The Queen’s House, Greenwich: A royal villa of global significance housing a world-class art collection

In preparation for its 400th anniversary last year, the Queen’s House underwent a major refurbishment and re-hang. Harry Mount looks at the history of this remarkable building and its recent renovation. Photographs by Will Pryce.

The Queen’s House in Greenwich occupies a crucial position in British architectural history. It is the earliest surviving, neo-Classical villa – a luxurious and coherently planned house set in private grounds – in the country, designed by Inigo Jones in 1616. Last year, on its 400th anniversary, it had a complete overhaul, with new wiring, heating and environmental controls.

In addition, every floor that could be lifted was raised and inspected. The roof structure above the King’s Presence Chamber was also examined and confirmed as part of Inigo Jones’s work.

As part of its refit, the Queen’s House also had a complete re-hang, so that there are now 450 artworks in place, where there were only 160 before. Among them are paintings by Rubens, Gentileschi and Canaletto, as well as numerous topographical views of Greenwich itself.

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The hall was conceived as a perfect cure with an encircling gallery diving the volume. The floor and ceiling echo each other

The royal history of Greenwich goes back to the early 15th century. In 1433, the Duke of Gloucester, Henry IV’s son, received a licence to impark 200 acres of land beside his ‘manor house and mansion of Estgrenewich… [and] to crenellate the same, and to build a tower of stone and mortar in the park’. The tower occupied the hill on which the Royal Observatory now stands and the enlarged residence is the site of the Royal Naval College on the riverbank beneath.

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It was in the manor that the Duke initially assembled the library that became the heart of the Bodleian in Oxford (Country Life, April 5, 2017). That the residence formed a delightful and luxurious retreat with easy river access to the capital is suggested by the name it then acquired: ‘The Manor of Pleasance.’

In 1447, Margaret of Anjou took possession of the property and enlarged it, establishing an association between Greenwich and England’s queens that would outlast the Middle Ages. From 1500, Henry VII rebuilt the Pleasance as Greenwich Palace with a new riverside brick frontage incorporating a massive keep-like tower. Again, his queen was directly involved in the work and is credited with having ‘devised’ the design.

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The regular and symmetrical block of the Queen’s House has become the centrepiece of the naval college

Henry VIII was born here (1491) and further developed the palace: each of his six queens held court at Greenwich (and one mistress, who lived in the park tower) and it was the birthplace of both Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Over the course of the 16th century, the palace and its setting grew steadily more elaborate, the latter accommodating a friary (finally suppressed by Elizabeth I), a tiltyard, bowling alley, ‘tennis play’, gardens, fountains and banqueting house. Crucially, these formally contrived amenities were separated from the royal park by a road between Woolwich in the east and Deptford in the west. Spanning this was a Tudor gatehouse.

This both controlled access along the road and created a private connection between the gardens and the park. It was not a large building, as early views of the site show, but it was an important one. Elizabeth I, for example, used its upper chamber as a viewing platform for events in the park, such as a militia review in 1559.

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The ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber. The coving is by Edward Pearce, but the central painting is of uncertain provenance

Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, chose to create the Queen’s House on the site of this gatehouse, transforming what was evidently a useful royal belvedere into something much larger and more splendid. She might have closed the road, but, by the 17th century, it was a main artery connecting two royal shipyards along what was effectively the riverside outer defence of London. Added to this, it may be significant that England had a peculiar tradition of palaces accommodated to roads, notably Whitehall.

According to accounts, the old gatehouse was cleared away and the foundations laid in about 1616. In June 1617, a correspondent wrote to Sir Dudley Carleton, the diplomat and Secretary of State, saying: ‘The Queen is building somewhat at Greenwich wch must be finished this sommer, yt is saide to be some curious devise of Inigo Jones, and will cost above 4,000 li.’
Inigo Jones (Country Life, January 7, 2009) had been appointed Surveyor General of the King’s Works in 1615 and had travelled in Italy with the Earl of Arundel.

From this experience, he developed an idiomatic neo-Classical style. His own – heavily annotated – copy of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri Dell’Architettura survives today, miraculously, in the library of Worcester College, Oxford.

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The Tulip Stair is unsupported at its centre. The ironwork flowers are fleurs de lys

In 1615–16, Jones had also been working at James I’s palace at Newmarket, but it is the Queen’s House that survives best as the first expression of his revolutionary architectural ideas. His other great building in the capital, the Banqueting House at Whitehall, wouldn’t be started until 1619.

To accommodate the road, the house had an extraordinary ground plan of two rectangles connected by a bridge. The plan resembles that at Poggio a Caiano by the older Giuliano da Sangallo and another, referred to by Jones in his notes, by Scamozzi for Villa Molin, which also inspired the south elevation of the Queen’s House. In 1661 (after Jones’s death in 1652), two further bridges were added either side of the central bridge, roughly filling in the square design.

It is still possible to walk along the roadway through the middle of the building and appreciate this peculiarity of design.

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The roadway, now spanned by three bridges

In 1619, Queen Anne died and work on the house stopped for a decade. By the time Jones resumed work in the late 1620s, a new queen, Henrietta Maria, the French wife of Charles I, was chatelaine of the Queen’s House. The two principal elevations, to north and south, derive from this second period of building.

These respectively faced the palace and the park. The house was structurally completed, according to a commemorative tablet, in 1635. In its original form, John Summerson has suggested that ‘as in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, Jones originally designed a pediment at least on the south (loggia) side’.

If so, the revised design dispensed with the pediment. Instead, there is a remarkably controlled experiment in neo-Classicism: an uncompromisingly rectilinear and regular building. There are no orders on the north side; on the south side, they appear only in the loggia. Otherwise, Jones relies on Classical proportions, balustrading and rustication alone to produce his subtle play in relief and silhouette.

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The Queen’s Presence Chamber again displays its original colouring

Yet, as Summerson writes: ‘The proportions are un-Italian; the columns in the loggia are more widely spaced than in Scamozzi and the whole effect of the building is long and low – there is no gravitation to the centre. Here again, we find Jones’s native inclinations profoundly modifying a design which, in plan and detail, adheres closely to authority.’

If the building is Anglo-Classical on the outside, on the inside, it is more conventionally Palladian, with the two halves of the house divided into the squares and rectangles that Palladio so favoured.

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The south stair. The railing of 1724 comes from Pembroke House and was installed in the 1930s

The heart of the house is the Great Hall, a 40ft cube (not quite a perfect cube, thanks to construction adjustments) in the north half, facing towards the palace and the city beyond doubtless functioning as a garden pavilion. Internally, it was divided by a cantilevered gallery that preserves its scheme of white-and-gold paint – France’s colours – executed for Henrietta Maria. To an English audience familiar with great halls, this space must have come as a revelation.

The black-and-white marble floor was laid by Gabriel Stacey in 1636–7, working under Nicholas Stone, Charles I’s master mason. It echoes the design of the flat ceiling, with compartments defined by deep beams, another Italian innovation. Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Allegory of Peace and the Arts under the English Crown’—a nine-painting cycle—originally filled the ceiling panels.

It was removed in 1708, when Queen Anne gave it to the Duchess of Marlborough for Marlborough House. A copy, installed in 1989, still exists, now covered with a removable surface and a temporary installation by Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright. This has gold-leaf, floral motifs on a white background, darting all around Jones’s deep-corniced woodwork.

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Mr Wright’s floral motifs were inspired by the Tulip Stairs that lead off the Great Hall. This was the earliest centrally unsupported spiral staircase in England, inspired by Palladio. The flowers in its iron balustrade are probably not, in fact, tulips, but more likely lilies, the royal flower of France, again in honour of Henrietta Maria.

The other principal rooms in the house are the Cabinet Room, the Queen’s Cabinet and the Queen’s Bedchamber. The ceiling of the Bedchamber (from 1670, the Queen’s Presence Chamber) was originally decorated in about 1640 with a Daedalus and Icarus by Giulio Romano, replaced at an unknown date by Aurora dispersing the shades of Night.

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During the Civil War, in 1643, Henrietta Maria fled to France and, in 1649 – following Charles I’s execution – the contents of the house were sold off with most of the royal collection. Following the Restoration in 1660, however, Charles II determined to reinvigorate the palace. He cleared the Tudor buildings, which were in disrepair, and embarked on a vast new palace of his own. John Webb planned a huge courtyard open to the Thames, but only finished one (west) wing in 1669 before the scheme was aborted due to a shortage of cash.

The stop-start nature of works at Greenwich continued in 1694, when Sir Christopher Wren came up with a new scheme for the Royal Hospital for Seamen, commissioned by William and Mary. No longer a royal palace, this was the naval mirror to Wren’s Royal Hospital at Chelsea for retired soldiers.

It was Wren who laid out Greenwich much as it looks today, with a series of narrowing courtyards, topped with distinctive domes over a flanking hall and chapel. He was responsible, with Hawksmoor, for most of the new hospital.

The most striking thing about the plan is the way it accommodated the Queen’s House as its centrepiece. Where the house’s river views had been blocked by the old Greenwich Palace and, in John Webb’s scheme, now it formed the focus for the whole, determining the central axis of the plan. Such deference to this relatively small and compact building speaks of the esteem in which Jones was by now held as the father of English Palladianism. His buildings are pictured in Vitruvius Britannicus (1715) and, as you wander round Greenwich, you can see how Wren injected touches into the entrance arches and the pediment designs that pay homage to Palladio and Jones.

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As Greenwich became the Royal Hospital, the Queen’s House went through several incarnations. In the 1670s and 1680s, the van de Veldes, who introduced marine painting to Britain, worked there. In 1675–6, John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, lived in the house and observed the stars from its roof while his Observatory was being built on the hill.

From 1690, the Ranger of Greenwich Park lived there and then, between 1806 and 1933, it became a school for the children of naval seamen, with (until 1841) girls training for domestic service and the boys for navy careers. In the 1930s, the house was opened to the public and restored, as part of the new National Maritime Museum (NMM), set up in 1934. Today, the Queen’s House is run by both the DCMS and the NMM, with Historic England as an advisory intermediary.

In 2012, the NMM and Queen’s House were incorporated into the new brand of Royal Museums Greenwich, which brought the royal connection back to the fore. ‘We’ve restored the royal colours in the presence chambers, blue and red,’ says Christine Riding, Head of Arts and Curator of the Queen’s House. ‘The presence chambers are now distinct from the rest of the house. The idea is that people will walk through the house, through royal history as well as through naval and maritime history.’

Fireplaces and windows have also been opened up to take full advantage of the spectacular views – one of the main reasons the house was built where it was. All in all, the Queen’s House has been restored to a royal villa of global significance, housing a world-class art collection.

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