Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Building of the Week: Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace Today
The British Monarchy
The official seat of the British Monarch since Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837, Buckingham Palace is the core of London’s posh City of Westminster. The current palace is actually adapted from the London townhouse of The Duke of Buckingham. Originally called Buckingham House, it wasn’t the first structure to stand on that site. The land was initially part of the medieval Manor of Ebury. Later, in 1624, the first house on the land was built by Sir William Blake and was later purchased by Lord Goring in 1633. Goring is responsible for the first formal gardens at the site. The land was then sold Henry Bennett, The First Earl of Arlington. The mansion, then known as Goring House, burnt to the ground in 1674. Arlington House was erected in its place. The Land was sold to the Duke of Buckingham and Normanby is 1702, and Buckingham House was erected in 1703.

The palace as it looked during George III's reign.
The British Monarchy
The layout of Buckingham house was compromised of a large central section flanked by two wings which very much resembles the footprint (albeit smaller) of the current Palace. The house was purchased by King George III to be a private residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte, so that she might retreat from the day-to-day chaos of St. James Palace, the official seat of the monarch at that time. Fourteen of their fifteen children were born at the mansion which was renamed, “The Queen’s House.”

An 1850 Photograph Showing George IV's facade.
The British Monarchy
 In 1820, when George IV ascended to the throne, he continued the renovations started by his predecessor, however, being a lover of French design, he dictated that the new façade be styled in the manner of French architecture. Under the direction of architect John Nash, the palace took on a French Neoclassical look. Nash’s plans for the palace were costing far more than the monarchy could afford to spend. Upon the death of George IV, King William IV removed Nash from the project and replaced him with Edward Blore. With expenses soaring, the question of what to do with the palace arose. Some felt it should be the seat of the British Museum, others thought it should become the new home of the Houses of Parliament after a fire damaged the Palace of Westminster.

The Throne Room
The British Monarchy
 Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live in Buckingham Palace since William IV died during the period of renovation. She named the palace the official home of the monarch and was instrumental in dictating the decoration of the state rooms—most of which remain as they were at the time. Victoria soon found the palace to be as dysfunctional as it was beautiful. Poor air circulation, a lazy staff and faulty pipes made life in the palace uncomfortable. Her husband, Prince Albert, saw to it that Buckingham Palace was improved in every way. As their family grew, the palace seemed too small. In 1847, the palace was expanded, again, under the direction of Edward Blore. Upon the passing of her husband, Victoria retreated the palace for her other residences, feeling that being in Buckingham Palace reminded her too much of her much-beloved husband. Under pressure to return, she did make an effort to be more present at the palace in the final years of her life.

The Grand Staircase
Redecorated by Edward VII
The British Monarchy
Buckingham Palace—aside from being a political center—was also a major artistic and social center. During the reign of Victoria’s son, Edward VII, the palace saw many a lavish party, concert and event. Edward VII insisted that several of the state rooms should be redecorated in the fashionable cream and gold color scheme so popular during the Belle Époque. A good example of this is the Grand Staircase which retains the style of the Belle Époque to this day. Edward, however, was careful not to modernize too much. He made sure that the portraits that his mother had selected to be inset in the panels along the staircases remained unchanged.

In 1913, King George V, upon the installation of The Victoria Memorial outside the palace gates, ordered that the façade of the palace be changed to a more fitting (and less French) backdrop for the enormous sculpture of his grandmother. Blore’s façade was drastically changed—replacing the curvilinear French gables with massive classical pediments. His wife, Queen Mary, undertook major renovations inside the palace, furnishing the whole with antiques and art from The Royal Collection. Mary’s hand can still be seen in the unchanged Blue Drawing Room.

Queen Mary's Blue Drawing Room
The British Monarchy
During the First World War, the palace was remarkably unscathed. However, during World War II, Buckingham Palace was bombed seven times. The worst of which was a 1940 bombing which destroyed the Royal Chapel. Today, on the site of the chapel, stands The Queen’s Gallery—a venue in which the public can be admitted daily to see The Royal Collection.

Unlike Sandringham House, and Balmoral Castle, Buckingham Palace (and similarly Windsor Castle) are not the private property of the Queen. The palace belongs to the British state and is funded by the people who, in turn, are admitted yearly for tours. The palace is a ceremonial house—designed for political entertaining and business. It is meant to impart a sense of the British Empire. With its grand state rooms and bustling offices, it certainly does just that.

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