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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Buckingham Palace

The Buckingham Palace East Façade in springtime.                                
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
As something of a student of architecture (in only the broadest sense) I've long been fascinated by palaces. Three years ago, while in St. Petersburg, Russia, I got to see three--the Hermitage, Catherine's Palace, and the Peterhof Palace. This spring I hope to see the granddaddy of them all, Versailles, just outside Paris. And the next time I'm in London, I hope to see at least the outside of the queen's "digs" as millennials would call it--Buckingham Palace. I mention seeing only the outside, because of the four palaces mentioned, only Buckingham Palace continues to be the home of a ruling monarch, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England. And, as such, it's only open to the public in the late summer when the queen's not there (most of August and September). That's also when I'll not be there. 
The West Façade--sort of the back door to the palace.
Fleur de Lys, Beverly Hills, California.
I began this morning intent upon writing about the most expensive home in the world, an estate called Fleur de Lys (left), located in Beverly Hills, California, for which the singer Mariah Carey may be about to plunk down an amount somewhere in the neighborhood of $100-million (asking price is $125-million). Although that may seem exorbitant, the estate comes up far short in its billing as the world's most expensive home. In fact, it's well down the list. Imagine an estate worth ten times that much, with 19 state rooms, 52 bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, 78 bathrooms and one indoor pool--a house literally fit for a queen, though she doesn't personally own the place, she just lives there. Not only is the palace unquestionably the most expensive home in the world it's also among the largest at some 830,000 square feet (Fleur de Lys is a piddling 31,000 square feet). The palace is 393 feet in length and 354 feet wide. The Queens Gardens out back occupies about forty acres (Fleur de Lys sets on just five acres and has only fifteen bedrooms). Although the palace is not likely to come on the market anytime soon, it's estimated value comes in at around a billion dollars.

Buckingham House, ca. 1710, William Winde, architect.
The House of Windsor coat of arms.
As with virtually all such palatial works of art, the palace had a rather humble beginning, somewhere around 1624 with a house built by Sir William Blake. The next owner enlarged the place somewhat and planted a garden. And except for a legal technicality involving a missing seal, his descendants might still own the place. Instead, it fell into the hands of the royal family, specifically the American nemesis, King George III. In 1674, the house (by then known as Goring House) burned to the ground. The following year, a certain Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington, leased the land and built another, grander home known as Arlington House, which today has become the southern wing of the palace and its oldest section. However the house which forms the architectural core of the present palace was not erected until 1703. Built by the Duke of Buckingham and designed by William Winde, the structure was a large, three-story, central block with two smaller flanking service wings. Buckingham House was eventually sold by Buckingham's descendants in 1761 to King George III for £21,000.

Queen Victoria at her Coronation,
1838, George Hayter.
Buckingham House was originally intended as a private retreat for Queen Charlotte, referred to as The Queen's House where 14 of their 15 children were born. St. James's Palace remained the official and ceremonial royal residence. However, when George IV became king in 1820, with the help of his architect, John Nash, he began renovating the place. And, as so often happens, the renovation project got out of hand; to the point that, before he knew it, the new king had himself a royal palace. When George IV died in 1830, his younger brother, William IV, hired architect, Edward Blore, to finish the work. However, it took a woman's touch to really make the Buckingham House into a first rate royal palace. When Queen Victoria arrived in 1837, Buckingham Palace became the official royal residence (below).

The New Ballroom, 1856, Louis Haughe

Buckingham Palace grand
staircase, ca. 1870.
It was not an easy task. Though royal in size, it was far from royal in creature comforts. The chimneys smoked to the point fires had to be kept to a minimum, thus when visitors came calling, they were advised to dress warmly. The staff was said to be lazy and the house downright dirty. When the queen married Prince Albert in 1840, his first order of business was to reorganize the staff and correct the architectural shortcomings that often accompany a newly remodeled home. However by 1847, as the royal family grew to include five children (and another on the way) it gradually became apparent the palace needed yet another wing to house them all (Albert and Victoria eventually had nine children). So, they recalled Edward Blore and with the help of Thomas Cubbit, they erected the massive east front which completely enclosed the courtyard, creating the basis for what we see today.

Buckingham Palace, east front, Edward Blore, until around 1910
The grace and grandeur of the
Victorian era lingers today.
Actually, though, what we see today is a 1913 façade(below) designed by Sir Aston Webb over Blore's 1850 façade (above), creating a more classical look as a backdrop for the new Victoria Memorial out front (top). Inside, as tastes changed in the latter part of the 19th-century and early 20th-century, the interiors underwent a number of redecorating trials. The Green Drawing Room became just barely green and the Blue Drawing Room likewise wasn't very (blue, that is). And in any case, not much drawing went on in either chamber. That's not to say that painting and drawing have been slighted. Actually, the palace is bursting at the seams with first-rate art (mostly painted portraits) by names such as Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, and Vermeer to the point that in the early 1960s they built yet another wing, the Queen's Gallery, just to hold the overflow (and for public display when the palace is closed).

The east wing façade, the newest portion of the palace, completed in 1913.

The royal living quarters.
Inside the palace, one would expect to find lavish wealth and exceptional good taste. One would not be disappointed. Unlike Russian palaces where virtually anything that doesn't move is plastered with gold leaf, Buckingham Palace exhibits a certain British restraint which avoids the gaudy in favor of Neo-classical excellence. Beyond that there is a surprisingly persistent Chinese element in the décor (or at least what the British considered Chinese). During the 19th-century Brighton Palace was largely ransacked of its Chinese content and décor to decorate Buckingham Palace. Inside, the halls seem endless and the bedrooms nearly so. The palace has become basically a quadrangle with minor wings and additions jutting out at various, irregular intervals (below).

Buckingham Palace ground floor plan.
The queen and Prince Phillip live on the second level along a lengthy hall in the northwest quadrant of the building (above, right). Their quarters are large and attractive, but not obscenely extravagant like those to be found in various French, Italian, German, and Russian palaces. Most of the "state" rooms designated for official functions and entertaining are also on the second level, occupying the old Buckingham House core of the palace, facing the Queen's Gardens to the west. The central room of this core is the music room with its semicircular alcove, flanked on either sides by the Blue (below, left) and White Drawing Rooms. The throne room overlooks the courtyard from the southeast corner of the main core. The newer wings making up the quadrangle are essentially occupied by guest suites and offices along the palace's interminable corridors which look out over the courtyard.

Buckingham Palace main floor--A: State Dining Room; B: Blue Drawing Room; C: Music Room; D: White Drawing Room; E: Royal Closet; F: Throne Room; G: Green Drawing Room; H: Cross Gallery; J: Ball Room; K: East Gallery; L: Yellow Drawing Room; M: Center/Balcony Room; N: Chinese Luncheon Room; O: Principal Corridor; P: Private Apartments; Q: Service Areas; W: The Grand staircase. On the ground floor: R: Ambassador's Entrance; T: Grand Entrance. The areas defined by shaded walls represent lower minor wings.
The so-called Blue Drawing Room.

As if that weren't enough the staff numbers some 450 people assigned to taking care of royal affairs, guarding the palace, and dusting off the knickknacks. Out back in the garden, tucked in among the greenery, is a lake, a heliport, and tennis courts. And if you're wondering how much all this costs, think in terms of roughly fifteen million pounds yearly (just a tad over $23-million). Pretty rich, considering the royal family lives there only about ten months out of the year.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are welcomed by
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Buckingham Palace, April 1, 2009.


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