“It landed like a Classical spaceship on a Tudor site”
The Queen’s House in Greenwich was the first Classical style house in Britain (although Jones’ other masterpiece, the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall was completed before it) and so an extremely important building in the history of English architecture. It was designed by Inigo Jones, initially for James’s 1st’s wife, Anne of Denmark, although she never saw it dying shortly after construction had started. It was finally completed in1635.when it was given by Charles 1 to his wife Henrietta Maria. At the time it was built it was part of the Tudor Greenwich Palace, also known as the Palace of Placentia, the birthplace of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1, but couldn’t have looked more different than the rambling medieval collection of red brick buildings. Simple and elegantly proportioned, it was revolutionary for it’s time.
Today the house is part of the National Maritime Museum and can be visited free of charge. It underwent a 14-month restoration beginning in 2015, and reopened on October 11, 2016. It is used to display the Museum’s collection of maritime related paintings and also some temporary exhibitions. It’s also hired out for weddings, corporate events and the like so it’s important to check if it’s open or whether parts of the building are closed before visiting to avoid disappointment.
There have been a number of changes to the original design. It was originally H shaped – with the north wings linked by a bridge over a road that went right through the centre of the building, the main Woolwich to Deptford thoroughfare, following the line of today’s Doric collonades. The east and west “bridge rooms”, that completed the rectangle, were added later by Charles II.
Today the entrance is in the north front, with it’s curved staircase and balustraded terrace which were later additions. However, the original entrance was in the south front of the building leading into the ground floor room known as the Orangery.
The collonades were added in the early 19th century when the house was used as part of the Royal Hospital School for the sons of seamen, linking the house to two large flanking pavillions (the west one now forming the main part of the National Maritime Museum).
Entrance to the house is via the ground level door which takes visitors into the reception in the house’s cellar. Climbing up to the ground floor I came to the bottom of one of the building’s most photogenic features, the Tulip Staircase.
This was the first centrally unsupported helical staircase in England. The stairs are supported by being cantilevered from the walls and each tread rests on the one below.
This is Jones’ Great Hall. A perfect cube forty feet in length, breadth and height.
The ceiling originally had an elaborate painted ceiling – An Allegory of Peace and the Arts – by Orazio Gentileschi but it was removed when it was given by Queen Anne to her “favourite” Sarah Churchill, and today can be found in the latter’s former house, Marlborough House on the Mall.
During the recent restoration the Turner-prize winner Richard Wright was commissioned to redo the ceiling. Working with a team of five assistants, he’s created a contemporary design covering the ceiling and the upper part of the walls. A gold leaf fresco of abstract, flower like forms inspired by the Tulip Staircase.
Traditionalists may not agree but I think it’s stunning and complements the Classical design.
There’s a more traditional painted ceiling in the “Queen’s Presence Chamber” – a design commissioned from either of two court artists, John de Critz or Matthew Gooderick, which includes an allegory of ‘Aurora dispersing the shades of Night’.
On the opposite side of the building the “Kings’s Presence Chamber” is richly decorated with gold leaf on the ceiling, cornice and pillasters
Leading down to the “Orangery”, the original entrance to the house, is the elegant South Staircase
It follows Inigo Jones’ design but has been completely reconstructed as this part of the house was drastically altered in the 19th Century when it was being used as part of the school. The wrought-iron balustrade was brought from Pembroke House in 1936 to replace cast-iron balusters and a heavy handrail that had been installed during the alterations.
Other than the above (and the Orangery which I didn’t photograph) there was little of architectural interest to see as the other rooms were devoted to art and other items on display. More about that in another post (as this one is long enough). But a visit is a must for anyone interested in the history of architecture in England.