Episode 337 – Art At The Queen’s House…

… not our latest Queen, but Stuart queens all the way back to Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James I, way back at the beginning of the 17th century.

The architect Inigo Jones was commissioned to design the building in 1616, but sadly Anne didn’t live to see his progressive Classical design realised, dying in 1619 with only the first floor completed. It was not until 1629, when James’s son Charles I gave Greenwich to his wife Henrietta Maria, that work on it resumed.

The Queen’s House was completed around 1636 and was the first fully Classical building in England.

The exterior refurbishing being done is the first in around 70 years.

Image from the Royal Museums Greenwich website of the house without scaffolding.

We’re moving at a frantic pace these past few days, trying to catch up on at least some of what we missed during 10 days of Covid self-isolation. The Queen’s House was on my list of places to tour in Greenwich, but it has been closed much of our time here while exhibits were being changed. It opened last weekend for 2 days, but we were “at home”, leaving this weekend as our only chance to visit before leaving England on Friday.

While by no means the most impressive edifice in town, you have to put into perspective that much of modern-day Greenwich was designed around this building. It is hard to imagine today how ground-breaking Jones’ white-cube design was in a town that once was otherwise made up of red brick Tudor architecture. Nowadays Greenwich is dominated by the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum: buildings that were designed around, and influenced by the Queen’s House.

Henrietta Marie and subsequent queens who lived here were great patrons of the arts, so it’s only fitting that the house is now an art gallery.

I was struck by a sign in the Great Hall that said “All art was once contemporary”. Hmm. It’s easy to forget when ogling great works of art from prior centuries that they were simply the art and style of the time; while the detailed portraits and stirring naval scenes may have been painted to commemorate people and events, their purpose was not to awe art-lovers 300 years hence. In fact, some of them were just considered the equivalent of today’s family photos!

The floor of the Grand Hall is made of Italian white marble and Belgian black marble.

The first rooms of the Queen’s suite are now devoted to naval portraits and scenes. Top: ships’ models from the 1800’s in a glass case are surrounded by paintings. Centre left: Prince Phillip, in a 2005 painting. One of his many titles was Baron Greenwich. Bottom left: the unusual patterning on the ship in this painting is called “dazzle” and was developed by Norman Wilkinson during WWI as a way to distort the way ships looked on the water. Bottom right: portraits painted on bedsheets by John Worsley, an official war artist, of his fellow Prisoners of War, captured in Italy. Why bedsheets? Because they were the only material available. Each of these paintings’ subjects was eventually awarded the Victoria Cross. Before 1916, non-commissioned soldiers were rarely if ever painted.

In the Queen’s Presence Chamber was an exhibit of portraits of some of the noblemen, statesmen and adventurers in Queen Elizabeth I’s circle. Queen Elizabeth never lived here, although the house is built on the site of the palace in which she was born; this room was Henrietta Marie’s bedchamber. The opulent painted ceiling dates from Henrietta Marie’s time.

Holding pride of place in the room is one of 3 versions of the “Armada Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I (this one originally from Woburn House). We watched a truly fascinating 10-minute documentary about the most recent restoration of this painting, which removed layers of dirt and old varnish to restore its beautiful colours. Up close, we could still see how the wooden board on which it is painted has warped over the years. It was, after all, painted in 1588!

The “armada” panels behind the queen were actually later additions to the painting, in the early 1600s.

Some of Elizabeth’s men. Top left: Sir Francis Drake. Bottom left: Richard Drake, Master of the Horse (the only male allowed to touch the Queen, when helping her mount or dismount her horse). Top right: Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex. Centre right: Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley. Bottom right: Philip II of Spain.

The Queen’s Privy Chamber featured portraits of Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

Henry VII (1505), Edward VI (16th century), Elizabeth I (1590), Henry VIII (16th century)

Princess Elizabeth Stuart, by Robert Peake (1603)

There were many, many images of Horatio Nelson among the portraits and busts, as well as some that revealed what were, to me, some surprising personal information about him.

Top: Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott 1796. Bottom left: grouping of Emma Hamilton, Horatio Nelson (and a bust of a young Nelson). Nelson and Emma Hamilton are two of history’s most famous lovers. They lived in Naples in a ménage à trois with her husband, Sir William Hamilton. Horatia, their only surviving child, later lived as Emma’s “adopted” daughter and Nelson’s godchild. Bottom right: marble bust of Vice-Admiral Nelson by Franz Thaller and Matthias Ranson, 1801.

It seems appropriate that the surname of the 3 brothers pictured in this 1792 painting, sons of a Director of the Honourable East India Company, is “Money”.

Early 18th century Delft tile panel displayed in the Queen’s closet.

1694 still life by Edwaert Collier, from the King’s outer closet. The detail of the painted “print” in the book was truly incredible up close.

Terra cotta bust of Oliver Cromwell, 1731, by John Michael Rysbrack.

Naval officers of the 18th century depicted in this display in the King’s bedchamber. Interestingly, even though a King’s suite of rooms were created when Charles II altered the Queen’s House, no king ever used them.

The opulent blue and gold King’s Presence Chamber hosts depictions of the Stuart kings and their courtiers. The central figure over the fireplace is James II, depicted as Duke of York, painted in 1672-1673 by the French artist Henri Gascar.

The King’s Privy Chamber was devoted to pictures of royal children. These were often copied and distributed across the country to verify the succession of a dynasty. Top left: the 9-year-old Prince Charles (the future Charles II), 1638. Top right: Mart, Princess Royal (the future Princess of Orange)! 1638. Bottom left: the 8-year-old Charles II as Prince of Wales, in child-sized armour, 1637/8. Bottom right: Prince William of Orange (the future William III), 1667.

In order to exit the house, we needed to descend the ornate wrought iron Tulip Staircase, original to the house. This was the first geometric, centrally unsupported staircase built in Britain, based on the Venetian staircases designed by Palladio, but enhanced by an interlock system along the bottom of the risers created by the mason Nicholas Stone. Top left: looking down. Top right: banister detail. Bottom photos: looking up.

It was another interesting tour, and one of the free admission portions of the Royal Museums Greenwich group.


  1. You’re so good at packing so much fascinating things in a day! Especially love how the Great Hall quote sets us up for time traveling when looking at art, “All art was once contemporary”. Great reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The art is amazing. Such history. Love your comparison to today’s family photos! Not sure I love the exterior architecture. The scaffolding makes it looks like a prison.

    Enjoy the remainder of your stay!


    Sent from my iPhone



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