By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by The Royal Family Channel©
Photography supplied by Reed Gallery &The Royal Collection Trust©
Every nation has its own icon, a symbol which represents its values, hopes and history. These insignias become poignant echoes of where we have been and where we are yet to embark. Standing at the very end of the infamous Mall, which has been paved by the very testament of history, stands a building of grand majesty; an emblem of Britain itself; the sanctuary of Monarchy and its beating heart – Buckingham Palace.
For generations this royal residence has been that rare entity of a working palace. And whilst the cogs within those palatial walls constantly tick and turn, ensuring our Monarchy’s continuity, Buckingham Palace has been anything but continuous. With every reign, the aspect of design or function has been added and removed befitting the wills and graces of the kings and queens who have ruled within.
The first such Monarch was George III who purchased Buckingham House in 1761. Bored and tired of St James’ Palace (the official court of the Monarch to this day) George purchased Buckingham House from the Duke of Buckingham as a gift for his wife and new queen, Charlotte. He would ironically state that the house was “not meant for a palace” and instead would become a private residence for the king and queen to retreat to. Here they would live in immense comfort and welcome visitors, including a 7-year-old Mozart.
George III’s son, George IV would expand the design of the house, adding the state rooms which exist today. Hiring the talents of famed architect John Nash, George would begin to disagree with his father’s old sentiments. For him, Buckingham House would make a wonderful palace.
From here, slowly the House of old transformed into the palace anew. Grander state rooms were built including a throne room where George IV could conduct his official business. The task was enormous and quickly the original budget spiralled out of control.
George IV would never see his wonderous designs completed, he would die leaving the newly named Buckingham Palace unfinished. But so vast were the debts linked with the building, the government declared the job had to be finished, but at a cost greater than money. John Nash would be fired for mismanagement and Edward Blore was brought in to complete the work.
As the palace began to take shape, a majestic marble arch would stand at the entrance of a large forecourt, becoming the official entrance to George’s beloved palace.
As time would pass by much would stay the same, that was until a young queen would ascend to the throne and change Buckingham Palace forever. The archway which had adorned the palace’s entrance would emigrate to the north-east corner of Hyde Park. In its place Queen Victoria – a new, young and vibrant queen – would build a new wing, enclosing the forecourt. Constructed to accommodate her growing family with her adored husband, Prince Albert, Victoria would build extra rooms and a large balcony overlooking The Mall.
Throughout this time, Victoria and Albert treated Buckingham Palace very much as a home and would entertain guests in a newly erected ballroom. Dances, parties and historic costume balls would become common place and Buckingham Palace became a lively royal residence.
This liveliness would be short-lived. Against the devastating death of Prince Albert, Victoria entered a stupor of unimaginable grief. Buckingham Palace quickly became a painful reminder of the life the queen so desperately grieved for. And as the cloths were draped over the furniture, the curtains were closed, and the architecture of John Nash resigned to gathering dust, this once splendid palace began to fall into disrepair.
Victoria would eventually return to the palace to hold afternoon teas and courts, though never again would she allow Buckingham Palace to bedazzle the high society of London.
As King Edward VII took his place at the throne of Monarchy, Buckingham Palace was a depressing place. Dark and dingy it looked nothing like the splendours which the Royal Family should enjoy. Edward set to task craftsmen and architects to remove all traces of the grief-stricken legacy of his mother’s last years of her reign and refresh the palace to some remnant of former glory.
And whilst the physical transformation began, a new symbolic metamorphosis also occurred. Edward VII reigned for only ten short years, though it is thanks to his belief that his monarchy needed a place for the people to focus, that Buckingham Palace became the symbol of the Royal Family ever since.
Through the reigns of George VI and George VII, Buckingham Palace would grow in its association with the institution of monarchy. And whilst it wasn’t particularly favoured by both Georges’, or their queens, the palace has endured as a lone symbol of royal sovereignty. That stature continues today and is stronger than ever under Queen Elizabeth II who has become Britain’s longest-serving Monarch.
Throughout its long history, Buckingham Palace has faced the war-torn carnage of two World Wars, being bombed nine times in the Second World War. Though luckily no major damage was attained, it was noted by HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, that the attacks were beneficial as “they allow me to look at those who have lost the most in the eye and know we’ve lived through this with them.”
Pulling through the torment of war, Buckingham Palace has become somewhat of a fortress for the Royal Family. Throughout the years it is here behind those iron gates that scandal, grief and crisis have been weathered. And there are two significant moments in royal history where this iconic palace has protected the figures of constitutional monarchy.
In 1936, a crisis threatened to topple the entire royal establishment as Edward VIII abdicated the throne and plunged the monarchy into unprecedented waters. Witnessed by his three brothers, including the Duke of York (later George VI), Edward signed away the dutiful role he had been born to fulfil. As he was never crowned, his coronation date instead became the date of his successor’s, George VI. It would be the former Duke of York who would stand on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the new king.
Sixty-years later, an abdication wouldn’t rock the monarchy but the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Mall and Buckingham Palace would become an iconic image as the young Princess’ coffin would solemnly traverse towards Westminster Abbey. Though it would be inside the Chinese Dining Room on Friday 5 September that the palace became the backdrop of an unprecedented event.
Throughout Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, she has rarely spoken directly to the British public, though with the Victoria memorial behind her, she broke her rule of ‘never complain, never explain’ and addressed the nation and their all-encompassing grief.
Like any home, Buckingham Palace sees many celebrations to contrast against the tragedies. From the annual Trooping the Colour to celebrate the official birthday of the Monarch, to the many Jubilee celebrations, they remind us of the importance of the palace’s place within British society. Perhaps one event which united the country in excitement and pride was the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Once again, the balcony of Buckingham Palace became the image of history as the new royal couple stood before an estimated crowd of one-million well-wishers. As William and Kate kissed, the thousands of photographs which would embellish the front page of every newspaper around the world also featured Buckingham Palace. It further cemented its place in Britain’s enduring image, continuing the palace’s association with the monarchy’s future.
And that future has consistent references to the past, most recently with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria. This year, Buckingham Palace are showcasing the impact Victoria had upon both the palace and the image of The Royal Family. With exhibitions showcasing her coronation, fashion and numerous parties, you are reminded of the immense impact Victoria had on Buckingham Palace and beyond.
As the monarchy has changed so has Buckingham Palace. It’s inception into the lives of the monarchy have seen it transformed from the private home of the king and queen, to the beating heart of our very own royal constitution. It has seen figures come and go, reigns begin and end, and yet it is a constant figurehead of service and familiarity.
Walking through each state room, from The Grand Staircase, The Green Drawing Room, The Ballroom, The White Drawing Room and Throne Room, this palace of opulent grandeur is a hymn to the majesty of monarchy. With every annual garden party and summer-opening, Buckingham Palace defines its lasting role as a palace for the people, ensuring that both they and the Sovereign walk hand-in-hand.
Throughout the troubles of war, fear and grief; the celebrations of marriage, unity and victory, Buckingham Palace has been present for all of them. Like Her Majesty The Queen, it is the everlasting symbol of Britain’s ability to carry on, to survive and thrive. It has, and still does, stand the forever tests of time. Buckingham Palace is our values, our history and heritage, and therefore much more than an icon of Britain – it is the icon of Britain and long may it reign.
Thanks to The Royal Collection Trust and their wonderful staff for all their help!
Reed Gallery ©/Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019