The House: modern and historic spectacle at the Queen's House, Greenwich

Queen's House Closure 2

Visitor Notice: From Thursday 29 until Saturday 31 August certain areas of the Queen's House will be closed for a private event. Most of the house, including the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, will be open as usual.

Queen's House Closure

Visitor Notice: On Saturday 24 August, certain areas of the Queen's House will be closed to the public for a private event. The rest of the house, including the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, will be open as usual.

As Greenwich and Docklands Festival begins in style at the 400-year-old Queen's House, Pieter van der Merwe reveals the hidden history of entertainment and spectacle in Greenwich.

The practice of starting the Greenwich and Docklands Festival (GDIF) with an evening spectacular in front of, and incorporating, the Queen’s House is settling into a local tradition – which is entirely appropriate given its centrality, physical and conceptual, to the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site.

This year is even more appropriate than most, since it marks the 400th anniversary of the House’s design by Inigo Jones as what was then an avant-garde Italianate private villa for Anne of Denmark (wife of James I) between the gardens of the long-vanished Tudor Palace of Greenwich and the Royal Park – which is still much the same in outline though changed in layout. ‘The House’ thus seems a good title for this year’s event on 24 June which – as Bradley Hemmings, Director of GDIF explains is

‘mythic in conception, taking some of its inspiration from Inigo Jones and Geoffrey of Monmouth. We’ve also reflected on the way in which the House originally grew out of the earlier medieval palace, a sort of paradigm of the way in which civilizations come and go, but the House is always there as a shining classical exemplar for all people and all time....We’ve also been very mindful of Inigo Jones’ major role in theatre design and the masque, so have imagined the production as a 21st-century masque with spectacular staging incorporating video mapping , aerial structures and pyrotechnics.’

If previous experience is a guide I’m sure it will be a terrific show but there are some ironies on which to reflect. The first is that the House itself is currently closed and under significant internal refurbishment to mark its quatercentenary and will only reopen in the autumn: this itself will be an eye-opener combining historic renovation and a much denser rehang of both ‘old master’ artworks and a stronger contemporary element, including an already completed abstract gold-leaf decoration of the ceiling of the Great Hall by Turner Prize-winner Richard Wright.

The second is that, even when it does reopen, the nature of the building will still not announce the treasure-house that it is: its beauty externally is austerely classical, giving little away, and also slightly misleadingly ‘Georgian’ given that all the external windows were changed in the early 1700s and (on the ground floor) deepened, from being leaded traditional casements to the present white-sash form.

The GDIF launch events are also often said to be taking place ‘in front of the House’, but as originally designed the view towards Romney Road and the Old Royal Naval College was in fact the back: it is the grander, south-facing side with the loggia as a ‘frontispiece in the midst’, to use Inigo Jones’s phrase, which was in fact the original front. It was the establishment of Romney Road and the Naval College (as Greenwich Hospital) in the 1690s that, in effect, turned it round – not least since the perceptual revolution of the 1860s when the fine see-through Victorian railings were installed round both sites: until them both College and Queen’s House grounds had been enclosed by high walls since around 1700, with only a short run of railings to allow a view south from the House to the Park.

This sense of the House as a very private, closed building was no accident. The Park itself was originally a privileged, enclosed space with only Court access when the House was built and only gradually became more public in the 18th century. This was even truer of the Palace gardens behind (now the National Maritime Museum grounds) and the only public access between them was down the high-walled Woolwich road that ran under the House until the 1690s, where the NMM colonnades now stand.

A House of Delight?

In the 1659 the Kent antiquary, Thomas Philipott, called it a ‘House of Delight’ that Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) had ‘so finished and furbished, that it far surpasseth all other of that kind in England’. However, he can only have been repeating popular myth – not something he had seen: for while the early artworks in the House were listed when sold by the Parliamentary regime after the execution of Charles I in 1649, there are no accounts of what the general interior looked like, apart from a note of how drunken vandalism damaged the long-vanished original marble fireplaces during the Commonwealth period. All from the Stuart era left today are some spectacular ceilings – the timber transomed examples in the Hall and King’s Presence chamber (which has been new-gilded over brilliant blue in current work), the recently restored painted covings of the Queen’s Bedchamber, and two fine plasterwork ones in the 1660s Bridge Rooms.

Since the House’s major 1980s refurbishment by the National Maritime Museum, its greater use for school-level education work has seen ‘learning’ staff occasionally indulge in wish-fulfilment to make it more interesting for children by saying it was a place where Henrietta Maria enjoyed masques, or music and dancing: the last may be true, but only in the most private way by an elite small group around the queen in the very brief periods she was there between about 1638 and 1643. ‘Marketeers’ have also tended to embroider inconvenient blanks more elaborately to sell the Great Hall’s attraction for corporate hospitality, as a place where the queen held wild royal parties – of which there is no evidence or likelihood whatever.

In fact the real entertainment places at Greenwich in the 16th and early 17th centuries were not the various queens’ entirely private quarters, including the House as the sole surviving element from them, but the Great Hall of the old Palace – whose foundations lie under the Grand Square of the College – and the long Banqueting and Disguising Houses (the latter for masques etc) which Henry VIII built in 1523-4. These flanked his tiltyard (tournament field) which comprised the entire eastern side of the National Maritime Museum grounds north of the east colonnade, on a north-south line parallel with the central roadway to the House and just east of it. Many of those watching ‘The House’ at the GDIF this week will be standing or sitting no more than about a eighteen inches above their substantial remaining foundations beneath the Museum lawns. Both were built for the reception of a French embassy of 1524, and the Disguising House – decorated originally by Hans Holbein - may last have been used for a children’s masque before Anne of Denmark in 1614, while Inigo Jones was in Italy gaining the knowledge of Roman and Palladian architecture that enabled him to design the Queen’s House for her in 1616, on his return.

And then there is what happened in the tiltyard itself, especially under Henry VIII, which was where the really large-scale extravaganzas took place, as during the visit to Greenwich of the Emperor Charles V in 1522:

‘The Wednesday, the more to do the Emperor pleasure, was prepared a joust royal: on the one part was the King, the Earl of Devonshire and ten more companions, all mounted on horseback; their apparel and tabards were of rich cloth of gold, embroidered with silver letters, very rich, with great plumes on their heads. This company took the field, and rode about the tilt [barrier]: then entered the Duke of Suffolk, and the Marquis of Dorset, and ten with them … and their apparel was russet velvet, embroidered with sundry knots and ribbons of gold. The Emperor and the Queen [Catherine of Aragon], with all the nobles stood in the [tiltyard] gallery, to behold the doings. The King ran at the Duke of Suffolk eight courses [with the lance], and at every one broke his spear, Then every man ran his courses and that done, all ran together [as] fast as they could discharge, and when the spears appointed were broken, then they disarmed and went to supper.’ (ed. from Hall’s Chronicle)

In short, while the Queen’s House has always kept its secrets from the outside while concealing treasure within, it is the former Palace ground to the north-east which has the history of spectacle, with the House now as its backdrop as far as the ongoing series of launch events for the GDIF is concerned. So think of that ancient tradition, now revived in modern form, when you come and see ‘The House’ this week, and when you return in the autumn once its doors have reopened on enhanced riches hidden inside.

Pieter van der Merwe is General Editor and Greenwich Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich.