Is Buckingham Palace ugly?

Guards in front of Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace will be a focal point in the Queen's Jubilee celebrations, 250 years after work started to make it into a royal residence. But is this famous landmark an attractive building or a carbuncle, asks Sophie Robehmed.

Taj Mahal. Empire State Building. Sydney Opera House. Buckingham Palace feels at home in that list of the world's most recognisable buildings.

Every year countless tourists flock to have their picture taken in front of its cast-iron gates.

But how does the palace - originally named Buckingham House when built in 1705 as a residence for the Duke of Buckingham - stand up next to other classic British buildings like the Palace of Westminster and St Paul's Cathedral?

Buckingham House illustration Buckingham House, pictured in its days as a townhouse for a duke

"It is a mongrel of early 19th and early 20th Century elements around an early 18th Century core," says Elain Harwood, English Heritage's leading expert on 20th Century architecture. "But it doesn't matter as it occupies such a very important place in the public imagination. Indeed, nobody ever seems to notice. It works."

Stephen Bayley's view

It's impossible to separate the reputation of Buckingham Palace from its architectural reality - it's all as layered and muddled as the Windsor bloodlines.

But, thinking of its position in British life, it's surely significant that the building is, in effect, back-to-front. Its public face, the East Wing, is a device enclosing the old courtyard. The real face of the Palace, the part enjoyed by HM, is the invisible garden front.

It's significant surely too that the public face was designed by Sir Aston Webb, best known for The Victoria & Albert Museum - designing repositories of national memory were, clearly, this architect's vocation.

Like Britain itself, Buckingham Palace is a glorious fiction whose narrative goes backwards and forwards at the same time.

There's a curious sense that people do look differently at landmarks as opposed to more mundane buildings that they judge wholly on their architectural merits.

And it's often been remarked that many royals have not enjoyed living at the palace.

It was originally purchased by George III to serve as a comfortable family home near to St James's Palace, which hosted most of the ceremonial events.

In 1762, work began on transforming the house to the King's requirements, masterminded by Sir William Chambers, for the sum of £73,000. Thus started the first in a series of redesigns and additions that have left us with today's palace.

But even after George IV employed John Nash, the noted Regency architect, to transform Buckingham House into a palace during the 1820s, he still chose to spend most of his time at Windsor Castle. But that may have been because of the high cost of living in London and fear of the mobs causing havoc at the time.

Buckingham palace seen from its garden Nash's West Wing of golden Bath stone faces onto the garden

Following in his footsteps, Queen Victoria was hardly at Buckingham Palace and even less so after Prince Albert died in 1861. So rarely was she there that a passerby hung a notice saying "to let" on the gates.

Start Quote

It's a very big, formal, draughty place with a lot of mahogany wardrobes”

End Quote Ingrid Seward

Edward VII tried to transform Buckingham Palace into something that matched the palaces of his European rivals and relatives with the help of architect Sir Aston Webb, says architectural critic and writer Jonathan Glancey.

"Sir Aston Webb's monumental Neo-Classical facade, completed in 1913, was - and remains - very dull indeed, a kind of huge provincial Edwardian bank with the interior of a railway hotel blown out of proportion.

"Edward VII might have spent a lot of money on the palace, but he, too, was very rarely there, spending much of his year in Sandringham, Biarritz, Cowes, Balmoral and Marienbad. Meanwhile, I think it's fair to say that the Queen's real home today is Windsor Castle."

Edward Blore finished the East Wing in 1847, which enclosed a quadrangle, but it is Webb's facade that tourists the world over associate with the building.

Less home, more show home

Queen attends a garden party

Business is the priority with more than 50,000 people visiting every year to attend receptions, banquets, lunches, dinners and royal garden parties. It also boasts 775 rooms including:

  • 92 offices
  • 188 staff bedrooms
  • 78 bathrooms
  • 19 State rooms
  • and 52 royal and guest bedrooms

The Queen normally spends every weekend at Windsor Castle. In addition to hosting state visits for various presidents and monarchs throughout the year, she also takes up official residence at the castle for a month for Easter Court, and a week in June to attend the Royal Ascot race meeting and the service of the Order of the Garter.

But the tendency of monarchs not to live exclusively at Buckingham Palace may not be down to its aesthetic appeal or functionality.

Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty Magazine, believes it's because the Queen sees Buckingham Palace as an office.

"It's a workplace. Being the official head of state's residence, it's a very big, formal, draughty place with a lot of mahogany wardrobes. It's like a huge hotel. Not remotely cosy or a home by any means."

For many years, the palace has been the focal point for celebrations and commiserations. "Buckingham Palace is a symbol of the monarchy, the capital and Great Britain," says Seward.

Perhaps that's why it doesn't matter that the palace is not regarded as an architectural masterpiece. Glancey argues the palace has played - and continues to play - an important role in the UK's national consciousness.

"It was from the balcony of Sir Aston Webb's facade that Winston Churchill waved to the crowds at the end of World War II. It was where Charles and Diana and William and Catherine kissed for the crowds at the time of their marriages.

Peter York on the interior

I've been to Buckingham Palace a few times. I recently got taken on a big tour of the major places within it.

From the inside, it's very Victorian. Structurally and historically, it's an 18th Century nobleman's house but it possesses high Victorian grandeur, is fantastical and very bling since there is gilding everywhere.

It's like being in a very grand Victorian hotel. It feels more mid-19th Century than 18th Century.

The main staircase from the ground floor to the first floor is all white and gold with red carpet. There are silk damask walls and when you come into the palace, the hall is painted in a mushroom tone.

The room where investitures are held is very big with lots of chairs and guilding, sort of like Victoria station. Another room had an extraordinary piece of furniture - its design featured 3D fruit made of different types of marble. If new, it would be hideous but it is an amazing piece of craftsmanship considering it was made some 200 years ago.

Some people imagine the style of the British royal family to be more laidback and understated but it's not at all. It's exactly what you would expect from a fairytale palace.

"Of course, the Mall and Buckingham Palace - first opened to the public in 1993 - are great tourist attractions, but they are also somewhere at the heart of a sense of what it means to be British, a sense played out to Elgar and with the roar of Merlin engines - the Lancaster, the Spitfires and Hurricanes that fly overhead on special occasions."

There are, of course, plenty of people who like the effect of the palace. Among them is architect Maxwell Hutchinson.

"Buckingham Palace plays an important part in an exquisite composition of urban stagecraft.

"With the grandness of the Mall, Duke of York column and steps, the austere Carlton House Terrace, St James's Palace, Marlborough House - built by Christopher Wren - and Victoria memorial, it's a really good bit of urban theatre."

As with any building, perhaps the final word should be left to the neighbours.

"Buckingham Palace is peculiarly British in that it's a bit of a letdown. It is dutifully ducal rather than impressive and imperial like the Louvre, Madrid's Palacio Real or Vienna's Schonbrunn," says Pol Fergus-Thompson, membership secretary for the Residents' Society of Mayfair and St James's and a local for 12 years.

"Although we get frustrated when the traffic slows for the changing of the guard, most of the people who live nearby appreciate the daily morning pomp and diminishing ceremony. What the palace represents means more than what it is."

Windsor Castle The Queen tends to spend her weekends at Windsor Castle

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  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    The Palace was a disappointment when I first saw it. I expected something very grand. As for Queen, value for money. I say this as an American. I hate to think of how much money will be spent/wasted in the President, Congress and Senate campaigns this year. I have not done my sums but I am sure the royal family costs less and they definitely provide a better service to the country as whole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    It's fine. It's a huge big palace in central london. It's not ugly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    For the anti-royalists:

    You may well strive for democracy, freedom & fairness to which I subscribe to also. But given the corrupt politicians & elected officals currently acting as the alternative, I would welcome monarchy rule in Britain forthwith.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    so how has obama "earned" the presidency ?
    spending more on publicity and bribes than anyone else is "earning" ?
    the blacks hate him,the whites hate him,the hispanics hate him,what % of us electorate voted last time ? he is another leader of a "democratic"government that less than 33% voted for.
    that is not a democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I have always said that Buckingham Palace is an ugly and uninspiring thing to behold. The Queen has a number of very picturesque residences and I can't help but wonder what she makes of her official seat in London. Perhaps it could get a good makeover for the Jubilee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    Yet more fawning over the monarchy by the BBC? It seems we are getting this every day this year, why?

    Basically the palace is what it is, a Georgian statement of wealth and power. Fortunately though, the power is now purely symbolic.

    Please don't suggest it be replace with something more attractive, unless you want a taxpayer revolt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    I think this article would make more sense were it given some background. Nash is generally accepted to not have been a particularly good architect- his work poorly built, badly planned, but nicely dressed up; he had only a vague concept of scale and massing. Webb would have done better as a theatrical designer, the facade is shallow- the underwhelming pediments were in fact a quick late addition!

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Anyone who believes in this ruritanian farce is well mentally challenged. The idea that the most expensive rubber stamp in the wold brings in millions of tourists is ludicrous. The Palace of Versaille , another vulgar ediface gets 20 million visitors a year. How does this tat compare? As for the diamond jamboree...like3 the Anabolic Steroid games, a colossal bore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    Not a patch on Chatsworth or Wentworth Houses. I would still prefer and elected Monarchy and this building can be fully opened up as a Tourist attraction. Vive La England.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    @188 Andrew
    "The Queen has a right to vote, but she chooses not to use it so as to remain impartial."

    It is considered unconsitutional for the Queen to vote.

    She has no choice but to remain impartial as she would be forced to abdicate. Not a republican but I feel uncomfortable denying anyone the right to vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    185. Kempton_Pedro
    1) It's more the principle that our head of state gets their because of who their ancestors are. She has not earned it as the American head of state, President Obama has, for example.
    2) True, they do bring in a lot of money. However they cost £180m a year. That could be used create jobs, reduce the deficit, expand education, boost firms etc which is arguably more important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    It's alright I suppose?

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    The Royal Family exists to promote the very best of the United Kingdom. The elected Govt should be compared to Obama and conduct themselves as representatives of the Brish people. The Royal Family does bring in billions of pounds and works effortlessly for charity. I am content with supporting them.

    What about the money spent during the US presidential elections? A complete waste of resources!

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    185.Kempton_Pedro - "budahboy I think you need to get your facts right. The Royal Family bring in Billions into the UK every year....."

    No get YOUR facts right - survey after survey has shown time & again we'd get MORE tourists coming to britain if the Palaces were museums they could look round.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Why are we, the British taxpayer, paying for this building (and all the others used by the royals)? Presidential residences used by democratic governments are considerably smaller and probably cheaper to run than Buck House and yet also serve an actual function in the running of their residents' countries.

    If me and my country are struggling to pay our bills, why am I paying this one too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    179. RayTay
    "The head of state should be decided by election. That is the only democratic option."

    The Queen is the Head of State of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many more countries around the world. By your logic, none of these countries are democratic! Anyone with any sense knows that her role is purely ceremonial which most people actually like.Your comment is ridiculous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Its grand, its grey and its imposing...they are qualities which could belong to a prison and yet the difference to the palace is immeasurable, in a way it serves to reflect how such qualities can have such a contrast within their own spectrum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    Addition to earlier comment by Bala

    I find myself entirely in agreement with Aldous Huxley's comment on the Taj Mahal in his travelogue "Jesting Pilate". I urge you to read it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    9 Minutes ago
    Ever visited the White House?

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    @OGAMIKE (172)
    And the Queen unbiased? Could you see her voting Labour or UKIP??
    The Queen has a right to vote, but she chooses not to use it so as to remain impartial. Hence, she has no say on who her Government is led by. To add to that, she has never discussed her personal opinions of any Prime Minister in public. If that isn't being unbiased then I don't know what is.


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