the world was restored, and we have the wonderful Richard Swift who was at Giffords [engineering firm] at the time to thank for this rather ingenious and inventive way of reinforcing the medieval timbers to allow us to have a re-evaluated roof that clearly now is a medieval roof.

If I ever get the opportunity to see the Great Kitchen, I’m going to look up.

The Windsor Castle restoration was successful, serving to restore the damaged areas and, as possible, update and improve the structural integrity of the building. The painting below, “Windsor Castle: The Grand Kitchen, after restoration” by Alexander Creswell, was commissioned in 1999 to capture the kitchen after its rebuilding. The floor was tiled in a checkerboard pattern; the T-shaped lamps were removed and replaced by a hanging overhead frame with embedded lights. The L-shaped wooden work tables and central square table were covered with steel. And while copper pots and pans still lined the walls, they were not as densely packed as they are in the earlier photos, and pots and lids were no longer hanging together.

The photo below, taken in 2011 from almost the same angle as the 1999 painting above, shows the Great Kitchen as we see it in the present day — virtually unchanged. Let’s take a closer look at all that copper.

Every piece I see is resolutely English in manufacture and I would expect nothing less in a royal kitchen. Cast your eye along the three rows of copper arrayed in the photo below and you’ll see elements of English manufacture in each type of pan. The saucepans along the top row have arrow-shaped baseplates and an inch-wide band of tin around the outer rim in the English manner. The pans hanging from their handles along the hooks below are likely “cutlet pans,” an English version of a skillet with straight sides. (A cutlet pan can also be used as a sauté pan, a crèpe pan, or even as a lid.) These shallow pans are not deep enough for the English arrow baseplate but the hanging loops are shaped like keyholes in the English style. And in the bottom row, the round pans have brass handles of the distinctively English design: the baseplate consists of two wide-set brackets, each side attached with two rivets. (Like the cutlet pans, these round pans could also be used on the stovetop or as a fitted lid for a stockpot.)

 

The kitchen uses these pieces today. Here is head chef Michael Flanagan at work (in 2011) with copper. He’s stirring something in an English saucepan and on the stove at the far left is a large oval stewpot with an English-style brass handle. The well-tarnished look of the big stewpot reminds me of the patina on my daily-use saucepans.

The photo below shows copper along the southern wall, below that distinctive wooden deer head. It’s all English: cutlet pans with keyhole hanging loops; a lid with an arrowhead baseplate; a bowl with an English brass handle; and more English-style tinning jobs on the pots along the shelf.

But for me it is this cluster of rounded pots that is the most characteristically English presence in the room.

Those are true 19th century English saucepans! John Fuller Sr., writing in 1904 about the state of the industry in the mid-19th century, calls them “saucepans” or “bellied saucepans” to differentiate them from the French straight-sided style that he called a “stew-pan.” According to Fuller, English bellied saucepans were the norm until the 1860s when demand for the French style began to take hold:

It is probable that among the culinary utensils made by braziers 40 years ago there were more saucepans than almost any other article; but later on the French stew-pan seemed to supersede the saucepan altogether, excepting in a few instances, such as the smaller sizes, which were made with lips and used for the preparation of little delicacies.

The two English saucepans in the center in the photo above are marked “V.R.” for Queen Victoria (1837-1901), which aligns nicely with Fuller’s timing. I can’t quite make out the smaller letters stamped on the two pots at the left and right side: FRMP? FRHP? I don’t think they’re of the exact same make as the VR pieces — the baseplate is slightly different — but they are certainly made in the English mid-1800s style.

If you visit Windsor Castle, it’s possible to tour the Great Kitchen. If you have been, I would love to hear about it. Do they discuss the copper?


I’d like to thank reader Martin for inspiring this series as an offshoot of “Chefs with copper.” I hope readers enjoy this, as there are more to come! My thanks also to Roger, who noted that my date of 1828 on one of the photos was suspiciously ancient — he was right, and the date of the photo is instead 1878. The post has been corrected.

Tags:




17 Comments

  1. Very nice VFC. I’ll actually be there for a private Christmas tour in the beginning of December. Fingers crossed I get to see the kitchen. I’ll ask if they’re willing to sell anything when I’m there. 😉

  2. Ha! Maybe that’s where all the old copper went!

    How marvelous that you will get to be there in person. If you do get the opportunity to ask about the copper collection, I’m sure we’d all love to hear more about it. Thank you!

    1. If I’m allowed to go in the kitchen I’ll see if they’ll let me take some photos. If so, I’ll send them your way.

  3. Very interesting and informative post VFC. Great start to a new series on the use of copper in large historic kitchens.

  4. It is nice to think of the continued use of this space for the purpose for which it built. How sure are you about the date of the first photograph as 1828 is very early for photography and early images are not usually that perfect. (First ever photo with a camera was 1826 I think). I also doubt whether those cylindrical bodied saucepans are quite that early, they don’t even seem to be of lockseam construction.
    Check out the the great kitchen in Brighton pavilion to see what George IV had built for himself while he was still Prince Regent ( George III famously being mentally ill). Probably the world’s first show kitchen that guests were encouraged to visit.

  5. Roger, thank you — you caught me in an error. The date of that photo is 1878, not 1828 — I mentally subtracted 50 years from its age! I’m reformatting the post to put that photo in the correct spot in the timeline. Thank you for the correction and I offer my apology to readers for my mistake.

    1. No matter, a trifling error in a great post, it is strange how hard it is to spot one’s own mistakes.
      The number of pans seems to be somewhat depleted since the 1920’s, I hope that is just to make for easier cleaning and that they were not destroyed in the fire. Prior to that generations of staff seems to have always put every pan back in exactly the same positions for decades.

  6. Roger, I was struck by the same thing — the pots and pans seem to have stayed in the same place for decades. I haven’t seen any Windsor pieces up close so I can’t confirm it, but I would expect they’d be numbered for a specific hook or a spot on a shelf. I recall reading that prior to the advent of popular cookbooks, each kitchen had its own recipes specifying specific pots by number and not by volume — for example, “take down pot number 6 and fill it halfway with water…” Looking at this kitchen I can see how that would have worked!

  7. Unless Stephanoff’s painting is misleading, grilling meat over an open fire was the dominant method of preparation in one of the most distinguished royal kitchens at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. Significantly older paintings or the comparatively very simple kitchen furnishings that can be seen in some castles in Europe give a similar impression. For centuries, people fed themselves mainly with stews of cereals and some vegetables and with bread. A large pot for the fireplace was enough. The culinary revolution that must have taken place in Windsor Castle during the 19th century is evidenced by the photo from 1878, which shows the enormous increase in kitchen equipment with numerous pots and pans. I love stories like this that bring copper pots to life and focus on their environment (craft, kitchen, society, way of life…).

    The other day I took the time to look through the countless pages of VFC again. Many things have been revised, better systematized, more clearly arranged. I also realized how diverse this blog has become. A great achievement. Thank you VFC and thank you to all active readers of this wonderful blog!

    1. Thanks, Martin. I do go back through the site to revisit, correct, update, and reorganize, and I welcome readers’ sharp eyes to catch areas I should focus on. Thank you, as always, for your patience and contributions to the site and the community.

    2. Roasting by radiant heat was considered to be the best, it is also the least efficient use of fuel and as such a form of conspicuous consumption. All part of showing power and wealth. What we now call roasting in an oven would have been regarded as baking. The transition from wood to coal with its tendency to impart unpleasant flavours led to a preference for oven cooking.

  8. Those lights in 1852 have to be gas. There were no generators powerful enough to use arc lights and Swan didn’t invent the lightbulb till 1878. Prince Albert was a keen to modernise & gas was installed at Windsor and Buckingham Palace.
    William Fortnum was a footman to Queen Anne, a perk was to be allowed the huge number of candle stubs which were then sold to the poor through Hugh Mason’s shop eventually making enough money for the two to go into business together. Anyone heard what became Fortnum and Mason?

  9. What a great post! I knew nothing about English copper pans, now I know a little. I am a Californian living in France, and believe all of my copper pans are French. I never had a copper pan until I came here, and it has taken some time to figure out how they should be used. You helped a lot.
    bonnie in provence

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: