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

Richard Tomlinson
Saturday 31 July 1993 23:02

'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)

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