Buckingham Palace: ‘There is not a historical capital in Europe which cannot show a more imposing Royal palace’

A trip through the archives unearths a real treasure in the form of a 1931 book about Buckingham Palace which offers a fascinatingly different perspective on one of the world's most famous buildings.

Every so often, we delve in to Country Life’s architecture archive for a treasure of the past. This week, it’s not a feature, but a book review.

The review in question, however, isn’t about some run-of-the-mill novel, or even a history. Instead, it’s a look at a 1931 book called Buckingham Palace: Its Furniture, Decoration and History, written by former Country Life editor Christopher Hussey and H. Clifford Smith and published by Country Life. An advertisement for the book ran inside the front cover on Valentine’s Day 1931:

Advert for the 1931 Country Life book, ‘Buckingham Palace: Its Furniture, Decoration and History’. ©Country Life Picture Library

Inside the magazine the full review was written by Lord Gerald Wellesley. (You might recognise the surname; Gerald was the 7th Duke of Wellington, and a direct heir of Arthur Wellesley himself.)

Rather than dive in with a look at the contents of the book, the review instead begins by looking at the origins of Buckingham Palace as a royal residence:

Recommended videos for you

A guide book to London, dated 1761, states that St James’s Palace is ‘an irregular brick building without having one single beauty on the outside to recommend it and is at once the contempt of foreign nations and the disgrace of our own… The windows however look into a pleasant garden and command a view of St. James’s Park which seem to be the only advantage this edifice enjoys above many others devoted to Charity. If the power wealth and strength of the King of England should be judged from this palace how great would be the mistake.’

Nevertheless, this palace continued to be the official residence of the Kings of England during the century which saw the construction of the palaces of Madrid, Caserta, Schönbrunn and St Petersburg for their brother monarchs on the Continent. No wonder that Queen Charlotte, fresh from the superior splendours of the palace of the diminutive Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, turned pale when she saw St James’s, though her pallor may have been occasioned as much by the prospect of being married immediately after her arrival to a man [King George III] she had never seen as by the poverty-stricken appearance of her future home.

Be that as it may, the young couple a year later moved into Buckingham House, which the King bought from the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham as a dower house for his young queen. In 1775 the house was settled on the Queen for her life and re-named ‘The Queen’s House’, the Crown at the same time surrendering Somerset House, the historic dower house of the Queens of England.

Nearly all the children of George Ill and Queen Charlotte were born at the Queen’s House, and it was their chief residence till the hopeless madness of the King made it more convenient for him and his devoted wife to retire to Windsor.

Buckingham Palace pictured in the 1931 Country Life book, ‘Buckingham Palace: Its Furniture, Decoration and History’. ©Country Life Picture Library

Wellesley’s review moves on to taking a closer look at how — and why — the Palace then evolved:

Immediately after his accession, George IV determined to reconstruct the Queen’s House. He had hitherto lived at Carlton House, but he now wanted a residence “not in a street.” Moreover, the new Regent Street had opened up a very unimpressive view of the roofs of the low-lying palace. It must not be forgotten that the alterations were originally nothing more than a reconstruction, and that the walls of Buckingham House in many places still exist under the stucco and gilding of the present Buckingham Palace…

Although the King’s opinion of St James’s Palace was probably not more flattering than that of the writer of the eighteenth century guide book, he only intended originally to use the new palace as his private residence and to continue to hold his levees and Courts at St James’s. As the works progressed the King modified this view, though neither he nor William IV ever lived in the Palace. It is an interesting instance of the self-reliant character of the young Queen Victoria that she occupied the empty and still unfinished building within three weeks of her Accession.

Buckingham Palace pictured in the 1931 Country Life book, ‘Buckingham Palace: Its Furniture, Decoration and History’. ©Country Life Picture Library

He goes on to critique elements of the Palace in a manner that’s startlingly damning, even of the work done by the great John Nash:

Nash’s garden front, though full of merits, is low and small for its purpose, and the principal staircase of the Palace would be more suitable to a provincial town hall than to the residence of the King of England.

In fact, the original intention of George IV is everywhere apparent. The building is a large and commodious private residence, and there is not a historical capital in Europe which cannot show a more imposing Royal palace. Nevertheless, Buckingham Palace has come to occupy a distinct place in the hearts and lives of the English- peaking world, a place that is aptly illustrated by the photographs of typical events connected with the Palace.

Wellesley’s review concludes with a look at H. Clifford Smith’s chapters on the contents of Buckingham Palace:

The author has an intimate knowledge of the Royal collections, and has received valuable assistance from Her Majesty the Queen, who graciously consented to read the proofs of this book. His researches have resulted in the collection of a quantity of documented information about them which is of the utmost value… The Palace contains a finer collection of pictures and bric-a-brac than any other Royal residence in the world, with the possible exception of Windsor Castle. The illustrations in this volume give an excellent picture of the magnificent possessions of the British Crown, which the taste and knowledge of Her present Majesty have now displayed to their greatest advantage.

The book is no longer in print, though it was reprinted in 1937 and second hand copies are relatively easy to find. Wellesley concludes that it ‘will appeal to all sorts of readers — more particularly, no doubt, to those who have had an opportunity of seeing the interior of the Palace’  —  yet, we’d have thought, all the more so to those who haven’t.