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Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Queen’s House Greenwich Part Two (Revised March 2011)





Prior to my recent visit I can only recall ever going to the Queen’s House, Greenwich on a bright sunny day. Indeed, there is a photograph of a very young me smiling broadly at the camera in front of the original 17th century entrance to the house, wearing little more than a light blue frock, silk neckerchief and a brimless straw hat. The day was so warm I did not need so much as a cardigan.

It was all so very different in November. The day was distinctly bleak and overcast as evidenced by the view to the river Thames between the respective cupolas of the Painted Hall and Painted Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College. When work was begun on what King Charles II had hoped would be a magnificent Stuart palace at Greenwich but became the Royal Naval Hospital instead, he insisted that the view from the Queen’s House be unimpeded. If he had realised that the same view in the 21st century would also encompass some dreary office blocks on the other side of the river, he might not have been so proscriptive.

The view towards the Queen’s House is more inviting. The mansion itself is set within Greenwich Park. Behind it, perched on the top of the hill is the Royal Observatory, established by King Charles II and later to become the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the World. Thus, it is the official starting point for each new day and year.  The Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House and the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College all form Maritime Greenwich an as such an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

When Inigio Jones built the palace, he had been obliged to accommodate a public right of way, which meant the building straddled a highway. How odd to think that even despotic Stuart kings felt obliged to observe the law in such matters. My footage of the thoroughfare passing under the house culminates in a partial view  of the Great Hall.

Nowadays, the main road runs between the Queen’s House and the Old Royal Naval College, meaning that the back entrance with its terraced steps has effectively become the main entrance. Although sash windows were added and the terrace steps remodelled by the Georgians, the exterior of the house would still be recognisable to Henrietta-Maria today.  She, however, would not have entered the house as I did through the basement for the very good reason that there was no staircase linking it to the floors above until after the Restoration of her son, King Charles II, in 1660. The stone flagged floors and white washed walls of the basement give little indication of the stately pleasures to be found above.

The basement leads to what once would have been the main thoroughfare under the house when a public road passed beneath it. Now it is an enclosed passageway on whose eastern side can be found the so-called Tulip Stairs. Like the classical design of the facade, the staircase was the first of its kind in England. The cantilevered stone staircase had “centrally unsupported” steps.  The average 17th century Englishman or woman, used to the sturdy wooden staircases of the time, must have wondered how on earth it stayed in place. The staircase derives its name from the belief that the floral design of the iron handrail depicts tulips, which were very much admired in the 17th century. More recently, some scholars have argued that the flowers are just as likely to have been a symbolic representation of the fleur-de-lys, the royal insignia of the French court and therefore a tacit acknowledgement of Henrietta-Maria’s own ancestral heritage. Whatever its history I would not recommend anyone tacking the staircase if they suffer from vertigo. The discreet modern lift on the other side of the Great Hall might be a better option.

Before venturing further up the Tulip Staircase I wandered into the Great Hall. It was just as I had remembered it with its white painted walls with the details picked out in gold and the spectacular black and white marble floor with its magnificent starburst central design and four smaller roundels at each corner. I instantly recalled the 17th century court dances I had been taught here all those years ago and could not resist surreptitiously recreating some of the steps, a far easier task to perform with the sedate dances of Henrietta-Maria’s era than the rambunctious Tudor dances I had taken part in within the Great Hall at Eltham Palace. I wish now I had taken great note of the ceiling paintings at Marlborough House, as those by Orazio Gentileschi had once graced the Queen’s House. The Great Hall served as the background for many a state occasion including the lying-in-state of Commonwealth Generals at Sea as well as witnessing the formal arrival of various Georgian  Kings and royal brides on English soil.

Leading off from the Great Hall are several rooms containing themed paintings. One tells the history of the Queen’s House together with an architectural model. In pride of place is a painting of the house’s architect Inigo Jones. I always think the portraits of Inigo Jones suggest a man with a prescient knowledge of his own unfortunate fate at Basing House. This Royalist stronghold was finally stormed by the Parliamentarian Army in 1645. Legend has it that the plundering soldiers didn’t just take the shirt of poor Inigo’s back they stripped him naked and allowed him only a blanket to cover his modesty as he was marched outside along with the others who had survived the siege and the subsequent slaughter of Royalist soldiers. 

Another room houses a collection of portraits of those royal personages closely connected with the long disappeared Tudor palace of Placentia at Greenwich. Thus, a very gaunt and somewhat apprehensive looking Henry VII is placed next to his swaggering son, Henry VIII. Portraits of James I of England and a coolly appraising Elizabeth I hang on the other side of the room. Elsewhere on the ground floor are images of Anne of Denmark and even one of Thomas Sackville, who did so much building work at Knole. Thomas, seated closest to the window on the right hand side is in a group portrait painted to commemorate the Somerset House Conference of August 1604, which signalled the end of the Anglo-Spanish War. This treaty was to prove personally disastrous for Sir Walter Raleigh as the kind of plundering of Spanish towns which Elizabeth I quietly condoned, so long as she got more than her fair share of any resulting booty, gave her successor James I the very excuse he needed to have Raleigh tried and executed for high treason. Earlier in the year I went again to the Bloody Tower in which his prison cell can be viewed.

On the same floor is the so called Orangery, through which Henrietta-Maria would have entered the house and in front of which I am pictured as a young woman. By the time I had explored the house in November it proved too dark late to take pictures of this façade, which would not have benefited from the lights used to illuminate the side of the house facing the river and the main road.

One room on the ground floor was devoted to the work of a Dutch father and son marine-artist; both of whom were called Willem van de Velde.  King Charles II had allowed them to set up a studio in the Queen’s House after his mother’s death meant it was no longer in use as a royal residence. Across the way, another room had a modern sculpture of a hull of a ship in glass pieces suspended from the ceiling. Despite my own  connection with one contemporary picture of Admiral Nelson, now on display alongside his ship the HMS Victory at Portsmouth, I have no great interest in maritime paintings and thus gave those on display only the most cursory of glances. I was more intrigued by the small exhibition about the Royal Hospital School for the orphans of seamen, which had been based in the Queen’s House for over a century until the 1930s.

I then walked up the Tulip Stairs to the first floor, whose myriad of rooms led off from the gallery of the Great Hall. Again, as at Ham House, the rail of the gallery is somewhat shallow and I did not step up too close to it lest I left an unfortunate lasting impression on the black and white marble floor below. For me the rooms were very much like a warren and it took me quite a while to get my bearings. It also took some time before it dawned on me that there were no longer any rooms furnished in a style appropriate to Henrietta-Maria’s era. Instead the rooms had been turned into art galleries displaying the Maritime Museum’s comprehensive collection of paintings on the subject.  I have to say that at first I was greatly disappointed. But after I had researched the matter further I discovered that despite the substantial investment in the renovation project in the early 1990s, the scheme had not met with the same resounding success witnessed at Eltham Palace when the interior of the art-deco mansion was restored to its 1930s heyday.  In fact, the Burlington Magazine in November 1995 was extremely scathing about the restoration and spoke darkly of how the Queen's House had been turned into “a theme-park interior of fake furniture and fireplaces, tatty modern plaster casts and clip-on chandeliers.” My eye having been attuned to the superb Jacobean examples at Charlton House I too had misgivings about the fake fireplaces, although to be fair to a later generation, quite a few of them dated from an earlier restoration in the 1930s. Despite being painstakingly based on Inigo Jones designs it is all too clear that the modern replicas were rendered in materials far inferior to the marble Jones would have used. 

Nevertheless, one fireplace surround in particular caught my attention. It reminded me of the fireplace in the White Drawing Room at Charlton House. I had been struck by the way the arms of the caryatids ended in curious finials as did the caryatids at the Queen’s House. The striking resemblance was no mere coincidence. Somehow the   fire surround at the Queen’s House had had found its way to its present home in the manor house at Charlton during the 18th century. The red marble fire surround in the King’s Writing Closet was installed in the 17th century and its plain design is similar to the one to be found in the Duchess of Lauderdale’s closet at Ham House.

One feature that has remained extant from Henrietta-Maria’s time is the “grotesque” painted ceiling in her former bedchamber. Its seems the central panel is an 18th century addition but Henrietta-Maria’s association with the house is confirmed by the use of her monogram, along with that of her ill-fated husband Charles I, in the room.  In a place like Ham House such a ceiling might have been akin to decorative overkill. But given that the rooms were empty other than for a plain wooden bench and the artwork on the walls I was glad for this small crumb of Stuart interior design.

The needs of the artwork on the walls of the Queen’s Withdrawing Room have been ranked above those of a mere visitor like myself, keen to see the architectural features in this chamber. In the near gloom I could make out the main decorative theme of blue and overgilding along with Henrietta-Maria’s and her husband’s interlaced crowned monograms.  Like Anne Boleyn’s badges and insignia at Hampton Court Palace, it is rather surprising that the detested King and Queen’s monograms survived the period when it was occupied by their Parliamentarian enemies.

As a young woman I distinctly recall stepping out on to the second floor Loggia at the back of the house with its views of the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Park. Now its doors are firmly locked against the average visitor, doubtless to prevent them from inadvertently damaging the elegant black and white marble floor. I do find it strange though that I cannot bring to mind the recreated Stuart interiors which were dismantled in recent years; so recently some guides give the impression they are still in place. Perhaps I was so offended I have erased them from memory

Even if, like me, you are not especially enamoured of maritime art, the Queen’s House at Greenwich is still worth a visit for the Great Hall and Tulip stairs and stunning exterior alone. I must also grudgingly admit that some of the pictures on display did win me over.Notwithstanding my visit to the Queen's House, when it comes to maritime art, I am still all at sea. 







In March 2011 as I was so close to the Queen’s House I decided I would take the opportunity of filming more of the exterior, especially as I had only managed to capture the front of the house when I had last been there in the winter. On this occasion I was also able to film both the thoroughfare under the house, which had once served as a public right of way and now linked the house by arcades to 19th century buildings erected on either side to accommodate the seamen's orphans, and the elegant façade looking out on to the Royal Observatory. I persuaded the Filmmaker to shoot footage of me on the very spot on which I had been photographed  as a schoolgirl. Through the windows of the Orangery behind me I could see several waiting staff and what I took to be either a tea or coffeee urn. Perhaps there was some function taking place. I had no time to investigate further and just kept my fingers crossed that they did not try to shoo me away from the French windows, which had once formed the principal entrance to the house in Henrietta-Maria's day.

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