While the Queen takes a summer break in Scotland, we can tour the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace for the annual ten-week summer opening. This year the rooms are available to us from 20 July to 29 September 2019, and the special exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria.
‘Queen Victoria’s Palace’ tells the story of how the young monarch turned an unloved royal residence into the centre of the social, cultural and official life of the country. Through objects from the Royal Collection and an immersive experience in the Palace’s Ballroom, visitors can learn how Victoria turned Buckingham Palace into what it remains today – the headquarters of the Monarchy, a rallying point for national celebrations and a family home. And how she created traditions that still endure including appearances by the Royal Family on the balcony at the front of the Palace and the annual summer Garden Parties.
For many years, we didn’t have access to the inside of the Palace. It was only after the Windsor Castle fire in 1992 that the decision was taken to open Buckingham Palace to visitors to raise funds for the Windsor Castle repairs. The summer opening started in 1993 with a plan to run each year until 1997 but it proved so popular the annual summer opening has continued every year since.
Not all of the Palace rooms are State Rooms so you won’t be going into the kitchen or private bedrooms, etc. Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms and there are 19 State Rooms used by the royal family to welcome visitors during State and official occasions.
The State Rooms are in the oldest part of the building. They are the grandest and most impressive rooms in the Palace so you won’t be disappointed.
Queen Victoria’s Palace
Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years. (It was only in 2015 that our current Queen surpassed the reign of her great-great-grandmother.)
Victoria’s childhood home was Kensington Palace. (A new exhibition and visitor route there this year commemorate 200 years since the iconic Queen’s birth at Kensington Palace.)
She ascended to the throne on 20 June 1837, aged 18. After living under such strict controls at Kensington she took command of her own life and just three weeks into her reign, she moved into Buckingham Palace. The building wasn’t ready for such an important resident as it was incomplete with many of the rooms undecorated and unfurnished. The Palace had been empty for seven years following the death of Victoria’s uncle, George IV, who had commissioned at great expense the conversion of Buckingham House into a Palace to the designs of John Nash. The King never occupied the Palace, and his successor, William IV, preferred to live at nearby Clarence House during his short reign. The Queen’s ministers advised her to stay at Kensington Palace until Buckingham Palace could be brought up to a suitable standard, but Victoria wanted to move immediately and begin her new life.
Thomas Sully’s portrait, painted soon after Victoria moved to Buckingham Palace, provides one of the most striking early likenesses of the young Queen, who is shown wearing the Diamond Diadem made for George IV. Victoria sat for the portrait on three separate occasions, and the artist recorded that she laughed and talked, ‘a happy innocent girl of Eighteen’.
Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on 10 February 1840. Over the next 17 years, they had nine children, eight of whom were born at Buckingham Palace. Though Victoria was initially delighted with Buckingham Palace’s ‘high, pleasant and cheerful interiors’, the royal residence was unmodernised and unsuitable for both official and family life. As early as 1845 it was clear that Buckingham Palace was no longer large enough to accommodate the royal couple’s rapidly expanding family. On 10 February that year, Victoria wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, concerning ‘the urgent necessity of doing something to Buckingham Palace’ and ‘the total want of accommodation for our growing little family’. On 13 August 1846, Parliament granted Victoria £20,000 for the completion and extension of Buckingham Palace. Additional funds were raised from the sale of George IV’s seaside retreat, the Royal Pavilion, to Brighton Corporation for £50,000.
In 1847 the architect Edward Blore was commissioned to draw up plans for alterations to Buckingham Palace. Between 1847 and 1849, the East Wing was added at the front, enclosing what had previously been an open, horseshoe-shaped courtyard and introducing the famous central balcony. Shortly afterwards a new Ballroom was added to the State Rooms to the designs of the architect James Pennethorne, fulfilling Victoria’s wish for a space ‘capable of containing a larger number of those persons whom the Queen has to invite in the course of the season to balls, concerts etc. than any of the present apartments can hold’. The writer John Ruskin had witnessed the shortcomings of the Palace’s other rooms for entertaining, describing an occasion at Court as ‘the most awkward crush…with the ruins of ladies dresses, torn lace and fallen flowers’.
Buckingham Palace Tour
All tickets include a multimedia tour so everyone is walking around in silence with headphones on. (Children get a family multimedia guide too and I prefer to listen to that as it’s always so interesting. The voices are from an animal ‘guide’. As well as Rex the corgi, this year there is Dash, Queen’s Victoria’s pet dog.)
My best tip is don’t rush – it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of people and move on too quickly so step to the side of each room and just take it all in. Admire the high ornate ceiling, the decorated walls, the tall windows, the flooring, the detail in the furniture… everything. It really is a wondrous building.
The ticket entrance brings you in on the side of the building. You pass the Feliks Topolski’s panoramas, bronze bust sculptures of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and an impressive life-size painting of the Queen.
This route brings you to the Quadrangle which is where cars drive into from the front of the Palace. From here you can see the 1840 extension that was built for Queen Victoria’s growing family (remember, she had nine children). The Irish State Coach is lined up so you can imagine this was your mode of transport as you enter the palace building.
The tour route takes you up the Grand Staircase which is a glorious way to enter. Photography is not allowed so you won’t have to trip over visitors taking selfies. But do pretend you are someone famous as you ascend the sweeping staircase. The bannister is bronze covered in gold leaf and gives you an introduction to the gold and glitz above.
In the Throne Room you can see Queen Victoria’s throne, added for this year. Do note how low it is as she wasn’t very tall.
Victoria was only 5ft 1in but the public was always told she was 1 inch taller as being so small could suggest the Duchess and Conroy were not feeding her properly.
The family guide told me that on the day of her Coronation, after the ceremony, she bathed her dog Dash while still wearing her ceremonial robes.
Victoria ordered a new set of personal insignia for each of the six British Orders of Chivalry. Also on display in the Throne Room, we can see her Star and Collar of the Order of the Bath. These were considerably lighter and longer than previous versions, so they could be worn just below the shoulders to complement the necklines of her formal dresses.
The tour route then reaches the stunning Picture Gallery. The audio guide informed me that in Queen Victoria’s time a great storm broke all the glass in the ceiling.
Previous years there has not been enough seating to be able to stop and take it all in. I know there were concerns about people stopping for too long which would then delay the next timed ticket entry. But they have listened to visitor feedback and there are plenty of seats in the Picture Gallery and some on other rooms too.
I always stop and sit down in the 47 metre-long Picture Gallery as the Royal Collection of art is incredible. You are in a single room displaying works by Titian, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Vermeer and many more talented artists. How wonderful is that?
However many times you visit, you will always find something new. This time I noticed the relief sculptures on the marble fireplaces. I asked a Gallery Assistant who the four men are and was informed it is Michaelangelo, Donatello, Rafael and Leonardo (we remembered the names because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!)
In the East Gallery you can see Sir James Pennethorne’s design for the room before reaching the special exhibition in the Ball Supper Room. This is where ball guests were served food but this year it has objects of significance to Queen Victoria.
Projections have returned the original ceiling decoration of exotic birds and gold stars against a rich blue background, allowing visitors to imagine it as Victoria and Albert would have known the room.
Queen Victoria commissioned a tooth casket for the teeth of her children. Do see the small envelopes with dates written on them.
Who do you think wore a dress like this?
This wasn’t a girl’s dress. Oh no, this dress was worn by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in 1844-46. It was common for young boys to wear dresses then.
As well as sketches of her children, there are more examples of Queen Victoria’s artwork.
Victoria hosted her first musical evening at Buckingham Palace on 15 July 1837, a mere two days after moving in. From then on, she frequently held concerts and recitals at the Palace so there are musical instruments on display.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the Palace also played host to a series of costume balls, each themed around a different historical period. As well as providing entertainment, guests were encouraged to commission elaborate costumes to give work to the Spitalfield silk weavers in east London, whose business was in sharp decline.
The Stuart Ball of 13 July 1851 had as its theme the Restoration period, with guests dressed in the style of Charles II’s court. This took place while the Great Exhibition was on in Hyde Park (1 May – 15 October 1851) so there must have been many important overseas visitors in London.
Queen Victoria’s costume for the Stuart Ball, designed by the artist Eugène Lami, has a bodice and full skirt of grey moiré trimmed with gold lace and an underskirt of gold and silver brocade.
The Queen wrote a detailed account of the occasion in her Journal and commented: ‘I was so proud and pleased to see my beloved Albert looking so handsome, truly royal and distinguished, and so much admired. I must say our costumes were beautifully made.’ She illustrated her Journal entry with a sketch of herself and Prince Albert with Prince Charles Leiningen (Victoria’s half-brother) in their Restoration outfits.
The Palace’s new Ballroom and Ball Supper Room were completed in May 1856. Measuring 33 metres long and 18 metres wide, the Ballroom was the largest room in the Palace. (It is also two stories high.) On 17 June of that year, a Ball was held to mark the end of the Crimean War and honour the returning soldiers.
Of the evening, Queen Victoria noted in her Journal: ‘Albert, even, who generally dislikes State Balls, enjoyed it, and I could have stayed up till 4, I am sure.’
A watercolour by Louis Haghe, one of many views of Buckingham Palace commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to document their lives, is the only surviving record of the Ballroom’s original Italian Renaissance-inspired decoration devised by Prince Albert’s artistic mentor, Ludwig Grüner. It included red silk hangings and Raphael-inspired cartoons mounted between the high-level windows.
While this decoration was replaced in 1908, the Ball of 1856 has been recreated for visitors using a Victorian illusion technique known as Pepper’s Ghost and a series of digital projections around the Ballroom.
Named after John Henry Pepper, who popularised the technique during Queen Victoria’s reign, the Pepper’s Ghost trick involved a stage that the audience could see and a room below that was hidden out of view. An angled sheet of glass was then placed on the stage which reflected to the audience what was happening in the hidden space underneath. The technique is used in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion as it’s a great optical illusion.
Here, four couples appear performing the opening waltz to Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. You can’t join in the dance on the ‘stage’ but I expect many visitors will enjoy a waltz around the room.
State Dining Room
New kitchens were also incorporated into Pennethorne’s plans, providing the Palace’s 45 chefs with the room and facilities to demonstrate the breadth of their culinary skills. In the State Dining Room, the table is dressed with items from the ‘Victoria’ pattern dessert service, purchased by the Queen from the stand of Minton & Co. at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and the Alhambra table fountain, a silver-gilt and enamel centrepiece commissioned by Victoria and Albert from R & S Garrard in the same year.
The room made me think of something from Alice in Wonderland as the Victorian desserts are brightly coloured and fun. Displayed on pieces of silver-gilt from the Grand Service, commissioned by Victoria’s uncle, George IV, are replica desserts based on designs by Charles Elmé Francatelli who was Queen Victoria’s Chief Cook from 1840 to 1842.
Do look out of the window in this room as it’s your first glimpse of the Palace Gardens.
Continuing The Tour
In the Blue Drawing Room and the White Drawing Room, do notice the decorative wooden flooring visible around the edge of the room. (The floors are covered with carpet to protect them during the summer opening.)
The Music Room is one of my favourites as its stunning curved windows overlook the Gardens. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert enjoyed playing the piano and singing together. There is a showpiece piano of Queen Victoria’s on display this year.
This room has some timeline boards and a couple of exhibits including mourning writing paper and a copy of Peveril of the Peak – the last book Victoria read to Albert open on the page she reached before he died.
I love watching people discover the secret door to the Queen’s private apartments in the White Drawing Room before heading down the stairs to the Marble Hall. There are portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert either side of the exit through the Bow Room and then you reach the Terrace and the Gardens.
Don’t plan to leave immediately as the cafe on the terrace has lovely cakes although all are priced at £5.95. Tea is £2.95. I’m not a fan of drinking tea out of a paper cup but I’ve always had to make an exception to have a cup of tea here as it’s an annual treat. There have been some improvements in the Terrace Cafe’s environment credentials although I noticed single-use plastic lids were still being put on the compostable cups.
If you have brought children, the Family Pavilion is on the other side of the Terrace and is full of games and activities to let kids relax after being so good inside the Palace.
Then head into the large gift shop which is better than the ones on Buckingham Palace Road as it has a much larger range of goods.
To leave, you get to walk along the edge of the Palace Gardens. There’s a ticket office in case you would like to buy Windsor Castle tickets, and popular ice-cream sales too. You can leave your feedback at the end of the path before exiting onto a busy main road. (That really is the only downside to visiting Buckingham Palace.) Turn left to go to Victoria station – an apt choice after seeing the special exhibition – or right to reach Hyde Park Corner station.
Buckingham Palace Summer Opening 2019
Dates: 20 July – 29 September 2019
Address: Buckingham Palace, Westminster, London SW1A 1AA
Tickets: Adult £25.00; Over 60/ Student (with valid ID) £22.80
Under 17/ Disabled £14.00; Under 5 Free; Family £64.00 (2 adults and 3 under 17s)
Your ticket becomes a 1-year pass when you get it stamped at the exit (end of the garden path). Then you can return throughout the season and for the following year too.
Official Website: www.rct.uk
I attended a preview so had permission to take photographs in the Ball Supper Room, the Ballroom and the State Dining Room. Do note, photography is not allowed in any rooms during the normal public opening hours.