It has been 8 months since my last visit to the Queen’s House and the transformation is astounding. When I was here last I had a hard hat on, there were workmen everywhere, the floors were up in every room, the Great Hall was swathed in scaffolding, the famous Tulip Stairs were masked in poles and planks. There were intriguing paint patches on the walls, and up on the scaffolding an army of conservation staff worked away at re-gilding the ceiling of the King’s Presence Chamber.
This 17th century Inigo Jones creation has seen a number of renovations and re-workings over the years, it has after all, lived a number of different lives since it was designed as a pleasure palace and love gift from King James I to his wife Anne of Denmark. As the date of re-opening has got nearer I have become fascinated with the conflict of renovating a historic house whilst also bringing it up to standard for a modern audience.
The Queen’s House is a scheduled ancient monument, recognised as being of national or even international importance, and as it is protected under the Ancient Monuments and Areas Act 1979 it’s one of the most important buildings in the country. Even with such importance attached to it, to maintain investment and significance, the Queen’s House also needs a life or it will become neglected. Inigo Jones’ Greenwich treasure will also welcome 21st century visitors primarily as an art gallery for the Royal Museums Greenwich‘s collections. But I wonder how the fabric of the house will hold up against the demands for the latest environmental controls that an art gallery must have, and the requirements for visitor comfort.
Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England, has very kindly agreed to meet me to talk through the work she has been doing with the Royal Museums Greenwich and the curators at the Queen’s House to make sure this wonderful building has been protected. It is a legal requirement to obtain consent for any works that affect scheduled ancient monuments and Jane has been there every step of the way with the Queen’s House renovation in 2016.
Jane has visited the Queen’s House around 20 times during the months of hard work, her role is to protect the history and integrity of the house during its most ambitious renovation since 1934. She also has to work closely with the Royal Museums Greenwich staff and construction contractors, it is the forging of a strong level of trust that has resulted in the stunning final result.
The real problem is that it is not as simple as putting back original features, the house has suffered particularly from work done in the 1930s and 1980s when original flooring was ripped out and the presentation at the time saw beautiful stone doorways painted brown and windows blocked up. Jane tells me part of the difficulty is the lack of documentation from that time, not having a schedule of works means it is a real detective job working out what was done, and when. It is not as easy as looking at a Roman wall where you can clearly see the later medieval additions stuck on the top. It is a complex job pulling apart such a multi-layered history.
For Jane, as much as the Royal Museums Greenwich want the Queen’s House to become an art gallery, the building itself must always be the priority and come first. High up on the list of contentious issues came Turner Prize Winner Richard Wright‘s work in the great hall. Originally adorned with Orazio Gentileschi’s paintings, these 9 panels were removed and re-sized to fit Marlborough House in 1710. Richard has been commissioned to create a work to fit the magnificence of the building, the first time an artist has worked on the ceiling since Gentileschi’s original installation.
The plans had to go before the London Advisory Committee before approval, all work had to be ultimately reversible. Richard finally got approval and his team of 6 people took 9 weeks to instal the intricate designs. The aim is for his gold leaf patterns to fit with the original courtly display that Inigo Jones favoured so much in his theatrical designs for the grand Court Masques.
Jane also talked me through the complications of using authentic lime render on the walls of the Great Hall. Working in this way meant the plaster took weeks to ‘go off’ or dry, where modern techniques would have dried much quicker. The traditional methods meant leaving a lot of moisture in the air, of particular concern was the original wooden balustrade which would have suffered in such a damp atmosphere. Much time was taken ensuring the wood was completely sealed, and looking back at my pictures I can see the preparation work that was done. It is a real joy on the press day to look up close at the wood of the balustrade, original to Inigo Jones’ design it would have been gilded gold and white, the colours of Queen Henrietta Maria. I run my hand along it and think of all the others who have lingered here over the centuries.
When you walk round the finished building it is impossible to really get a sense of the massive scale of work undertaken; the paint analysis to match and pull out authentic colours, the windows unblocked, the replacement 17th century conservation standard glass, the painstaking conservation and re-gilding of the King’s Presence Chamber that saw 196 individual sections removed from the ceiling and returned. Even the documentation would have been a mammoth task, an extensive ‘as built report’ that detailed all the work undertaken room by room.
Jane tells me the real hard work is fitting in all the air conditioning, the wires and the lights, without damaging the fabric of the building, certainly it is not as simply as chasing a few holes into 17th century brickwork. This extended to the re-hang as well, there was never going to be a few holes drilled into the walls.
For me the real success of the renovation is the colours, not only the rich red and blue of the royal areas but the more subtle shades that compliment the character and more recent role of the house as an art gallery. Looking back at a picture I took of the Tulip Stairs before the renovation, you can see how the new ‘smalt’ blue gives the stairs a delicacy as they swirl up to the light. There is a real mix of the formal grand rooms and small intimate spaces, I loved the addition of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ or ‘Kunstkammer’ and the delft tiles.
I have written all this and not even mentioned the artworks. On the press preview I wandered into the Queen’s Presence chamber and came face to face with the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, saved for the nation in July 2016. The picture was brightly lit and to come face to face with her imperious majesty was a spine tingling moment.
In the King’s Presence chamber, a large Gentileschi, ‘Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ returns to the house for the first time since 1650. I found the painting unsettling, the naked woman, seducer, in a room full of pictures of men and power. There is so much to take in but my eye was certainly drawn to a beautiful sketch by Rubens – ‘The Apotheosis of James I’ created for the ceiling of another Inigo Jones building – Banqueting House.
As I strolled from room to room, I caught sight of ‘The Sea Maidens’ by Evelyn de Morgan (1886), five mermaids frolicking and was drawn to the louche pose of ‘John Everett’ by Sir William Orpen (1900). The room of Willem van de Velde’s pen paintings gave me a real feeling of intimacy after the grandeur of the royal rooms.
Two aspects of the house really surprised me. The contemporary pictures were a breath of fresh air, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy them so much but it really gave the sense of the continuity of the house. How it is here for us now to enjoy in the 21st century just as it was built to be enjoyed with the most contemporary pictures of the 17th century too. In a room of modern photography techniques I forgot the history and grandeur of the house and stared up close at modern faces and turbulent seas. Each room became a new adventure for me and many I returned to more than once.
I was most surprised by Richard Wright’s work, I never expected it to be so delicate, to catch the light in such a beautiful way. It drew my eyes up to the ceiling so many times, I wanted to stay and watch the changing light to see how it picked out different curves and lines of Inigo Jones’ grand ceiling. In a weird way I am glad to say that photography doesn’t do it justice at all. It is something to experience, like one of Inigo Jones’ grand masques, it is pure theatre that changes and draws you in.
It is unusual to have witnessed the house mid-renovation, to see all the upheavel and the chaos, it has made the return experience to the finished house an absolute joy. I can only congratulate all the staff and workmen on a job well done. Also I have to thank Jane Sidell whose insight and work has made the house truly come alive, I think of all those who have cared for the Queen’s House, kept her shining brightly as a ‘house of delight’ for 400 years. I can only hope in the next 400 years she will shine just as brightly.
The Queen’s House re-opens to the public on Tuesday 11th October 2016. Free to visit. For more details and opening times please see the website – http://www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house
You can see my previous visit to the Queen’s House during renovation in this blog –