Architecture: Vandalism by royal appointment: Richard Tomlinson explains how Prince Charles's ancestors knocked down buildings and rebuilt in bad taste

Click to follow
Among the Prince of Wales's many published watercolours is a 1989 sketch of the kitchen garden buildings at Windsor, designed by Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert. 'My great-great-great-grandfather was clearly a man of remarkable energy, ability and vision,' Charles remarked of these buildings. 'It is extraordinary to think that he died at the age of 42 - the same age as I am now - having accomplished as much as he did.'

Albert's chief architectural monument is found at Balmoral, the Highland home whose construction he supervised in the early 1850s. Oddly, although Charles is deeply attached to Balmoral, the house is not mentioned in any of his essays on architecture. Nor is it likely to feature in Perspectives, the magazine launched next week in association with the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture. Perhaps this is because - for all his energy, ability and vision - as a royal builder Albert paid scant regard in his own day to the architectural principles Charles holds most dear.

'For a long time I have felt strongly about the wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress,' Charles wrote in A Vision of Britain, his 1989 polemic against modernist architecture. Albert had no such scruples. When he acquired the Balmoral estate in 1852, he ordered the demolition of the existing house, designed 20 years before by the Aberdeen architect John Smith (itself displacing a much older castle).

Albert's Balmoral was built 100 yards to the north of the original site. 'Strange, very strange, it seemed to me to drive past, indeed through, the old house,' Victoria wrote in her diary on 7 September 1862, the day she and Albert walked into the hall of their new home. Still incomplete ('the workers, have already struck several times, which is now quite the fashion all over the country,' Albert complained), the building was designed under Albert's surveillance by William Smith, son of John.

Albert's great-great-great-grandson has written that 'we can build new developments which echo the familiar, attractive features of our regional vernacular styles'. Superficially the new Balmoral, built in a style known as 'Scottish Baronial', conformed to this standard. But the architect Robert Kerr claimed in 1864 the term was a misnomer.

'The character of the style is primarily French of the Tudor period, and Scotch only by modification,' Kerr wrote. 'The effect, when of the best, is quaint but not graceful: noble by association with ideas of power, but power of an obsolete order. The flagstaff on the loftiest of the ungainly turrets certainly may suggest the idea of a truculent old baron's flaunting through the mist defiance at an angry neighbour, whose cattle he has 'lifted', and whose gillies he had hanged; but common sense reflects that the actual owner is but a quiet country member who comes down to this old-world abode only for the shooting, and, on changing certain of his habilments for the occasion, complains of taking cold in his knees.'

At least William Smith obeyed another of Charles's principles: he used only local materials, chiefly granite from the nearby Glen Gelder quarries, to achieve an overall effect which the architectural historian, Winslow Ames, described as containing 'certain violent contrasts and oddnesses of scale'.

To complete what the Royal Family imagined to be Balmoral's Scottish ambience, Albert designed his own 'Balmoral' tartan, still worn by his descendants, and Victoria acquired a phoney Highland accent. Inside Balmoral, the decor was obsessively Caledonian.

Lord Clarendon remarked in 1856 that 'the curtains, the furniture, the carpets . . . are all of different plaids, and the thistles are in such abundance that they would rejoice the heart of a donkey if they happened to look like his favourite repast, which they don't' Forty years later another guest, Lord Rosebery, 'thought the drawing-room at Osborne (Victoria's home on the Isle of Wight) the world's ugliest until I saw the one at Balmoral'.

By then, Victoria had coated the furniture with marmalade-coloured varnish. George V's consort, Queen Mary, tried to have the varnish removed, only to be reprimanded by her husband. It was a question of respecting the past, George told her.

Prince Charles has also painted Sandringham, the Norfolk house that Victoria bought in 1862 for her eldest son Bertie, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. 'Looking at Sandringham makes me wonder at what my forbears as Prince of Wales were able to achieve in days gone by,' Charles remarked of his picture.

What Bertie achieved at Sandringham, following Albert's example, was the destruction of the original Georgian building. His only concession to the past was to retain the conservatory, a recent addition by the previous owner, which was converted into a billiard room.

Over the wreckage of the old house arose a mock-Jacobean structure designed by A J Humbert and built by Goggs Brothers from nearby Swaffham. A ballroom was later designed by the local architect Colonel R W Edis, who added a suite of bedrooms following a fire at Sandringham in 1891. Thirty years after the royal purchase, Bertie's dream house was complete.

In 1956 James Pope-Hennessy visited Sandringham as part of the research for his official biography of Queen Mary. 'It is a preposterous, long, brick-and-stone building with a terrace behind it (no balustrading) . . . hotel-like . . . tremendously vulgar and emphatically, almost defiantly, hideous and gloomy . . . ,' he wrote. 'To sum up: this is a hideous house with a horrible atmosphere in parts, and in others no atmosphere at all.'

Two of Queen Alexandra's dogs are buried in the shrubs along the west front, a tradition honoured by the present Queen. Sandringham Brae, 'a Gentleman among Dogs' according to his plaque, lies next to Sandringham Sydney: 'Sydney was an honest worker, a faithful companion and will be missed by all.'

Pope-Hennessy's attention should have focused several hundred yards south of the main house. Here stands York Cottage, the principal country residence of George V and Mary from 1893 until 1925, when they moved up the hill.

'. . . It is almost incredible that the heir to so vast a heritage lived in this horrible little house,' George's official biographer, Harold Nicolson, wrote after his own research trip in 1948: '. . . the King's and Queen's baths had lids that shut down so that when not in use they could be used as tables. His study was a monstrous little cold room with a north window shrouded by shrubberies, and the walls are covered in red cloth which he had been given while on a visit to Paris. It is the cloth from which the trousers of the French private soldiers used to be made. On the walls he had some reproductions of Royal Academy pictures.' The furniture, Nicolson omitted to mention, was provided by Edward VII's friend, Sir Blundell Maple, from his London store.

George loved the cramped architecture of York Cottage, built in the 1860s as an overflow from Sandringham, because it excused him from the royal duty to entertain. When the arrival of six children threatened to burst the building at the seams, he commissioned architects to build contrasting mock- Gothic and neo-Tudor extensions.

Today, York Cottage serves as an estate office and is closed to the public. The 'Big House' and gardens are open for half the year, and visitors can admire A J Humbert's and Colonel Edis's creation - but only thanks to the Queen Mother's intervention. In the Sixties, Prince Philip wanted to 'modernise' Sandringham once again by knocking down part of the old building. The Queen Mother blocked the proposal: it was a question, she said, of respecting the past.

Richard Tomlinson's 'Divine Right: the inglorious survival of British royalty' is published on 9 June by Little, Brown.

(Photographs omitted)