Historically Speaking: A Palace Open to the People

From the Pharaohs to Queen Victoria, royal dwellings have been symbols of how rulers think about power.

Every summer, Queen Elizabeth II opens the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public. This year’s opening features an exhibition that I curated, “Queen Victoria’s Palace,” the result of a three-year collaboration with Royal Collection Trust. The exhibition uses paintings, objects and even computer-generated imagery to show how Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace into both a family home and the headquarters of the monarchy. In the process, she modernized not only the building itself but also the relationship between the Royal Family and the British people.

Plenty of rulers before Victoria had built palaces, but it was always with a view to enhancing their power rather than sharing it. Consider Amarna in Egypt, the temple-palace complex created in the 14th century B.C. by Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten. Supported by his beautiful wife Nefertiti, the heretical Akhenaten made himself the head of a new religion that revered the divine light of the sun’s disk, the Aten.

The Great Palace reflected Akhenaten’s megalomania: The complex featured vast open air courtyards where the public was required to engage in mass worship of the Pharaoh and his family. Akhenaten’s palace was hated as much as his religion, and both were abandoned after his death.

Weiyang, the Endless Palace, built in 200 B.C. in western China by the Emperor Gaozu, was also designed to impart a religious message. Until its destruction in the 9th century by Tibetan invaders, Weiyang extended over two square miles, making it the largest imperial palace in history. Inside, the halls and courtyards were laid out along specific axial and symmetrical lines to ensure that the Emperor existed in harmony with the landscape and, by extension, with his people. Each chamber was ranked according to its proximity to the Emperor’s quarters; every person knew his place and obligations according to his location in the palace.

Western Europe had nothing comparable to Weiyang until King Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles in 1682. With its unparalleled opulence—particularly the glittering Hall of Mirrors—and spectacular gardens, Versailles was a cult of personality masquerading as architecture. Louis, the self-styled Sun King at the center of this artificial universe, created a living stage where seeing and being seen was the highest form of social currency.

The offstage reality was grimmer. Except for the royal family’s quarters, Versailles lacked even such basic amenities as plumbing. The cost of upkeep swallowed a quarter of the government’s annual tax receipts. Louis XIV’s fantasy lasted a century before being swept away by the French Revolution in 1789.

Although Victoria would never have described herself as a social revolutionary, the many changes she made to Buckingham Palace were an extraordinary break with the past. From the famous balcony where the Royal Family gathers to share special occasions with the nation, to the spaces for entertaining that can welcome thousands of guests, the revitalized palace created a more inclusive form of royal architecture. It sidelined the old values of wealth, lineage, power and divine right to emphasize new ones based on family, duty, loyalty and patriotism. Victoria’s palace was perhaps less awe-inspiring than its predecessors, but it may prove to be more enduring.

The Guardian: Feminist Queen. Show explores how Victoria transformed monarchy

The story of how Victoria and Prince Albert rebuilt the palace into the most glittering court in Europe is explored through paintings, sketches and costumes, and includes a Hollywood-produced immersive experience that brings to life the balls for which she was famous.

Visiting the exhibition, Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, the Queen, was “totally engrossed” as she watched virtual-reality dancers recreate a quadrille, a dance that was fashionable at 19th-century balls. “Thank God we don’t have to do that any more,” said the Queen.

Quadrilles, in which four couples dance together, may no longer be performed but many of Victoria’s innovations remain. She created the balcony, and bequeathed balcony appearances and garden parties to a nation. “It is now unimaginable you would have a national celebration without this balcony, so embedded is it in the nation’s consciousness,” said Dr Amanda Foreman, the historian and co-curator of the exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace.

Queen Victoria’s maternal role is highlighted in the sketches she made of her nine children, as well as an ornate casket containing their milk teeth and marble sculptures she had made of their tiny arms and feet.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, which marks the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, is a recreation of the grand ballroom which she had built. She believed the picture gallery was too small for lavish entertainment, noting in her journal how the dresses get squashed and ruined during an attempt at a quadrille.

Digital technology by a Hollywood-based production company recreates the ballroom as it looked during a ball in 1856, with images of the wall furnishings and paintings, as shown in contemporary watercolours, projected on to its walls.

A quadrille is recreated through a hologram effect, using actors in replicas of the costumes featured in the watercolour. The technology was inspired by the Victorian illusionist trick known as Pepper’s Ghost, which used angled glass to reflect images on to the Victorian stage.

“Queen Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace, the fabric of this building, and in so doing created new traditions, those traditions which we now associate with the modern monarchy,” said Foreman.

“It is significant that it was a woman who was responsible for these traditions and a woman who defined our nation’s understanding and concept of sovereign power, how it’s experienced, how it’s expressed.

“It’s very much a feminist transformation, although Queen Victoria herself would not have used those words, and those words would not have meant to the Victorians what they mean to us today.

“We tend to diminish the contribution of women in particular. We assign their success to the men around them. We tend to simply forget who was responsible for certain things. So by putting on this exhibition, we are stripping away those lawyers of oblivion, forgetfulness, discounting, and allowing Queen Victoria the space to shine.”

Victoria turned the once-unloved palace into a home fit for state, public and private events. But for 10 years after her beloved Albert’s death, she rarely set foot in it, describing it in her journals as “one of my saddest of sad houses”.

 Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace exhibition is at the summer opening of Buckingham Palace, 20 July to 29 September 2019.

Harper’s Bazaar: Buckingham Palace is opening a new exhibition exploring the life of Queen Victoria this summer

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria and to celebrate, Buckingham Palace has announced a special exhibition as part of its state opening this summer, co-curated by Dr. Amanda Foreman.

Harper’s Bazaar, May 7, 2019

by Katie Frost

A portrait of Queen Victoria by Thomas Sully

The exhibit will explore the life of the monarch and how she turned the once unloved palace into the royal residence we know today. Highlights will include a portrait of the young queen painted by Thomas Sully soon after she moved into her new home, along with Victoria’s personal insignia, the Star and Collar of the Order of the Bath.

Victoria moved into the palace in 1837 when she was just 18. It had been empty for seven years following the death of her uncle, George IV. After Victoria married Prince Albert and started a family, Victoria wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, about her plans to revamp her family home. In it, she spoke of “the urgent necessity of doing something to Buckingham Palace” and “the total want of accommodation for our growing little family”, according to the Royal Collection Trust.