The Queen’s House, Greenwich nr London: a turning point in English architecture

Honestly, I don’t know why I hadn’t been here before.  In terms of important houses in or very near London:

The Queen’s House is right up there; it would be at the top if it retained its original décor and hadn’t been neglected by circumstance and then turned into a picture gallery.

As it stands, The Queen’s House provides walls on which the Greenwich Maritime Museum hangs its pictures, including (I think) the largest Turner painting on public display.  There are many fine pictures of battles and seascapes, if you’re into that sort of thing.

However, I was there for the architecture and the story.

This house was designed by Inigo Jones for James I’s Queen.  Hence its name, The Queen’s House.

Inigo Jones

Before I explain its importance and where to see the bits of it that have been “dispersed”, I should say a little bit about the landscape in which the first brick for this house was laid, in about 1616.

At the time, as I mentioned when I visited Eltham Palace in 2011, Greenwich was a Royal hub.

Greenwich Park was a hunting ground and on the riverbank where now stands the Naval College (which dates from the 1680s onwards), one would have found a red brick Tudor palace.  It was called Greenwich Palace, previously The Palace of Placentia and Queen Elizabeth I and her sister Mary Tudor were born there.

Looking at the timeline:

1509     Henry VIII comes to the throne

1516     Mary I born

1533     Queen Elizabeth I born

1547     Henry VIII dies

1553     Edward VI dies

1558     Mary I dies

1603     Queen Elizabeth I dies.  James I of England and VI of Scotland assumes the monarchy.

1616     The Queen’s House’s construction begins

1618     Building works are stalled (until 1629)

1625     James I dies and Charles I becomes king

1635     Construction of the house completed

1649     Charles I beheaded and the Commonwealth begins

1660     Charles II crowned

1685     Charles II dies

1688     James II dies

1694     Mary dies

1702     William of Orange dies

During the early 1600s Inigo Jones was travelling in Italy, soaking up and marvelling in the design genius of Palladio in the Veneto and before him Vitruvius.

James I was rather taken with Inigo’s ideas.  The commission of The Queen’s House opposite an epitome of Tudor life in the form of Greenwich Palace must have created a stir, like when planning permission for The Gherkin in London was granted.

The property was Inigo’s first major commission, and what a turning point it was:

  • truly classical; and
  • of mathematical proportions albeit not necessarily enslaved to the mathematics of Palladio.

Space is luxurious, with a grand 40ft cubic hall, on the banister of which at first floor height are the faintest of traces of original paint.  Alas, the elaborate ceiling was taken down when Sarah Churchill, famous friend of Queen Anne, expressed a liking for it.  Coincidentally, we saw the said ceiling the day before our visit to The Queen’s House, cut and mangled but fixed proudly on the ceiling of Marlborough House on The Mall, the former London home of the Duke & Duchess of Marlborough (yes, they who live at Blenheim Palace) and now used as part of the foreign office so itself a victim of having become a public building.

Remember, it was 1616 when the first brick for The Queen’s House was laid.  Chatsworth, with all its baroque in its pre-Victorian form, was not remodelled until the 1680s.  60 years later!  This house is closer to Longleat than Blenheim in the timeline.

James I’s queen was Danish, called Anne.  The house was started for her but not completed for her.  That honour was given to another queen, a French queen of England, Henrietta Maria, the queen of King Charles I. Between one’s death and the recommencement of building works (which had only risen to 1st floor level), the roof was thatched over and the house left dormant for a decade.

The house has one very odd aspect though.

In 1616 ,along the lower side of Greenwich Park ran the walled main road.   Those who used it liked this as it offered a degree of protection from highwaymen and other unsavoury characters.

The Queen’s House was just built around the road, which cut right through the centre of the house, making navigating the internal space awkward because at ground floor level the house was essentially divided.

Inside the house today there is an exhibition room explaining (in very brief detail) the history of the house and encompassing a model with removable bits, showing the road running right through the road before the road was finally moved and the house united.

The house did provide a bridge over the road from the existing palace into the park and there was precedent for this sort of H-shaped house, but if I were queen I think I would have raised more than an eyebrow about the layout.

The Greenwich Palace suffered during The Commonwealth and was subsequently pulled down.  The Queen’s House also inevitably suffered and lost its contents.  What one visits today is really just a shell, save for the Tulip Stair (originally capped with a dome providing a 360 degree view) and the floor in the main hall.

There are a couple of snippets of what was – a bedroom with Henrietta Marie’s initials painted on the wall, the most complete retained interior – that’s the ceiling in the picture above (not a picture of Marlborough House).  There are no kitchens, there is a lot of stainless steel, lifts etc.

A big dose of imagination is needed here; this is an architecture trip of the type of proportions that really requires Marty’s time machine from Back to the Future, especially as the plastic huts that had been stored on the lawns during the Olympics (we were there the second day it had opened after being closed during the Olympics) had left a rather large mud pie where the lawns once were!  I do, however, implore you to go if you’re in the area.  I’ll be going again for sure.

When visited: September 2012

House * out of 5: ***

Garden * out of 5: *

Theme tune: When A Man Loves a Woman (apparently James I is said to have given the manor of Greenwich to Anne in apology for having sworn at her in public, after she accidentally shot one of his favourite dogs while hunting in 1614)


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