The Queen’s House in Greenwich reopens on 11 October this year and one of the centrepiece will be an iconic painting of Elizabeth I, which has just been bought for Britain following a nationwide fundraising campaign.
The “Armada portrait” of Elizabeth I, showing the triumphant queen after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, was owned by Sir Francis Drake and passed down through his family. When they decided to sell, a £10 million fundraising campaign was launched by the National Maritime Museum.
Here, Nicola Rayner explores the other highlights to look out for in the Queen’s House when it re-opens after a major refurbishment.
Set like a jewel between the two buildings of the Old Royal Naval College as you look up from the Thames, the Queen’s House is an exquisite white cube of a building, perfectly framed by Greenwich Park. The background of the former royal hunting ground is appropriate. The house was commissioned 400 years ago for Anne of Denmark as an apology from her husband, James I, who swore at her while hunting. (His cursing was not entirely unprovoked – she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs.)
The first fully classical building in England, designed by Inigo Jones on his return from Italy where he had been inspired by the architecture of Andrea Palladio, the Queen’s House possesses perfect proportions and symmetry, and was notable for its break with the traditional, red-brick Tudor style of building.
Anne, who died in 1619, never lived to see her “apology” completed. Her son, King Charles I, inherited the house and another queen consort, his wife, the French princess Henrietta Maria, made her mark on the building, working closely with her husband and Jones to complete the project around 1638.
“The grotesque ceiling in the Queen’s Presence Chamber is all about Henrietta Maria and Charles I,” explains Christine Riding, head of arts and curator of the Queen’s House, on a tour during the building’s refurbishment for its 400th anniversary. “Gentileschi and Guido Reni are the favourite artists of Henrietta Maria, not Charles I. Everyone assumes it was Charles I, as he was the great art patron of the 17th century, but she was heavily involved. It really is the Queen’s House.”
Henrietta Maria’s white and gold colours, fleur-de-lis symbol and initials can be found in the house’s original features. The start of the English Civil War in 1642, however, meant she had little time to enjoy it – Henrietta Maria escaped to France, where she heard the news that her husband had been executed in 1649.
When his son, Charles II, returned from Holland as king in 1660, one of the first things he did was redevelop Greenwich. (The Palace of Placentia by the river, where the Old Royal Naval College now stands, had fallen into disrepair during the English Civil War.)
“And then, as they’re redeveloping the site, Charles II has a change of heart and decides – perhaps wisely given his history – to redevelop Windsor Castle, which is a fortress,” says Riding. “In other words, he can defend the royal family from there, but he cannot defend them from Greenwich, and I think that he moves there very deliberately.
“The Queen’s House still belongs to members of the royal family; it’s just they’re no longer living in it. The idea of royalty abandoning Greenwich is simply not true. The patronage of the royal family has continued up to the present day.”
When a new hospital for sailors was built on the site of the old Tudor palace in the 1690s, the royal family was still sufficiently involved for Queen Mary to request that the view from the Queen’s House to the River Thames remained clear. “Christopher Wren and others had to respond by splitting the Royal Hospital into two: these wonderful arms that come forwards as a baroque palace with the Queen’s House almost filling the gap to create that Versailles-like layout,” Riding explains.
After hosting various aristocrats, members of the royal family and Dutch maritime artists the Van de Veldes, who had a studio at the Queen’s House for 20 years, the building was finally granted to a charity for the orphans of seamen called the Royal Naval Asylum by King George III. This function remained until 1933, when the school moved to Suffolk. The Queen’s House was taken over by the National Maritime Museum in 1934, becoming an art gallery featuring masters such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner and Hogarth.
This latest refurbishment gives Royal Museums Greenwich the opportunity to refresh galleries, including the King’s Presence Chamber and the Tulip Stairs, which will both feature a bright blue smalt finish made from crushed glass and often found in 17th-century palaces, as well as introducing bespoke lighting and a fresh 21st-century interpretation of the 17th-century site.
The queens of the house will be remembered in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, with a full-length equestrian painting of Anne of Denmark given pride of place featuring, aptly, an archway designed by Inigo Jones in the background as a reminder of her patronage of him, as well as her love of hunting. “We are bringing in loans from the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Collection to make the point that this is the queen’s side of the house,” says Riding. “Above the fireplace will hang a double portrait by Mytens and Van Dyck of Henrietta Maria and Charles I. The iconography on the ceiling is all about their relationship, so to have something about their marriage is very, very appropriate.”
Something borrowed, something blue
Like any house with the builders in, there are paint samples on the wall for the new colour schemes when we visit, though these have been developed by Patrick Baty, a historical paint expert, with bright red planned for the Queen’s Presence Chamber, bright blue for the King’s.
“In the 17th century red was a very royal colour and it works beautifully with the ceiling,” Riding explains.
The original grotesque ceiling in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, which dates back to the 1630s, was restored in 2013 and gilders are hard at work on the ceiling in the King’s Presence Chamber.
“But the real centrepiece, because this is where the male courtiers would have assembled in the presence of the king, will be Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, which was actually painted for the Queen’s House,” says Riding. Orazio Gentileschi’s painting, which will be displayed in the house for the first time since 1650, shows Joseph resisting the allure of Potiphar’s wife – “the ideal of the ultimate courtier,” explains Riding.
Downstairs in the cube-shaped Great Hall another artist – Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright – will step into Gentileschi’s shoes for the first time since 1639, hand-gilding the ceiling in an intricate gold leaf pattern that will pay homage to the Tulip Stairs.
“This has been some time in the waiting,” says Riding. “In some ways we’ve been grappling with the absence of a Gentileschi since the first part of the 18th century.” The artist’s series of nine paintings were removed from the ceiling by Queen Anne and given to Sarah Churchill. “The wonderful black and white marble floor from the 1630s is original to the house and, in terms of its geometry, apes what’s going on in the ceiling above,” adds Riding.
Wright’s ceiling will be unveiled to the public later this year when the Queen’s House reopens, along with the rest of the refurbishments and more than 450 artworks, including paintings, mirrors and sculptures.
But Riding warns that renovations will continue in 2017: “If you think it’s going to be done and dusted in 2016, you’ve got another thing coming. The Queen’s House deserves to be re-invented and re-discussed. We are just temporary custodians of this tremendously important building.”