The Queen’s House in Greenwich reopened on 11 October after a 14-month closure for conservation works to mark its 400th anniversary. The doors open on an array of artistic delights, some of which local art historian Rosalind Whyte introduces us to…
1 The architecture
Not least of the delights of the Queen’s House is the building itself, the first neo-classical or Palladian style building in the country. It was designed in 1616 by Inigo Jones for Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I, and was described by one contemporary critic as ‘some curious device’. No doubt that 17th Century critic was echoing the thoughts of many who found its white simplicity a stark and unwelcome contrast to the red brick, intricate designs of typical Tudor architecture.
2 Portrait of Inigo Jones
Appropriately, a portrait of Jones is on display within, one by William Hogarth, who is more generally associated with his rumbustious ‘modern moral progresses’, but here shows his ambitions in portraiture and his admiration of the work of Sir Antony Van Dyck. Hogarth’s Inigo Jones is an important and busy man, paper in hand, looking off to the left, perhaps awaiting the arrival of his next royal commission. It has the robustness of Hogarth’s portraiture, but is softened somewhat by the elegance of Van Dyck’s style, based as it was on the latter’s red-chalk drawing of Jones at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.
3 The Tulip staircase
The spectacular Tulip Staircase that Inigo Jones designed is renowned as being the country’s first spiral staircase built without a central support, but also for the beautiful wrought iron balustrade he designed, with leaves, scrolls and flowers winding their way up the spiral. The flowers are probably not actually tulips, as the name implies, but fleur de lys, included to reflect Henrietta Maria’s French connections, as the daughter of King Henry IV of France.
4 The Great Hall’s marble floor
The staircase was built by the appropriately named Nicholas Stone, master-mason to the King, who also worked on the magnificent black and white marble floor in the Great Hall, a 40-foot cube and the central masterpiece of Inigo Jones’ design. The two coloured marbles have worn at different rates over the years, a difference that is now quite visible and led to a wonderful, but apocryphal story that the boys who were tasked with cleaning the floor during the period that the House formed part of a naval school, only scrubbed away at the white marble, leaving the black marble because the dirt wouldn’t show!
5 Richard Wright’s ‘no title’
Standing on the black and white marble floor of the Great Hall we can look up at a ceiling that is now the site of an ambitious piece of contemporary art by Turner-Prize winning artist, Richard Wright. Called ‘no title’ it is his largest work to date, a site-specific, ornamental design in gold leaf that echoes the carved and gilded ceilings of Jones’ design, as well as the floral motif of the ‘Tulip’ staircase. Wright completed the hand-crafted design with a team of assistants over nine weeks earlier this year. It flows down from the ceiling onto the walls of the Great Hall, bringing a touch of fluidity to the classical interior.
6 The famous Armada portrait of Elizabeth I
The walls of the newly refurbished Queen’s House are resplendent in a wealth of paintings from the Royal Museums Greenwich collection. An exciting new addition is the famous Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, inspiration for many subsequent portraits of the Queen and a staple of school textbooks. Once owned by Sir Francis Drake, it was recently offered for sale by his descendants, leading the Art Fund and the Royal Museums Greenwich to launch an appeal to acquire it for the Queen’s House. Following a successful fundraising campaign, which included donations from thousands of individuals, as well as major grants and contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and others, the portrait now hangs in Greenwich, close to the site of Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth was born.
7 Canaletto’s Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames
When Greenwich Palace was demolished, the Queen’s House gained a view of the River Thames for the first time, a vista that Queen Mary II was anxious to protect when Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital for Seamen (now the Old Royal Naval College) was proposed on the site of the old Palace. She intervened and Wren was forced to revise his original design, creating a sight line to the river by separating the buildings – by exactly the 115 ft width of the Queen’s House! This queenly intervention means that we see the Queen’s House nestling at the base of the hill of Greenwich Park, between Wren’s two domed buildings in Canaletto’s Greenwich Hospital from the North Bank of the Thames, another artistic gem included in the opening display.
8 LS Lowry’s View of Deptford Power Station from Greenwich
Canaletto’s portrayal of the majestic buildings of Wren’s design also shows in the foreground the Thames full of river traffic; a busy river that is echoed in an unusual work by LS Lowry that is also on display. Usually associated with the industrial North, in 1959 Lowry turned his attention to the industrial hub of South East London, with a View of Deptford Power Station from Greenwich. Unusual in being one of the very few pictures he painted of London it is, however, typical of his tendency to eschew green parks and historically important buildings in favour of the smoking chimneys of industrial Britain. It is typical too of his bleached palette, a sparing use of colour that provides a disquieting vision, revealing the results of human industrial endeavour, but with little actual human presence; humanity pushed to the margins by industrial power and the power of industry.
These delights can be seen among 300 paintings from the unrivalled maritime collection, also including works by Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, William Hodges, Hans Holbein and many more.
All images © National Maritime Museum, London
The Queen’s House is free of charge and open from 10am-5pm seven days a week. See rmg.co.uk/queens-house
About Rosalind Whyte
Art Historian Rosalind Whyte, who is a NADFAS-accredited lecturer and guide/lecturer at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the Royal Academy and Dulwich Picture Gallery, is currently running a series of lectures in Blackheath on Friday mornings. The series looks at some of London’s current exhibitions, including the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy and the permanent collection and Adriaen van de Velde exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. In the year that marks 400 years since his death, there will also be a look at Shakespeare in Art, at how artists have depicted his plays and characters over the intervening centuries. The series will conclude with a Christmas special featuring illustrations from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. For more information and a timetable of lectures see artyfactsltd.com