Review: Queen Victoria’s Palace, Buckingham Palace summer opening

Portraits of a young Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II at the entrance to the summer opening at Buckingham Palace 2019.

Today sees the annual summer opening of Buckingham Palace. The palace doors will be thrown wide from today for just a few weeks. There is nothing I like more than taking a peek inside beautiful homes and this one also features a new exhibition every year. This year Queen Victoria’s Palace marks the bicentenary. It is 200 years since Victoria’s (and coincidentally Prince Albert’s) birth. The young Queen moved into the Palace within three weeks of her coronation and transformed it from a private house into a working royal residence, a family home and a space where the public could be invited. A tradition that continues to this day.

“Pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been? I’ve been up to London to visit the Queen”…

A rainy day…Buckingham Palace East Wing flying the Union Jack to signify royal presence and two guardsman on duty

As with all properties of this significance, whether stately home, palace or heritage garden, each generation makes their mark. The Palace maintains however that it remains ‘in purpose and in essence, the creation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.’ Victoria succeeded to the throne at just eighteen years of age, with her coronation taking place over a year later in 1838. The young Queen was determined to impress her own ideas and innovations on the Palace which had remained empty for some years. Victoria introduced electricity and the telephone, and even more signficantly, commissioned the East Wing. The extensive new space provided room for offical entertaining and family life (the royal couple had nine children, and 42 grandchildren). The wing is now the iconic ‘face’ of the Palace, and known the world over. Designed by Edward Blore in the 1840s it includes the central balcony, the setting for many public appearances by the royal family.

A formal life of State

The artefacts of Victoria’s reign begin with the Queen’s uique throne in, of course, the impressive Throne Room. Elsewhere, a military jacket, which Albert convinced her to have made, illustrates the young Queen’s petite figure. Queen Victoria’s Collar of the Order of the Bath and the dazzling Star of the Order of the Bath, created with gold, silver, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and enamel, was commissioned by the queen. Not so trivia fact: Queen Victoria did not inherit the crown of Hanover (Salic Law having prevented a female succession). The state dining table is laid entirely for dessert, including the exquisite Dessert Stand (for jelly and ice cream) from the ‘Victoria’ pattern service .

The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace by Louis Haghe. ‘Queen Victoria’s Palace’ at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace. Image credit Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

As a young married couple Victoria and Albert held magnificent themed state balls, such as the Stuart Ball and the Powder Ball. The beautiful ball gown, an embroidered robe made from cloth of gold and worn by the Queen for the Stuart Ball is on display. Victoria’s journal and sketch book illustrate these events and her little sketch of the royal costumes is delightful, both confident and highly detailed.

Queen Victoria’s costume for the Stuart Ball. ‘Queen Victoria’s Palace’ at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace. Image credit Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
Queen Victoria’s Journal, with a sketch of herself and Prince Albert wearing their costumes for the Stuart Ball. ‘Queen Victoria’s Palace’ at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace. Image credit Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Family life

More unusual personal artefacts on display include a specially made casket for the milk teeth of Victoria’s nine children, each lovingly wrapped in a little tied paper parcel with handwritten details. Here there are also casts made of her children’s baby arms and legs. There are the first, blue velvet, shoes of Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII and a ‘dress’ (historically young boys were dressed in this fashion, with long trousers marking a boy’s maturity into manhood). The Queen was honest about her feelings about childbirth. In view of her own diffcult childhood these very personal items show a different, more maternal side to Victoria to whom childhood was, clearly, significant.

Historic palace and 21st century technology

Since Victoria’s reign Buckingham Palace has remained the private London home of the royal family and the headquarters of the British monarchy, or ‘The Firm’ as Prince Philip has famously named it. The exhibition includes digital projections to illustrate how the ballroom would have been highly decorated in Victoria’s time. More digital projections, using a Victorian technique called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ uses holograms to bring the grand Victorian Ball of 1856, painted by Louis Haghe, to life. Four couples dance to Verdi’s La Traviata and curators worked with a Hollywood-based production company on the effects.

Exit through the gift shop

Another lovely thing about the summer opening is that it is one-way so the exit is extended via the tea pavilion. (Earl Grey and a scruptious profiterole gateaux, in case you’re wondering although I scoffed the cake before I thought to photograph it!). Walking through the beautiful palace gardens featuring a lake, wildlife and many magnificent trees, is a haven from the busy city just a short distance away. When I left through the discreet exit, a door in the wall at the back of the Palace, I felt like I had just stepped out of Dr Who’s Tardis. Magical.

Buckingham Palace Dairy Ice Cream parlour
Summer garden gift shop at Buckingham Palace

Queen Victoria’s Palace provides an intriguing glimpse into the two elements of royal life, the state and the family, which continues in the 21st century. The two are perfectly illustrated by a ‘secret passageway’ in formal White Drawing Room, hidden behind one of two matching ornate antique mirrors and affording the royals a quick route around the Palace. A nice little metaphor!

Queen Victoria’s Palace at Buckingham Palace runs from 20 July to 29 September 2019. All proceeds go to The Royal Collection Trust (RCT), a registered charity that looks after the Royal Collection, one of the most important art collections in the world, and manages the public opening of the official residences of Her Majesty The Queen. The RCT exhibition Leonardo Da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at The Queens Gallery runs until 6 May 2020.

The Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace (atop is a bronze winged Victory). Additional statues represent courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. Designed and executed by the sculptor (Sir) Thomas Brock.

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