DIY is a pain, isn’t it? I mean a room is bad enough, packing everything up, trying to find somewhere to put everything, trying to come up with a colour scheme, new paints and furniture. Imagine having to decorate and renovate a 17th century grade 1 listed scheduled monument? We had the builders in for nearly a year working on our house and I thought that was bad enough, but I can’t imagine how hard it must be to work on a building that has the same historical status as Stone Henge.
The pressure to get things right must be huge, a massive responsibility. Particularly when coupled with a timescale that requires the refurbishment to be finished in time for a 400 year anniversary. The Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones and begun 1616 is undergoing a facelift, a little bit of filler, the 2016 botox equivalent for a building. Tastefully done of course, nothing too vulgar, it has been years in the planning.
It is said King James I gave the manor of Greenwich as a little love gift to his wife Anne of Denmark, a placating token of apology after he allegedly lost his temper with her when she accidentally shot one of his hunting dogs. Not a bad way to keep her off his back I suppose. Rather unexpectedly a royal marriage tiff resulted in the first English building in the Palladian, Italian Renaissance style. It sits nestled like a jewel in a sea of green with some of the most stunning views in London.
Back in February I was privileged to be allowed behind-the-scenes while the builders were still at work, to get a taste of what is underneath and what is planned for the future. Our guide Christine Riding, head of Arts and curator at the Queen’s House is brimming full of knowledge and enthusiasm, which is exactly what you need when you see the building site that is the Queen’s House.
This building, half way between an art-gallery and a historical house has a rich royal, naval and maritime history. With all that weight of history and interpretation to get your head around it is easy to forget, as Riding puts it, when it was built it would have appeared as a ‘cutting edge space ship’. The gleaming white stone in complete contrast to the red brick Tudor Greenwich palace behind, the first classical building in England would have heralded much debate, perhaps as much as the Shard does today.
The aim with the renovation is to let the voice of the house ‘free’, open up the views from all sides and make the very most of the beautiful setting. Prior to closure the Queen’s House had 160 artworks on display, the plan is to triple the number of items on display. Alongside paintings, including the return of Orazio Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, there will be sculpture, mirrors and delft-ware, the spirit of that 17th century cutting edge spark will be reproduced with modern art too.
Turner Prize winning artist Richard Wright will be adding a spectacular ceiling art work to the Great Hall. There are nine panels, currently blank, originally decorated in 1639 with Orazio Gentilesch paintings. The paintings were removed from the Queen’s House in 1708 and given by Queen Anne to Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. The canvases were installed in Marlborough House, Westminster, where they remain to this day. Wright will be adding a new patterned scheme of gold leaf that will echo the royal luxury of the houses original purpose.
Of course the renovation is not as simple as a little paint and touch up but a once in a generation opportunity to unpick the history of the house. Learning about the building and like a modern house stripping away the layers of what has come before. There are 1980s restorations to grapple with and a rather lovely 1930s picture in the Queen’s House guide shows how previous generations have stripped away the years to understand the true nature of the house.
I won’t lie, the house as we see it in February is in quite a state and it is reassuring to hear how closely the builders and architects have been working with Jane Sidell at Historic England to preserve and enhance the history of the house. The paint testers on the wall make me smile. We have all been there with little patches of colour, trying to see how natural and artificial lights change the colour of a room. A little harder when you are trying to evoke 17th century England, I am not sure popping down to B&Q quite cuts the mustard.
A huge amount of work has gone into finding colours that work with and compliment the original stone and carvings. We see the famous Tulip staircase, packaged and scaffolded up, its beautiful curves are barely visible. A section is left bare with a patch of bright blue paint highlighting the metal work, recreating the original smalt blue paint that was made of crushed glass.
The floor is up in the Queen’s Presence Chamber and more paint patches adorn the walls, through all the talk of the paintings that will be on display, and the loans from the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Collection I am distracted by the building itself. It is hard to visualise finished walls and grand full-length paintings, the room is in such a state of undress I feel as if I am looking up the Queen’s skirt.
The real treat comes in the King’s Presence Chamber, we are allowed to climb up to the ceiling and see the conservators at work. It is breathtaking being up so close to the original carvings, and I am fascinated by the conservators and their array of brushes and pots. I wonder about the original craftsmen, the skill of working up here in such detail whilst still maintaining the wow factor from down below too. The conservators work under bright lights, I wonder at the eyesight of carpenters working under candle light. They would certainly have needed a head for heights. You can even see the original marks used by the carpenters when installing the beams, a 17th century message as fresh as the day it was carved.
A fireplace in the wrong place is pointed out to us, it seems part of the challenge is wrestling with previous interpretations of the house. I wonder how the 2016 renovations will be viewed in 50 or 60 years time. Christine tells us the aim is to make the house a welcoming social space, where you come as guest not just a visitor. It is a hard balance to achieve in what was once a royal residence.
I imagine John Flamsteed, minus the hard hat, looking up the hill, his excitement growing at the construction of his new Observatory.
We finish our tour in the Orangery and it is hearing of the Queen’s House being used as grace and favour apartments that helps me to think of this amazing building as a home too. The artists Willem van de Veldes, father and son, had their studio in the South-West parlour for 20 years and from 1675 the first Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed, watched while his new Observatory was built up on the hill.
Wandering around and seeing the Queen’s House in this state brings me closer to the true heart of the house than no doubt I will ever be. I am excited by the plans and I can’t wait to see when the renovations will be completed. It is not easy to let all that history breathe and still bring a freshness and new life to a very old story. When I visit again later this year, it will all be bright and fresh and put back together, I will smile and think of the day I climbed up to the ceiling of the King’s Presence Chamber and saw the Queen’s House in all her true glory.
For more details on the Queen’s House renovations please see the website http://www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house or follow #TQHat400 on Twitter
The Queen’s House is due to open Autumn 2016.
With thanks to Christine Riding and Eloise Maxwell.