Buckingham Palace. Photo: my own.
Well, I finally made it inside Buckingham Palace. It was getting to be a bit weird that I’ve visited Versailles umpteen times now but have never set foot inside our own show piece royal palace here in England. Mind you, it reminds me of the fact that when I first met my husband, he revealed that he’d been to Paris and New York but never our own capital. Weirdo.
I have to say that Buckingham Palace was WELL worth the wait. Oh my, yes indeed. In literal terms, there is quite a long wait to get in – I thought I was being canny by opting for a week day afternoon but no, it was still packed to the rafters and the entrance was beset by an endless stream of confused tourists getting annoyed about the fact that tickets really need to be booked in advance and can’t usually be bought on the day. Actually, I have to say at this point that getting into the palace, while it may give the impression of organisation and competence by making you stream through three different queues and then airport type scanning devices before you set foot inside, is actually a pretty shambolic, exasperating and disorganised affair with people milling about all over the place, random and apparently pointless queueing and plenty of waiting around while not knowing quite what is going on.
However, I’d say that all of the hassle is definitely well worth it once you get past all of that and get into the palace itself. Yes, it is pretty crowded at times and if, like me, you eschew those annoying audio guide things you will probably get really fed up with the constant tinny noise seepages coming from everyone around you as well as the brainlessly bovine state of inert stupidity that they seem to put most people into so they wander around in a semi daze, apparently unaware of everyone else around them. However, I’d still encourage anyone to go and see it for themselves, regardless of all this.
Photo: Getty Images.
Buckingham Palace itself is substantially sized rather than massive but behind its pale walls and facade of 760 windows, there lies a warren of 775 rooms, including the 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms and 78 bathrooms. It’s only the state rooms that summer visitors are permitted to see though so we can only imagine what other treasures remain firmly behind closed doors.
Once past security, I made my way along a covered entrance to the Grand Entrance and Grand Hall, an elegant gilt and marble extravaganza that we all saw last year when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s coach pulled up outside after their wedding. After this we went up the wonderfully elegant Grand Staircase, which was lined with fabulous late eighteenth and early nineteenth century portraits of Queen Charlotte, her granddaughter Princess Charlotte, the Duchess of Kent and Queen Adelaide as installed by Queen Victoria, who wished to honour her immediate family.
After this there was a small guard chamber, with some well chosen and very beautiful sculptures, including a very lovely pair depicting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in classical dress and with rather haughty looks, which were installed in 1849.
Princess Louisa and Princess Caroline Matilda, Cotes, 1767. Photo: The Royal Collection.
The guard chamber leads to the Green Drawing Room which has lovely soft green silk walls and gilt decorations (there’s a LOT of gilt in Buckingham Palace!) and views across the inner courtyard of the palace. The artworks in here included large Sèvres pot pourri vases that once belonged to Madame de Pompadour and beautiful group portraits of George II and III’s daughters.
The Throne Room comes next – a large crimson and gold space dominated by enormous chandeliers and the royal thrones sitting together on a swagged and curtained dais. I love that the Duke of Edinburgh’s throne has a golden ‘P’ to match the ‘ER’ on the Queen’s. It’s all extremely theatrical.
Photo: Getty Images.
After this there is a stroll through the salmon pink silk walled Picture Gallery, with its glass skylight ceiling, which allows softly filtered light through. The walls are lined with the most wonderful paintings including works by Vermeer, Canaletto, Rubens and Rembrandt from the collection put together by Charles I and George IV and I felt a stab of envy for my fellow History of Art graduate, the Duchess of Cambridge getting to spend as much time as she likes with such fabulous art. I also recognised the Picture Gallery from the famous rather informal photograph of the Princess of Wales and her bridesmaids on the royal wedding day in 1981.
At this point the tour became a bit of a scrum as we got entangled in the queue to get into the exhibition to see the Queen’s diamonds, which was hosted in a room off the Ball Supper Room. I didn’t mind too much though as it forced me to slow down and really appreciate the paintings and sculpture in first, the Silk Tapestry Room (which had a most lovely sculpture of Mrs Jordan as well as a portrait of my new historical crush, John Hayes St Leger by Gainsborough), then the East Gallery, which houses Hayter’s wonderful painting of Queen Victoria’s coronation.
The Family of Queen Victoria, Winterhalter, 1846. Photo: The Royal Collection.
The Ball Supper Room has some amazing works too, including the famous Winterhalter of Queen Victoria, Albert and their children, which hangs opposite a portrait of Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children. There were paintings of this quality in every room and it was actually a bit overwhelming to see them in the flesh at last – there was a definite bias towards Victorian works depicting Victoria, Albert and their children but I noticed a slight lean towards the Stuarts as well and suspect that Victoria had a great deal of sympathy for Charles I and his family – as evidenced, I suppose, by her holding a costumed Stuart Ball at the palace in 1851.
At this point we entered the exhibition of the Queen’s diamonds, which was being held in a darkened room to the side. It was total chaos in there and it was a bit difficult to see anything but I managed to get a good gawp at the diamond diadem, Queen Victoria’s little diamond coronet, some of the Queen’s gorgeous emeralds, some really quite ostentatious diamond earrings and a couple of fabulous tiaras as well as the weighty necklace and earrings that she wore at her coronation. Some of the diamonds are so massive that they don’t quite look real.
Diamond diadem. Photo: The Royal Collection.
Once out of the exhibition, the scrum abated and I was able to complete the tour at a leisurely and uncrowded pace, taking in the Ballroom, with its enormous organ, which was once housed at Brighton Pavilion. This is a very large space that doesn’t have quite the same charm as most of the other state rooms and is apparently used for state dinners, investitures and so on.
The State Dining Room, Buckingham Palace, Douglas Morison, 1843. Photo: The Royal Collection.
After this there is the State Dining Room, which is a lot more cosy than one would expect with crimson silk walls, an ornate plaster and gilt ceiling and a very lovely polished table down the centre. The walls are hung with portraits of pop eyed Hanoverians and their blandly smiling wives.
The dining room is followed by the enormous and extremely magnificent Blue Drawing room, which is dominated by vast chandeliers and matching portraits of Queen Mary and George V and then the Music Room, which is used for royal christenings. The ceiling, which lies beneath a large cupola, made me gasp as I walked in as it was absolutely gorgeous with an intricate feathered design picked out in yet more gilt.
The White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace. Photo: The Royal Collection.
The White Drawing Room was next, dominated by a full length portrait of Queen Alexandra, this being the room most reminiscent of Versailles (and in fact a roll top desk in the corner is a Reisener piece that originated in the apartments of the French royal family, probably one of the Louis XV’s daughters) although it is a lot more comfortable and is clearly still in use. My husband joked that the chandelier in this room is probably worth more than our house and I don’t doubt him. Even the sofa upholstery is gold in this room.
Queen Victoria, Winterhalter, 1859. Photo: The Royal Collection.
After this, I made my way down the Minister’s Staircase to the Marble Hall below, which has still more portraits of Queen Victoria’s close family including her sister Feodora and favourite members of the French royal family as well as the splendid portrait of her in all her state by Winterhalter. There were some superb Winterhalter portraits of some of her daughters in one of the ante rooms up stairs as well as a gorgeous portrait of Queen Mary in her younger days as Princess of Wales.
The last room was the Bow Room, which leads out onto the terrace and has yet more delightful paintings of Queen Victoria’s family. I lingered as long as I could but then stepped out onto the terrace and left the splendours of the palace behind.
It was raining solidly all morning so I couldn’t take any decent photographs of the back of Buckingham Palace as I walked through the gardens to the exit. I did my best though!
If you’re in the area then I really would recommend visiting the palace for yourself, although you’ll have to hurry if you want to go this year as it’s due to close on the 7th of October.