“I delight in Buckingham Palace”, said Queen Victoria, when she moved in three weeks after ascending to the throne. She was either an optimist or hadn’t discovered that the drains didn’t drain, the royal apartments were ventilated through the common sewers, the servants’ bells didn’t ring, and there were no sinks for the chambermaids. Additionally, some doors wouldn’t close, and some of the windows wouldn’t open.
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The façade of this internationally known palace has not always presented the appearance it does today. It was originally a townhouse built by John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham, and a friend of Queen Anne. In 1703 she granted him the land—at the corner of St James’s Park and Green Park—on which the Palace now stands. It was first known as Buckingham House.
Part of the land was once a mulberry garden, planted by James I. Today the 40-acre secluded garden contains specimen shrubs, trees and a large lake. Eight to nine thousand people visit it during the annual garden parties.
George III liked Buckingham House, and, wanting a London residence, bought it in 1762, for £28,000. He renamed it Queen’s House and gave it to his wife, Charlotte. Many of their children were born at the house.
It took George IV, on becoming King in 1820, and John Nash, Surveyor-general to George IV when he was Prince Regent, to turn the house into a sumptuous palace. Both had the experience: George IV was the instigator, and Nash the architect, of Brighton Pavilion, that monument to excessive architecture.
Parliament granted George IV £150,000 for the rebuilding. A thousand workmen were hired to face the exterior with Bath stone and add new rooms on the western side. Nash demolished the North and South wings and rebuilt them. He constructed Marble Arch as a grand entrance to the enlarged courtyard.
As work continued, Nash let his costs run away with him, and Parliament complained. Joseph Hume, an English politician and reformer fighting for financial retrenchment, said, “the Crown of England does not require such splendour. Foreign countries might indulge in frippery, but England ought to pride herself on her plainness and simplicity.”
Nevertheless, elegance reigned, and the rooms, which today are known as the State and semi-State Rooms remain virtually unchanged since Nash’s time.
The rooms contain much of the furniture and works of art that were originally made for Carlton House (George IV’s London home when he was Prince). English Regency furniture and Sèvres porcelain vie for attention in the Green Drawing Room along with silk covered walls and a coved and gilded ceiling. Curving marble staircases and large mirrors add to the Palace decor.
The Picture Gallery, the length of two tennis courts, was designed by Nash to display paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto and others. The Marble Hall, clad in Italian marble, was built by Nash as a sculpture gallery. Its 137 feet contain sculptures purchased by George IV. Among them are three groups by Antonio Canova.
Nash’s extravagance can be seen in the red silk walls of the State Dining Room and the gold walls and cut glass chandeliers that dominate the White Drawing Room (look for the Royal family’s secret door). Treasures in the opulent Blue Drawing Room, with its 30 fake onyx columns, include the Table of the Grand Commanders, made of Sèvres porcelain and once belonging to Napoleon.
The monarchs’ thrones are located in the scarlet and gold Throne Room used for formal photographs. The thrones are placed beneath a canopy with gold capitalled pilasters on either side and are presided over by a proscenium arch supported by a pair of winged figures of Victory holding garlands.
The Music Room, on the garden front of the Palace, has seen the christening of Queen Elizabeth’s children. It’s also where guests are presented during a state visit and receptions are held. George IV planned it as his library.
Unfortunately, George IV died before he could move in and enjoy the remodelled building. William IV ascended to the throne in 1830. Nash was fired for his extravagance, and Edward Blore was hired in his place to finish the Palace. Work continued, but William IV disliked the place and never moved in. The bills amounted to £700,000 by the time Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837. When she moved in, Buckingham Palace became, for the first time, the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s rapidly expanding family needed nurseries. The Palace was short of bedrooms for guests. More building followed. Marble Arch was moved to the northeast corner of Hyde Park to make room for a fourth wing that turned the Palace into a quadrangle.
There wasn’t a room large enough for grand entertainments, so in 1853-55, Queen Victoria ordered the Ballroom built. 122 feet long, 60 feet wide and 45 feet high, it is, today, used for many events such as the State Banquet, the Diplomatic Reception, and memorial concerts.
This is the site of Investitures, where the Queen presents the recipients of British honours with their awards.
It was after Queen Victoria’s death that the Palace metamorphosed into today’s familiar landmark. The present graveled forecourt and the wrought iron and bronze gates were added in 1911. A memorial statue to Queen Victoria, flower gardens, and a new road layout were completed. The memorial statue is topped by the gilded figure of Victory, and Queen Victoria is surrounded by the figures of Charity, Truth and Justice. In 1913 the deteriorating stone on the east front was replaced by Sir Aston Webb with gray Portland stone.
During World War II a chapel, converted by Queen Victoria from Nash’s conservatory, was bombed. Prince Philip oversaw its rebuilding as the Queen’s Gallery, home to a rotating collection of art and treasures from the Royal Collection. The building was restyled in 2002 and now has a Doric Portico entrance in the Greek classical style.
More than 600 rooms, including 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms comprise the castle’s assets. But the “room” best known around the world is the balcony where the Royal family gathers on celebratory and solemn occasions to be seen by their subjects. The forecourt below is witness to the ceremony of the changing of the guard. In their full dress uniform of red tunic, black pants and bearskin hats, the ceremony is a magnet for tourists.
The Palace is more than a home for the Royals. It is the official administrative headquarters of the monarchy and contains the offices of their staff. Here all Royal ceremonies and official banquets are held. Government ministers, top civil servants and heads of state visit to carry out their duties. More than 50,000 people visit Buckingham Palace each year, either officially or as guests. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘working from home’.
The State Rooms are open for visitors when the Queen is not in residence, normally in August and September. A timed ticket system operates between 9:30 and 6pm. For tickets phone 020 7766 7300.
The Royal Mews houses the Royal family’s coaches, horses and cars. The Gold State Coach, used only for coronations, dates from 1762. Weighing in at four tons, it requires eight horses to pull it.
The Royal Mews is open to visitors Jan-3rd week March, Mon-Fri, 11am-4pm; 4th week March-end Oct, daily, 10am-5pm; Nov-3 days before Christmas, Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm; closed various days during the year, check website for exact dates. Ticket office 9:30am-5pm except closed 25th, 26th Dec.
Disabled visitors please contact the Visitor Office by emailing Buckingham Palace Royal Collection or phoning 020 7839 1377 for information about facilities and access.
The Changing of the Guard takes place at 11:30am daily during the summer and every other day in winter.
This article originally appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.