Buckingham Palace Part One: The State Rooms

The Buckingham Palace state rooms are open from July until the beginning of October every year, and each year a special exhibit is held within one of the rooms on the tour; last year the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress was on display, this year it was a selection of The Queen’s private jewellery collection. After subscribing to the The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor, a blog that on occasion discusses pieces of The Queen’s jewellery collection, the chance to see some of them in person was an interesting prospect. As the closure of the open season is fast approaching, Kate and I decided to take a trip to London for the day and wander around the most famous building in Britain.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace

Deciding to drive down to Maidenhead and catching a train into London Paddington, then using the London Underground (my first time) to get to London Victoria, we arrived in London in good time and promptly headed towards the palace.

A Little History

Buckingham Palace is named after an earlier house built on the site of the current palace; Buckingham House, which was built by the Duke of Buckingham in the early eighteenth century, and later purchased by King George III in 1761 as a private retreat for his queen Charlotte. During the course of George III’s long reign, the monarch and his queen spent increasing amounts of time at Buckingham House, by that time known as The Queen’s House, leading it to becoming their official London residence whilst St James’s Palace remained the official seat of the court.

When King George IV (previously The Prince of Wales, The Prince Regent) succeeded to the throne following the death of his father King George III in 1820, the new king was required to choose where the seat of the British Monarchy ought to reside, following the decline of St James’s Palace and the importance of Buckingham House during his father’s reign. George IV decided on Buckingham House, but embarked on an ambitious project to expand and modernise the house in order to provide Britain with a palace worthy of the nation’s growing importance on world stage. Architect John Nash was chosen to design and build the new palace having worked for George IV previously when building the Brighton Pavilion, the central block was extended and two wings were added which were later rebuilt with two storeys after the initial single storey wings received significant criticism. George IV died in 1820 by which time the palace was far from complete, when his brother the Duke of Clarence became King William IV, he had little interest in relocating from the newly renovated Clarence House within St James’s Palace. Due to Nash’s overspending throughout the project, he was fired by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington and replaced with architect Edward Blore. Under Blore, the State Rooms were completed along with offices and an extension of the east facade (the wings looking over The Mall). Pictures and furnishings were provided from Carlton House, the former private London residence of George IV which was due to be demolished, existing furnishings from the Queen’s House and excess furnishings from Windsor Castle.

By the time of Queen Victoria’s ascension in 1837, Buckingham Palace was for the most part complete and so from very early on in her reign, the new queen resided within the palace. After Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and the birth of several of their nine children, there was a need for the further expansion of Buckingham Palace and for the improvement of offices and servant’s rooms. Blore was subsequently consulted for the building of a new wing to create the east facade which forms the ‘front’ of the palace. As well as the new front elevation, several of the State Rooms were redecorated including the Grand Staircase, and also a new ballroom was constructed in the State Room wing.

Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the new king Edward VII redecorated much of the palace after many years of limited use due to Queen Victoria’s preference for Osborne House, Windsor and Balmoral after the death of Prince Albert. During Edward VII’s redecoration, many of the rooms were decorated with a white and gold theme which remains to this day in the Grand Entrance and Grand Staircase, a similar white and gold theme also exists in the Ballroom. During Edward VII’s reign, the Victoria Memorial was erected in front of the palace and the soft Caen stone used to construct the east front facing wing which had been decaying, led to the refacing of the front facade during the summer of 1913.

Up until the Second World War, little change occurred at the palace until German bombers targeted the royal seat and destroyed Queen Victoria’s private chapel in the south-west conservatory. Years after the war, when resources could be spared to rebuild the chapel, it was decided by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip that the space should be used for public exhibitions, leading to the construction of The Queen’s Gallery, exhibiting pieces of the Royal Collection. This gallery was later extended for The Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.

During the 60 year (and counting) reign of Elizabeth II, the palace has undergone a period of modernisation, for example the fireplaces were converted to electricity in the 1950s. Several of rooms have also been redecorated, including the Picture Gallery, Silk Tapestry Room and the State Dining Room, which now has crimson damask wall coverings. Since 1993 The Queen has opened the State Rooms to the public for the summer months, whilst the Royal Family reside in Balmoral. This was initially done to raise necessary funds for the rebuilding and repair of Windsor Castle following the fire that broke out in late 1992. Whilst the works on Windsor Castle were completed in 1997, Buckingham Palace as well as other royal palaces have remained open during parts of year, the proceeds of which contribute to the maintenance of the Royal Collection, including buildings, works of art and objects of historical importance held in trust by the Sovereign for the nation.

The Tour

When you first arrive, you enter an area of white marquee’s to collect your pre-booked ticket, after which you wait in a long queue outside one of the side entrances, before going through airport style security and into the palace. Whilst queuing Kate and I were considerably vexed by the group in front of us who had tickets for 13:30 rather than 13:15, refusing to return once our party had entered despite being told to do so, then being allowed in with their later tickets for reasons I cannot in good conscience reveal on here. The group later caused more offence with their smug attitude and their nerve, in touching the piano on the Green Drawing Room.

After passing through security into the palace you walk down a corridor where the [free] audio tour discusses the architectural history of parts of the palace, and the uses of the four sections, after which you enter into the State Rooms, next to the Grand Entrance used by The Queen when returning from the Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding in April 2011, where she remarked the wedding was “amazing”.

The Grand Staircase

Grand Staircase
Grand Staircase

On entering the State Room wing of Buckingham Palace you are guided though the Grand Hall and to Grand Staircase. The Grand Staircase is an impressive room of white and gold walls and balustrade, the stairs lined with red carpet. I must say, walking into the palace beside the Grand Entrance and into rooms lined with red carpet walked on by The Queen and members of the Royal Family, brings on a feeling of excitement and quickens the pulse, there is so much history from the very first step into the building.

The upper walls of the Grand Staircase are lined with members of Queen Victoria’s immediate family, including King George III and Queen Charlotte (Victoria’s grandparents), King William IV and Queen Adelaide (Victoria’s uncle and aunt) and her parents the Duke and Duchess of Kent. These were fitted by Queen Victoria and have remained there ever since. The palace guide book includes a photo of the Grand Staircase next to a watercolour painting from 1848, depicting the staircase with Prince Albert’s polychrome scheme with the paintings of Victoria’s family hung on the walls.

Walking up the staircase and through the Guard Chamber, you will arrive in the Green Drawing Room.

The Green Drawing Room

Green Drawing Room
Green Drawing Room

The Green Room is the first of the major State Rooms on the tour. The walls are lined with green and gold silk, accompanied with white and gold plasterwork. Throughout the entire State Rooms tour, I was constantly commenting on how impressive each of the chandeliers were. On the cabinet to the left of the doorway is a vase in the shape of a boat was once owned by Madame de Pompadour, and later purchased by George IV in 1817.

Walking straight through the Green Drawing Room, you will enter perhaps the most anticipated room of any palace; the Throne Room.

The Throne Room

Throne Room
Throne Room

The Throne Room, like any throne room is a particularly opulent room, decorated in crimson silk wall coverings after many years of a light stone coloured paint. Two things catch your eye in the Throne Room; the four smaller chandeliers surrounding the larger central chandelier and of course, the two thrones embroidered with the initials of Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip atop a raised platform framed with a red, gold trimmed canopy.

The upper parts of the walls and the ceiling are lined with heraldic shields representing England, Scotland, Ireland and Hanover. Much of the ceiling and parts of the walls feature white and gold plasterwork in keeping with the Grand Hall, Staircase and Ballroom.

Exiting through a door to the left of the thrones, you will enter the Picture Gallery.

The Picture Gallery

Picture Gallery
Picture Gallery

The Picture Gallery is one of the State Rooms that have been redecorated during Elizabeth II’s reign, now with orange coloured damask wall hangings. The gallery is home to paintings by Holbein (a Tudor artist, known for painting one of the most famous portraits of King Henry VIII), Rembrandt, Canaletto and countless other famous artists. I am not especially an art aficionado and often find the history rather than technique or type interesting, but I quite liked recognising the number of paintings of Venice by Canaletto, an artist I first encountered visiting Tatton Park earlier this year.

The Picture Gallery connects to the earlier State Rooms to those added for Queen Victoria in 1856, walking through the Silk Tapestry Room – a small ante room of sorts – you enter the East Gallery, which is another long corridor housing paintings of previous monarchs including Charles I painted by Anthony Van Dyke and paintings of Queen Victoria by George Hayter and Franz Winterhalter.

Walking through the East Gallery you are led first into the Ball Supper Room, which this year housed the exhibition showcasing pieces of The Queen’s diamond collection. After viewing the diamond exhibition, you will re-enter East Gallery and then be led into the Ballroom.

The Ballroom

Ballroom
Ballroom

To call the Ballroom big would be an immense understatement; the room is huge. Decorated in white and gold, a style chosen by Edward VII in 1906, the Ballroom at one end has a large organ moved from George IV’s Brighton Pavillion in 1848 after Queen Victoria sold the building. At the other end of the Ballroom, there is a throne and red and gold velvet canopy added for Edward VII, to enable him to preside over evening courts. The Ballroom is lit by a series of six chandeliers that were installed in 1907 replacing earlier gas lit pendant lights.

For this years summer opening, seating was available in the Ballroom for a brief rest in the one and half hour tour. When The Queen is in residence the Ballroom is used for State Dinners, such as the dinner held in honour of American President Barrack Obama’s official visit in May 2011. It is also used for investitures where people receiving honours are awarded by The Queen, of which there are up to 25 every year.

After exiting the Ballroom using the door nearest the throne, you enter the West Gallery and then head into the State Dining Room.

The State Dining Room

State Dining Room
State Dining Room

The State Dining Room, like the Throne Room is decorated with crimson damask accompanied with a large red rug. The coving and ceiling is decorated with white and gold plasterwork, including disks bearing the initials King William IV and Queen Victoria, both of whom had an input into the design of the room, which was one of the last of the State Rooms to be completed.

Hung on the Dining Room wall are a series of paintings depicting the Hanoverian monarchs; King George IV in the middle above the fireplace with King’s George I, II and III to his left and their consorts to his right.

At this point in the tour the audio guide brought attention to the gold leaf objects on the dining table, stating that pieces such as these would normally be on show in a museum behind protective glass, but that at Buckingham Palace they still have a job to do.

Walking through the Dining Room, you will enter the Blue Drawing Room.

The Blue Drawing Room

Blue Drawing Room
Blue Drawing Room

The Blue Drawing Room would have been the Ballroom in John Nash’s original State Room wing, before the construction of the new Ballroom, Dining Room and Ball Supper Room during the reign of Queen Victoria. Originally decorated in crimson silk, the room was redecorated with the current blue flock wallpaper for Queen Mary and King George V, who’s portraits hang on the wall at either side of the fireplace.

The first thing you are directed to when entering the room is a circular table decorated with portraits of Alexander the Great and other ancient commanders. The table was commissioned by Napoleon after he conquered Europe, but remained incomplete until after his defeat in 1815. In 1817, the table was gifted to King George IV by Louis XVIII, King of France, in thanks for the defeat of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars.

Walking through the Blue Drawing Room, after admiring the gardens through an open door (weather permitting), hearing about the palace during the Second World War, you enter the Music Room.

The Music Room

Music Room
Music Room

The Music Room is a large domed room at the heart of the West Front overlooking the garden. Decorated with white and gold frieze, two large and glorious chandeliers along with sixteen columns that imitate lapis lazuli (a blue semi-precious stone), the Music Room is used for private recitals and also royal christenings including The Queen’s eldest three children; Charles, Anne and Andrew, and her grandson, Prince William.

Walking through the Music Room, you enter into the last of the principle State Rooms; the White Drawing Room.

The White Drawing Room

White Drawing Room
White Drawing Room

The White Drawing Room is perhaps one of the most interesting of the State Rooms, decorated throughout with a mixture of white and gold. Like the Throne Room, the White Drawing Room is home to four smaller chandeliers surrounding a larger more grand chandelier, and grand it is too, I’m only glad I am not the person who has to clean it!

Along the far wall, two mirrors and cabinets double up as secret doors allowing members of the Royal Family to enter the room from private rooms behind. Between the two concealed doors, over one of several fireplaces, a portrait of Queen Alexandra; the wife of King Edward VII that painted in 1908 is hung. Located in the corner of the room, is an ornate roll-top desk that Kate could picture me having… if only.

After wandering around the White Drawing Room, you are directed down the Minister’s staircase and into the Marble Hall. The Marble Hall, located beneath the Picture Gallery, is home to several statues and a number of paintings and opens up onto the Grand Hall. From the Marble Hall you enter the Bow Room, the last room on the Buckingham Palace State Room Tour, which is used for a great many different things including a waiting room for visiting dignitaries before being received by The Queen, a dining room and a hallway for garden party guests to enter the gardens. Like the garden party guests, you walk though the Bow Room, exit the palace and enter the gardens.

During the summer openings several marquee’s are erected in the gardens, including a cafe that as you can imagine gets very busy, and a gift shop selling a range of merchandise relating to Buckingham Palace and the Monarchy, such as confectionary, apparel, books and replica jewellery. After leaving the gift shop, you walk down the garden path (but not the grass) and exit the grounds. Before exiting, you will be offered the chance to have your ticket stamped (providing the ticket was purchased directly from The Royal Collection) allowing you to revisit the palace during the summer opening for free, within the next twelve months.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in history, architecture, or the British Monarchy make a visit to Buckingham Palace. The whole experience is remarkably exciting and for me, created a ‘buzz’ feeling that remained well into the following day.

My next blog post will be a continuation of my Buckingham Palace visit, focusing on the “Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration” exhibit that is open along with the State Rooms until the 7th October 2012.

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