I had not been back to the Queen’s House at Greenwich since the latter part of the 20th century. When I explored the nearby Old Royal Naval College in September, my schedule was too tight to spare me the time even to nip across the road and whiz around the place. But it made me more determined than ever to go and see the faded 17th century glories of Ham House’s interior re-imagined at Greenwich.
Work on the mansion was started in 1616 under the auspices of Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I of England. An oil painting of a Jacobean woman looking very pretty in pink has recently been attributed to Anne and now hangs on the walls of the Queen’s House. I can quite understand why it took so long to identify the sitter in the portrait. Going by other paintings I have seen of Anne of Denmark, the artist went overboard in flattering her. Apparently the king gave his wife the manor of Greenwich in atonement for a very public row they had had. The Queen’s House must surely represent a quite spectacular way to worm one’s way back into another’s good books.
Anne hired Inigo Jones to design her country retreat. At that stage Inigo Jones was better known for his designs for the elaborate and fantastical court masques that the Stuarts loved to stage. Inigo had recently returned from an extended tour studying classical architecture in Italy and it was clear that his travels had had had a tremendous influence on him. The Queen’s House represents a radical departure for English architecture. It is very different in style to the traditional brick-built Jacobean mansions favoured by the likes of Sir Adam Newton at Charlton House or Sir Thomas Vavasour at Ham House, both of which had been built less than a decade earlier.
When Anne died in 1618 work at the site had still not progressed beyond the first storey. Rather incongruously for a classical building it was given a thatched roof as a temporary measure until work could recommence. It was to be a decade before King James’s son and heir Charles would present the mansion to his own wife, Henrietta-Maria, and enable Inigo Jones to complete his masterpiece.
Thanks to her husband’s largesse and his reputation as one of Europe’s leading art collectors, Henrietta-Maria filled her house with works of art and sculptures on an appropriately regal scale. Unfortunately little remains in-situ of Henrietta-Maria’s interior. Even the baroque painted ceiling panels were dispersed elsewhere.
Coincidentally I was able to see those painted by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi at Marlborough House in London'd Pall Mall. The latter mansion was first built for the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough in the early 18th century. It later served as a royal residence before passing into the remit of the Commonwealth Secretariat. It tends to be a prime attraction during the annual Open House London weekend.
Thanks to its smaller scale, the Queen’s house was spared the rapid decline that befall its near neighbour, the Tudor Palace of Placentia which was turned into a biscuit factory and then a prison before being pulled down. By contrast, the more modest size of the Queen’s House made it eminently suitable to be used as Government offices during the Commonwealth, once the valuable works of art had been removed. Oliver Cromwell had no qualms about flogging off the fabulous art collection so passionately built up by his arch enemy Charles I.
At the Restoration King Charles II invited his mother to return to live in the Queen’s House until more suitable alternative accommodation could be found. The mansion must have held poignant memories for the queen of a life before the Civil War which had seen her family forced into exile and her husband led out to his execution outside the very Banqueting House at Whitehall that his father, King James I, had commissioned Inigo Jones to build. After Henrietta-Maria’s death, the Queen's House ceased to be the residence of a King’s consort. Instead the palace, as at Hampton Court, was turned into a series of grace and favour apartments within the personal patronage of the reigning monarch.
In a similar vein to Eltham Palace, the decision was taken to refurbish the first floor of the Queen’s House as to how it might have looked during its Stuart heyday. I do recall in the 1990s that the renovated rooms were reopened with a great fanfare. Visitors were warned to brace themselves for the shock of the colourful interiors favoured by the Stuarts. Having recently been to Ham House, I was curious to see again what such Stuart interiors looked like before age dimmed their riotous flamboyance. Moreover, I remembered with singular pleasure the previous time I had been to the Queen’s House and had taken part in the court dances of Henrietta-Maria'a epoch. Thus, I made my way back to Greenwich with high expectations.