A few years ago I was invited to lunch with the Queen. We spoke about architecture; she was feeling very proud of the then new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which had just been awarded a prize by the Georgian Group (a UK architectural appreciation society that champions the 18th century). I was left with the strong impression that she was pleased to have been praised for doing something good.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip have been discerning and often original patrons of architecture since 1952. In many ways the coronation itself set the tone. The setting was designed with public access and economy in mind. The timbers in the staging were of a length that could be reused in social housing projects, while the blue carpets were cut up and used in churches throughout the Commonwealth.
When she came to the throne the Queen had at her disposal the official residence of the head of state at Buckingham Palace, the official Scottish residence at Holyroodhouse, Windsor Castle and two other London palaces – St James’s and Kensington. There were also two private country houses: Sandringham and Balmoral.
It is hard now to imagine how stuffy and unfashionable these places seemed in 1952. The Queen and Prince Philip were a modern young couple and the Victorian architecture of buildings such as Buckingham Palace was widely regarded as hideous. The Queen had originally hoped to remain in the smaller Clarence House, part of St James’s Palace, using Buckingham Palace as an office. But prime minister Churchill insisted that the palace was at the centre of the empire and that was where the Queen should be.
Modernisation has been at the heart of the Queen’s architectural patronage; modernising not only the look of the royal residences, but also access to them. Her reign began with the largest commission of all, a new palace to unite the Queen and her Commonwealth: a royal yacht. Launched as Britannia in 1953, the contract was signed the day before the death of George VI in 1952. It was to cost the cash-strapped postwar exchequer £2m, more than double the budget set in 1938. The Queen and Prince Philip had found the first plans too ornate and the prince recruited the architect Sir Hugh Casson to redesign them. Casson had been director of architecture at the Festival of Britain and the originator of the coronation decorations.
In the Queen and Prince Philip Casson found enthusiastic patrons. He noted “the Queen is a meticulous observer with very definite views on everything from the door handles to the shape of the lampshades”. People can now visit Britannia, decommissioned in 1997 and incongruously tied up against a bland shopping centre in Edinburgh. It is worth seeing, though, because Casson’s interiors survive virtually untouched, portraying the taste of the young Queen. The yacht is unquestionably a royal palace, with suites for the Queen and the Duke and large state rooms. Yet the state apartments are not ostentatious and sought to capture the formal but comfortable ambience of a country house.
But whose taste was it? Yes it was Casson’s, and it was certainly the Queen’s, but Prince Philip was crucial. He was, after all, a naval officer and the straightforward, ship shape feel of the rooms is down to him. Apparently he championed the use of white for the walls as it would be easy to match when it came to repainting. This no-nonsense approach led the prince to establish, in 1959, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design (now Prince Philip Designers Prize). It aimed to reward people with a “talent in producing things that were not only functional, but were actually comfortable and pleasant to look at and pleasant to live with”. This goes a long way to explain the taste of the monarch.
Casson went on to work as interior decorator at Buckingham Palace, Windsor and Sandringham but never had the opportunity to design a new suite of rooms again. In fact the Queen’s first significant commission at Buckingham Palace was architecturally virtually invisible. The private chapel had been bombed in 1940 and remained a shell till 1960, when the Queen and Prince Philip decided to show works of art from the Royal Collection to the public. The Queen’s Gallery was not much of a building, a top-lit box dropped into the remaining walls, but when it opened in 1962 it was an instant success.
This utilitarian gallery served the palace as its principal public face for 35 years but in 1997 it was decided to rebuild it. The architect John Simpson more than trebled the size of the gallery with a new £20m building on the site of the old one. Opened in 2002, it was the largest addition to Buckingham Palace for 150 years.
It would be easy to criticise Simpson’s bullishly classical new gallery as being conservative and retrospective. This would be to misunderstand a building that continues the long tradition of classical design at Buckingham Palace – and to misunderstand its functional brief. The art on display comes from royal palaces and was designed to be shown in opulent interiors, not in the white cubes of contemporary gallery design. The Queen is understandably proud of a building that works in terms of both historical continuity and function.
The London Queen’s Gallery was commissioned the year the greatest architectural work of the reign, so far, was completed – the rebuilding of Windsor Castle. In November 1992, a catastrophic fire had ripped through the state rooms of the world’s largest and oldest inhabited castle. There were, inevitably, those who wanted the ruins preserved as charred shell; those who wanted it rebuilt exactly as before and those who wanted an uncompromisingly modern replacement. These radically divergent views were laid at the feet of a committee chaired by Prince Philip.
Windsor today embodies two architectural approaches: some rooms were meticulously restored, but some were redesigned and are effectively new. The architect of the new work was Giles Downes, who cleverly reinvented and reinterpreted gothic architecture in St George’s Hall and the Lantern Lobby, a former chapel. Prince Philip was determined that these rooms should be a celebration of craftsmanship. In St George’s Hall 350 oak trees were fashioned into an immense gothic ceiling 180ft long. The Lobby is like a gothic chapter house with timber ribs sprouting up to fan vaults above. Only a fraction of the £36.5m total cost of the project was directed to these two rooms but they are genuinely new architecture, in the same way that Simpson’s classical Gallery is.
There is little doubt in my mind that the new rooms at Windsor are an infinite improvement over the old ones and, while they represent a committee decision, they are remarkable. The difficulty of writing about all this is that is can sound like hagiography. The Queen’s patronage is interesting and, on the whole, successful but it could equally be seen as minor, conservative and unambitious. It is clear that her greatest legacy will not be architecture but her buildings have epitomised her attitude to thrift, public access and the stimulation of craftsmanship. Very few great collections, and none in the UK, can claim the degree of public access the Royal Collection does. The democratisation of royal palaces is her achievement.
Dr Simon Thurley is chief executive of English Heritage