Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Buckingham Palace - Finding Its Own Style and Place in History

Buckingham Palace Celebrating

The Diamond Jubilee and particularly the concert performed in front of Buckingham Palace last night, has brought to mind the story behind this famous building. While it has a very recognisable façade, in comparison to other royal palaces it lacks the opulence and uniqueness such royal buildings usually display; it resembles a simple, staid town hall (albeit a large one) rather than a Queen's palace. But it hasn't always looked the way it does today. It has evolved through many guises since its earliest beginnings in the 1600s. 

The site that is Buckingham Palace gardens today began as a royal Mulberry plantation in the early 17th century. King James I had Mulberry trees planted for the farming of silkworms. It would appear there was a building adjoining and there followed a line of occupiers until the late 17th century when John Sheffield (later the Duke of Buckingham) demolished the old building to make way for a new modern construction. Buckingham House was completed in 1710.

Buckingham House 1710

The royal family had retained their interest in the land where the Mulberry trees were planted and in the 1760s this gave George III leverage to buy next door (i.e. Buckingham House) and give his wife, Queen Charlotte a private home for her and their many children. Not surprisingly, it became known as The Queen’s House. Not that the building was immediately to the new owners’ liking. At the cost of £73,000 it was remodelled by Sir William Chambers.

It was during the reign of Queen Charlotte’s eldest son, George IV that most of the work was done to Buckingham House. As it has been his childhood home, he was greatly attached to the building and wanted to make it his official home. He commissioned his favourite architect (and official architect to the “Office of Woods and Forests”) John Nash to transform this private house into a palace. Nash’s design was basically Buckingham House on steroids! The central block was extended on the west side (facing the gardens) and the north and south wings were rebuilt. The wings also created a forecourt with a triumphal arch in the centre (where the Victoria Memorial is today).

Nash's Buckingham Palace 1837
Despite Nash’s favouritism by George IV (he had remodelled the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and transformed the centre of London with the construction of Carlton Terrace, Regent’s Street and Regent’s Park) he had not been a very popular architect with the Government. In addition, the rebuilding of Buckingham House into a palace had run to nearly half a million pounds (The King kept changing his mind on the design and build). The Duke of Wellington, who was Prime Minister at the time, had Nash fired. The building was finally completed, with further extensive alterations by architect, Edmund Blore. But the building was only completed after George IV’s death in the 1830s. His successor and brother William IV had no interest to move in. Only when his niece, Victoria, came to the throne in 1837 did the palace appear to have a future. However, as if often the case with a Nash building (beautiful on the large scale but lacking in the rigour of detail) Queen Victoria found the chimneys and ventilation woefully inadequate and there was very little accommodation for her growing family and for visitors. Blore resolved these shortcomings, which included adding an attic floor and a new east wing.

Buckingham Palace Pre-1913 Facelift

The next big change was when Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII commissioned the palace to be updated in the early 1900s. The most profound alteration was the new façade on the east wing – which is the front that we all know today.  He also had the Victoria Memorial built (the staging for the Diamond Jubilee concert) and the triumphal arch was moved to its new and current location at Marble Arch at the top of Hyde Park. The Mall was widened and at the far end,  Edward VII devised Admiralty Arch to be built, in honour of his mother. All this rebuilding was undertaken by Sir Aston Webb, an establishment figure, well-known for his public buildings since he set up in practice in the 1880s and former President of the RIBA and Gold Medal winner. He may not have been one of the most flamboyant or notorious of architects, but he could be relied on to carry out the King’s wishes appropriately and on budget!

Webb's East Wing Facade  Under Construction - 1913

Just like his great uncle, George IV, Edward VII didn’t live long enough to see his vision for Buckingham Palace completed. He died in 1910, the Victoria Memorial was dedicated in 1911, Admiralty Arch completed in 1912 and the Portland Stone east wing façade of Buckingham Palace in 1913.

The only other significant changes since then were not planned. Buckingham Palace was bombed no less than seven times during World War II. The private chapel on the south side was completely destroyed then but today is the location of the Queen’s Gallery.

Buckingham Palace is more important historically than architecturally, however that safe civic building style created by Webb, gives a timelessness that serves as the perfect backdrop. It doesn’t overshadow the events going on in and around it. It has been the perfect stage for marking key events in Great Britain’s 20th and 21st century history, from the Armistice in 1919, to today’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

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