Inigo Jones, England's first great architect, designed the Queen's House. It was England's first truly classical building.
A brief history of the Queen’s House
Inigo Jones was Surveyor of the King's Works, and the Queen's House was one of his first designs for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.
After the queen’s death in 1619, the building remained unfinished and thatched over at ground-floor level until 1629. Jones completed it around 1635 for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, when he completed a single first-floor central bridge joining the two halves of the building. East and west bridges were add in 1662.
The new house was such a novelty that people called it 'The White House'.
Inigo Jones's influence
Jones ensured that the house cleverly bridged the main Woolwich to Deptford road. He used classical (Ionic) orders, and geometrically measured spaces to create a structure of harmonious proportions. For example the Great Hall is a 12 m (40 ft) cube, and the design of its marble floor matches the composition of squares and circles on its ceiling. In 1619, Jones went on to use a double cube device when designing the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, and again at Wilton House in 1649.
It was not until the 18th century that Jones’s ideas were taken up by Lord Burlington, Colen Campbell and William Kent, resulting in the Georgian style that is familiar in towns and cities all over the country. Inigo Jones’s genius created an English Palladianism which influenced and inspired later architects in the classical tradition.
An important residence for the early Stuart dynasty, the finished building included a balcony so the Queen and her ladies could watch riding and hunting taking place in the Park.
The first Classical building in England
In 1570, Andrea Palladio, one of Italy’s greatest and most imitated architects, explained his theories in his Four Books on Architecture.
Between 1598 and 1603, Inigo Jones visited Italy for the first time to study the art, architecture and philosophy of the ancients. Heavily influenced by Renaissance architecture and Palladio, he introduced the classical language of Italian building design to England, characterised by its harmony, detail and proportion. This was known as 'Palladian'.
The symmetrical shape of the Queen’s House was very different from the red-brick palaces of the time. It was perceived as a very modern addition to the landscape.
The Great Hall and Tulip Stairs
The centrepiece of the Queen’s House is the Great Hall. A perfect cube in shape, the Hall sits at the heart of the building and has a first-floor gallery overlooking a striking black-and-white marble floor. The ceiling of the Hall was originally decorated with paintings by Orazio and Gentileschi, later moved to Marlborough House, London.
The Queen’s House also contains the famed Tulip Stairs, a delicate spiral stairway that ascends up through the building, beneath a glass lantern. The first centrally unsupported spiral stair in Britain, each tread is cantilevered from the wall and supported by the stair below.
A residence for royal servants and orphans
From the 1670s the Queen’s House was used as a residence for royal servants and artists, including the van de Veldes (father and son), who came to London from Holland by royal invitation in 1672-73. It remained a grace-and-favour residence for most of the 18th century.
By 1806 the building was in poor condition and King George III released it as a home for the Royal Naval Asylum, a residential school for the orphaned children of British seamen. The Queen’s House underwent a large-scale conversion with the addition of new wings, and in the 1820s the Asylum was combined with the pre-existing Greenwich (now Royal) Hospital School. This institution left Greenwich in 1933.
The Queen’s House today
In recent years, the Queen’s House has exhibited some of Royal Museums Greenwich's finest artworks, including paintings by Lely, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hodges and the van de Veldes.
This breathtaking collection is available to visit for free, all situated in the gorgeous Queen's House. Visitors can see elements of the House's original splendour including the 'grotesque' style painted ceiling of the Queen’s chamber, the ironwork of the Tulip Stairs, the original painted woodwork of the Great Hall, and its finely laid 1630s marble floor.
And crowning the Queen's House's artistic splendours is a spectacular ceiling fresco in gold leaf by Turner Prize winner Richard Wright.
Using our collections for research
The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history, astronomy and time.
Main image: The Elevation of the Queens House to the Park at Greenwich (PAH3293, © NMM)