Buckingham Palace is the official London residence and principal workplace of the British monarch. Located in the City of Westminster, the palace is a setting for state occasions and royal hospitality. The state rooms, used for official and state entertaining, are open to the public each summer.
The building that forms the core of today’s palace was a townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham in the 18th century. It was acquired by George III in 1761 as a private residence for Queen Charlotte, and known as ‘The Queen’s House’. Buckingham Palace became the official royal palace of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.
Originally known as the Buckingham House, the core building of the current Buckingham Palace was erected in 1703 to the design of William Winde. After George III acquired it, it became a private refuge for the royal family, while St James’s Palace remained the official and ceremonial royal residence. Queen Charlotte spent much of her time at Buckingham Palace, and fourteen out of her fifteen children were born there. Remodelling of the structure began in 1762. After his accession to the throne in 1820, George IV continued the renovation with the idea in mind of a small, comfortable home. While the work was in progress, in 1826, the King decided to modify the house into a palace with the help of his architect John Nash. Some furnishings were transferred from Carlton House, and others had been bought in France after the French Revolution. The external façade was designed in the French neo-classical influence preferred by George IV. The cost of the renovations grew dramatically and by 1829, the extravagance of Nash’s designs resulted in his removal as architect. On the death of George IV in 1830, his younger brother William IV hired Edward Blore to finish the work.
Buckingham Palace finally became the principal royal residence in 1837, on the accession of Queen Victoria. By 1847, the couple had found the palace too small for court life and their growing family, and consequently the new wing, designed by Edward Blore, was built by Thomas Cubitt, enclosing the central quadrangle. The large East Front facing The Mall is today the ‘public face’ of Buckingham Palace and contains the balcony from which the Royal Family acknowledge the crowds on momentous occasions and annually after Trooping the Colour. The ballroom wing and a further suite of state rooms were also built in this period, designed by Nash’s student Sir James Pennethorne.
Widowed in 1861, the grief-stricken Queen withdrew from public life and left Buckingham Palace to live at Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle, and Osborne House. For many years the palace was seldom used, and even neglected. Eventually, public opinion forced her to return to London, though even then she preferred to live elsewhere whenever possible. Court functions were still held at Windsor Castle rather than at the palace, presided over by the sombre Queen habitually dressed in mourning black while Buckingham Palace remained shuttered for most of the year.
In 1901 the accession of Edward VII saw new life breathed into the palace. The new King and his wife Queen Alexandra had always been at the forefront of London high society, and their friends, known as ‘the Marlborough House Set’, were considered to be the most eminent and fashionable of the age. Buckingham Palace – the Ballroom, Grand Entrance, Marble Hall, Grand Staircase, vestibules and galleries redecorated in the Belle Époque cream and gold colour scheme they retain today – once again became a setting for entertaining on a majestic scale.
The last major building work took place during the reign of King George V when, in 1913, Sir Aston Webb redesigned Blore’s 1850 East Front to resemble in part Giacomo Leoni’s Lyme Park in Cheshire. George V, who had succeeded Edward VII in 1910, had a more serious personality than his father; greater emphasis was now placed on official entertaining and royal duties than on lavish parties. He arranged a series of command performances featuring jazz musicians such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1919) – the first jazz performance for a head of state, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong (1932) which earned the palace a nomination in 2009 for a (Kind of) Blue Plaque by the Brecon Jazz Festival as one of the venues making the greatest contribution to jazz music in the United Kingdom.
During World War I the palace escaped unscathed. Its more valuable contents were evacuated to Windsor but the Royal family remained in situ. The King imposed rationing at the palace, much to the dismay of his guests and household. To the King’s later regret, David Lloyd George persuaded him to go further by ostentatiously locking the wine cellars and refraining from alcohol, to set a good example to the supposedly inebriated working class. The workers continued to imbibe and the King was left unhappy at his enforced abstinence.
The palace fared worse during World War II; it was bombed no less than seven times, the most serious and publicised of which resulted in the destruction of the palace chapel in 1940. Coverage of this event was played in cinemas all over the UK to show the common suffering of rich and poor. One bomb fell in the palace quadrangle while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence, and many windows were blown in and the chapel destroyed. War-time coverage of such incidents was severely restricted, however. The King and Queen were filmed inspecting their bombed home, the smiling Queen, as always, immaculately dressed in a hat and matching coat seemingly unbothered by the damage around her. It was at this time the Queen famously declared: ‘I’m glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face’. The damaged Palace was carefully restored after the War by John Mowlem & Co.
The palace contains 19 state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. It measures 108 by 120 metres, is 24 metres high and has over 77,000 square metres of floorspace.
The original early 19th-century interior designs, many of which still survive, included widespread use of brightly coloured scagliola and blue and pink lapis. King Edward VII oversaw a partial redecoration in a Belle Époque cream and gold colour scheme. Many smaller reception rooms are furnished in the Chinese regency style with furniture and fittings brought from the Royal Pavilion at Brighton and from Carlton House. The Buckingham Palace Garden is the largest private garden in London.
The principal rooms of the palace are located on the piano nobile behind the west-facing garden façade at the rear of the palace. The centre of this ornate suite of state rooms is the Music Room, its large bow the dominant feature of the façade. Flanking the Music Room are the Blue and the White Drawing rooms. At the centre of the suite, serving as a corridor to link the state rooms, is the Picture Gallery, which is top-lit and 50 metres long. The Gallery is hung with numerous works including some by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens and Vermeer. Other rooms leading from the Picture Gallery are the Throne Room and the Green Drawing Room. The Green Drawing room serves as a huge anteroom to the Throne Room, and is part of the ceremonial route to the throne from the Guard Room at the top of the Grand staircase. The Guard Room contains white marble statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, in Roman costume, set in a tribune lined with tapestries. These very formal rooms are used only for ceremonial and official entertaining, but are open to the public every summer.
Every year some 50,000 invited guests are entertained at garden parties, receptions, audiences and banquets. The traditional Garden Parties, usually three, are held in the summer. The Forecourt of Buckingham Palace is used for Changing of the Guard. The palace also houses the offices of the Royal Household and is the workplace of 450 people.
Taking place outside Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace at 11.30am every other day, the Changing of the Guard for the Queen is a tradition that always draws a large crowd. This spectacle is regarded as a must-see in London and offers an insight into the wonderful history of Buckingham Palace.
The Old Guard forms up on the north side, while the New Guard on the south side of the enclosure on Horse Guards Parade. Each member of the New Guard carries the Standard and the Trumpeters of both the Old and New Guard sound the Royal Salute. When both Guards have formed up in the enclosure, the New Guard takes over the Guard Room.