This extraordinary 17th-century royal house is considered one of the most important architectural buildings in Britain.
But Glen Smith, senior conservator at the Queen’s House, says: “If you’d visited the king’s presence chamber 18 months ago, you’d have found a totally lifeless interior of pale blue walls and the gilding done in gold paint.”
Now that room blazes a deep, sultry “smalt” blue, smothered in pure-gold carving on the ceiling, round the cornices, and on four full-height pilasters.
The house came about by accident. In 1614, while Queen Anne was out hunting, she inadvertently killed the favourite dog of her husband, James I.
Not surprisingly the king swore at her. To apologise for swearing, he told Anne to build herself a place for entertaining, and in 1616, she commissioned Inigo Jones, famous for designing elaborate court masques, to design a villa between Greenwich Palace and the park.
Just back from a grand tour, Jones ditched the red-brick, multiple chimney style of the nearby palace and went for a new, plain, “classical” Palladian style, England’s first such building. The queen died in 1619 when only the first floor was built. It was thatched over — the 17th-century equivalent of tarpaulin.
Work began again in 1629 under Henrietta Maria and Charles I and was completed in 1638. “Rammed full of art,” according to its curator, Christine Riding, it was used for glamorous parties and fun. From the start it was known as “a house of delight”.
At the building’s heart is the great hall, a perfect cube, 40ft x 40ft x 40ft, with an elaborate geometric black-and-white marble floor based on concentric rings. A gallery runs round it supported on hefty timbers decorated with trompe-l’oeil carving. The magnificent oak-beamed ceiling that held nine paintings by Orazio Gentileschi now holds a gold-leaf extravaganza by Turner Prize winner Richard Wright.
The king’s and queen’s presence chambers were blue and red respectively, the queen’s with a coffered ceiling painted in the “grotesque” theatrical style that was all the rage.
As a grand finale, Jones added an astonishingly delicate spiral stone stair down which snakes a wrought-iron decorative handrail. It was the first stair in Britain without any central support. The tulip motif was added later in the 17th century during “tulip mania” when the bulbs were traded for vast sums, giving the name “the tulip stair”.
Paint specialist Patrick Baty has selected colours to revive the house’s splendour. He chose emulsion from Little Greene, which has a very high pigment content. In the great hall and on the staircase walls he used Portland Stone to replace the old, glaring white. It’s a pleasing colour that changes with the light.
The blue in the king’s chamber is called Smalt. True smalt dates from 200BC, when it was made from ground-up cobalt dust brushed with a feather on to a sticky ground. Now it’s paint, mixed in a factory. It is also on the handrail of the tulip stair, while the queen’s chamber walls are in an oxblood colour called Bronze Red.
All 196 separate carved gold parts of the king’s chamber roof were taken down, then cleaned and oil-gilded in pure gold by gilders from the company of Carvers & Gilders, which has also worked at Hampton Court. Once done the glistening pieces were carefully fixed up again. The effect is dazzling.
In both the king’s and queen’s chambers, which hold some of the 300 paintings on show throughout the house, there are tub chairs by Made.com covered in figured velvets from Designers Guild. This beautiful fabric is in a knot pattern designed in association with Royal Palaces: blue in the king’s room, red in the queen’s.
Many floors have been freshly laid with wide, peg-jointed oak boards by award-winning floor specialist Michael Gunton, who has worked at Windsor Castle. He also designed a black-and-white marble roundel at the bottom of the tulip stair, based on the floor of the great hall.
Everything is finished off with softly glowing globe lamps by Michael Anastassiades which the curator says may remind you of the pearls worn by Queens Elizabeth I and Henrietta Maria — but they may also remind you of a Pelican crossing.
Get the Queen's House look
- Paint colours chosen by historical paint consultant Patrick Baty at patrickbaty.co.uk
- Smalt, Bronze Red and Portland Stone emulsion from Little Greene at littlegreene.com
- Floors laid by David Gunton, who does all sorts of wood floors, at wideboards.com
- Carving and gilding by Royal Warrant holder Carvers & Gilders, who also do modern designs, at carversandgilders.com
- Gold art installation titled “no title” by Turner-prize winner Richard Wright
- Lighting by michaelanastassiades.com
- Fabrics from The Royal Collection by Designers Guild, £120-£130 a metre, at designersguild.com
- Uphostery done by London Upholsters at londonupholsterers.com
- Tub chairs by made.com
The Queen’s House, Romney Road, Greenwich SE10, is free to visit seven days a week.