A false impression of majesty: Richard Tomlinson on Buckingham Palace which opens its doors to the public next Saturday

'IT IS quite possible, without undue shame, to arrive at Buckingham Palace in a taxi,' Harold Nicolson wrote in 1937, after attending a dinner party given by the new King and Queen. These days you can still turn up by taxi, but the police will stop you at the gates, preventing your driver 'in an orgy of democracy' from stubbing his cigarette out on the red carpet on the steps.

If you are a tourist, for the next two months you will be directed to the Ambassadors' Entrance, there to join thousands who have paid pounds 8 to gaze at the splendours within. If, on the other hand, you have an appointment with a member of the Household, you will go to the Privy Purse Door at the north-west corner of the Palace. Through this door lies the 'busy working building' invoked last April by the Earl of Airlie, the Queen's Lord Chamberlain, as the reason why Buckingham Palace could not be opened for the rest of the year.

Superficially, the Ambassadors' Entrance and the Privy Purse Door represent the two faces of the British monarchy. At one end of Buckingham Palace are the triumphal staircases, the Axminster carpets and the Winterhalter portraits which provide the setting for royal ceremonial which is still, according to legend, the envy of the world.

At the other end are the Household members, no longer required to wear court uniform (blue, with red trimmings), who deal with the monarchy's more prosaic duties: the daily political and constitutional business of the Queen as head of state and the Royal Family's public engagements.

Like all stereotypes, these faces are deceptive. In the first place, the pageantry which unfolded at Buckingham Palace was never as perfect as legend suggests. The tourists who ascend John Nash's grand staircase, pass through the Green Drawing Room (silk brocaded walls, white and gold pilasters and ceiling), the Throne Room (friezes of the Wars of the Roses) and the Picture Gallery (155ft long, all paintings masterpieces) can be forgiven for believing that this is the stuff of majesty.

Yet Nash's patron, George IV (1820-30), never realised his dream of turning Buckingham Palace into the ceremonial centre of the monarchy. Fearing the London mob, he died a virtual recluse at Windsor, and Nash was sacked amid an outcry about costs. Victoria (1837-1901) all but abandoned the palace after Albert's death in 1861, provoking an anonymous joker to post a 'To let' notice on the gates.

On the rare occasions when she did hold court in London, things were liable to descend into farce. Lord Airlie's grandmother, Mabell, Countess of Airlie, remembered with horror court presentations at Buckingham Palace in the 1880s. 'No food was provided and debutantes, weighed down by their long satin trains and enormous plumes, wilted as the hours passed, but so great was the crush that they could hardly move forwards or backwards. The guests often numbered 3,000 and the majority spent their time trying to fight a way through the crowded rooms.' The Queen often left early and the young ladies many with torn dresses would retire weeping from the fray.

Victoria's Golden Jubilee of 1887 is often portrayed as a turning point, opening an age of flawless royal ceremonial. Courtiers of the period might have disagreed. The reception for the House of Commons to mark Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, held in the Palace ballroom, was likened by a Household member to 'a cowd being let on to the ground after a football match. There seemed to be no order and the Speaker, Prime Minister, and Leader of the Opposition were lost in the struggling mass of MPs . . . It was a thoroughly bad show, and after about a quarterr of an hour the Queen had had enough and retired.'

Edward VII (1901-10) cared a great deal more about Buckingham Palace as the focus for a brilliant monarchy. 'I do not know much about Arrt', he would announce with a Germanic growl as a flunky hauled a Rubens around the Picture Gallery, 'but I think I know something about Arr-r-rangement.' Edward fully intended to make the Palace his home, 'social duties' permitting. Alas, social duties did not: after Sandringham at Christmas, Biarritz in the spring, Cowes and Balmoral in the summer and Marienbad in the autumn, he was found there only on ceremonial occasions.

And then he discovered what Victoria knew from experience: that court ceremony rarely went according to plan. Thus when the surgeon Lord Lister came to Buckingham Palace to receive the Order of Merit, his head was found to be too large for the ribbon. The medal came to rest on Lister's nose, while the king tried in vain to yank it down. Lister gallantly offered to take the medal away in his hand.

In the reign of George V (1910-36) there was the occasion at a court ball when a peeress realised the elastic on her knickers had snapped. Surrounded by several other titled ladies, to whom she had signalled her distress, the peeress shuffled to a settee and stuffed the knickers between the cushions.

To protect majesty against the chaos of human nature, the court had only two weapons. One was the fanatical interest in correct dress shared by all Victoria's descendants. 'I presume you have come in the suite of the American ambassador,' Edward VII remarked witheringly to Lord Rosebery, when the statesman turned up wearing long trousers rather than knee breeches.

The second was the rules of conduct issued by the Lord Chamberlain's office. In 1937 particular attention was paid to the curtsy. It was to be made 'gracefully and with an absence of stiffness; the left foot is drawn backwards, the knees are bent and the body gradually lowered until the left knee is within a few inches of the floor'. Shortly after the war these instructions had to be modified when an Australian girl dislocated her knee in mid-curtsy.

Small wonder that Lady Airlie, at the end of a lifetime's royal service, had no regrets about the scaling down of court ceremonial. In 1956 she wrote: 'It's futile to cling to the past . . . At the Royal garden parties today there are people whose parents would never have dreamt of putting even a foot inside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Now merit and not ancestry is the Open Sesame, and that one has to admit it is all to the good. The new setting for Monarchy is far less brilliant than that of my youth, but in many ways it is more interesting.'

Today Lady Airlie's grandson, as titular head of the Household, is responsible for pageantry at Buckingham Palace. 'Shall we wonder shall we be angry shall we laugh at these old-world ceremonies?' asked Thackeray, reflecting upon the spectacle of an earlier Lord Chamberlain walking backwards, clutching his wand of office, followed by Victoria and Albert. Nowadays Lord Airlie walks backwards when the occasion demands, but that is only about three times a year: at the state opening of Parliament and at two state banquets. Other ceremonial events at Buckingham Palace include the Queen's Birthday Parade in June and the annual diplomatic reception in November; as well as perhaps 20 investitures, spread through the year. But Household members insist that pageantry forms a very small part of their working lives.

So what does go on behind the Privy Purse Door? Once, the courtier was trained to memorise orders of precedence for court balls (Masters in Lunacy, he learned, came after Judges of County Courts and before Companions of the Bath). Today the same skills are used to plan the Queen's tour itineraries in microscopic detail. At 10:28am on 19 May, one learns from a briefing document, the Queen could be found 'observing preparation of ultra-high purity gases for the semi-conductor industry' at BOC's plant near Grimsby, while the general manager gave 'a functional explanation en route'.

In the car park on the palace forecourt are Fiestas, Montegos and Golfs evidence of the relatively modest salaries of most Household members. Inside there are telephones, fax machines and word processors; as Lord Airlie is pleased to point out, the Household is fully computerised.

There the similarities with an ordinary office end, for this is still recognisably a palace. If the decor hardly compares with Nash's state rooms, the carpet is red, plush and free of republican cigarette stains, while the walls are decked with lesser paintings from the Royal Collection. The working atmosphere is relaxed, as Household members are all on first-name terms and, by convention, the doors to their offices are kept open.

'The formula which beats everything,' says a retired Household member, 'is informality in a formal setting. You cross the threshold of Buckingham Palace and there are all these Winterhalter paintings, chandeliers and miles of red carpet. And then she comes into the room, holding her handbag, and you find she can chat away just like any other person except she isn't'

The formula is enhanced by the fact that the Queen still lives at Buckingham Palace: to be precise, in an apartment on the first floor, overlooking the gardens towards Constitution Hill. (Prince Edward is the only other member of the Royal Family who lives at Buckingham Palace, in an apartment on the second floor. Prince Charles lives in St James's Palace.)

Whether the Queen is happy there is less clear. Though she has her small army of corgis in a special room across the corridor and Prince Philip's apartment is next door, Buckingham Palace remains her least favourite residence.

At Windsor, her real home, Sandringham (January) and Balmoral (August-September) she does try to draw a line between her public and private life. Only at Buckingham Palace is the distinction impossible to maintain. There are grounds for suggesting that the confusion which results, in the public mind as well as her own, has something to do with the monarchy's present plight.

Yet there is no practical reason why the Queen should live as well as work at Buckingham Palace. As early as 1967, Richard Crossman, then a Labour Cabinet minister, wrote in his diary: 'It struck me that it would be nice if one could arrange for the Queen to commute from Sandringham in future and to use Buckingham Palace merely as an office.'

The problem lies in the role she is expected to play when she is there: part head of state, part national hostess. If she obeyed her inclination and moved out altogether, there would be three immediate benefits. First, the symbolism of the remaining ceremonial would cease to be ambiguous. Gone would be the pretence, as Lord Airlie reversed into the banqueting room, that she was inviting the guests into her home. The banquets, the receptions and the investitures would become authentic 'state' events.

Second, at Windsor, or wherever she chose to make their home, the family really could be treated as private individuals. And third, Lord Airlie would be able to open a great deal more of Buckingham Palace to the public, permanently.

The Palace is open daily from 7 August to 1 October

Richard Tomlinson is writing a book about the monarchy, to be published next year by Little Brown

(Photograph omitted)

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little