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As Buckingham Palace is due to open its doors to the public on 26 July for its yearly Summer Opening, the Museum of London‘s Senior Curator of Fashion Beatrice Behlen explores the history of the world-famous royal residence.
It is unlikely that John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721) expected his name still to be associated with the main residence of the English monarch almost 300 years after his death. The original Buckingham House was built for the Duke in 1703 and still forms the core of the building that first became a royal home when King George III acquired it for his wife, Queen Charlotte in 1761.
Over the years several architects were involved in enlarging the building, most notably John Nash – also responsible for Regent Street – who was hired in 1826 but fired in 1829 for being too extravagant in his designs. Nash’s successor Edward Blore finished the work in time for Queen Victoria to move in on her accession in 1837.
Even before the addition of the east wing, now providing the main façade of the palace, the enormity of the building was noted. One German critic, a certain Dr. Gustav Waagen, thought that the palace looked ‘as if some wicked magician had suddenly transformed some capricious stage-scenery into solid reality’.
In 1843, a contributor to Charles Knight’s book on London admired the ingenuity involved in ‘preventing a pile of such large dimensions from appearing large’. The palace was made even larger, 108 metres wide and 120 metres deep to be precise, once the wing facing The Mall was added in 1847. The creation of the forecourt including gates and railings in 1911, and the addition of white Portland stone to the façade in 1913 made the palace into what Londoners and visitors to the capital can now gaze at in wonderment.
If you are interested in facts and figures, have a look at this helpful list provided by the royal household, where some of the contents of the palace are mentioned, including a tennis court, doctor’s surgery, cinema and, most intriguingly, a swimming pool. This was added in 1938 when the north-west pavilion, originally designed as a conservatory and changed in 1911-13 into a rackets court, was converted. It is said that the Princesses Margaret and Diana were keen swimmers and today royal household staff are allowed to use the facility as long as they leave once a member of the royal family appears, unless invited to stay.
Each year, large numbers of guests gain access to the palace and its large grounds during garden parties, receptions, audiences and banquets. Since 2009 the palace is also open to the public during the summer, with changing temporary exhibitions arranged in some of the principal rooms. This year, unsurprisingly, the focus will be on royal childhood. Despite the fact that Prince Philip is said to have taught his children swimming there, the pool, for now at least, will not be part of the public route.