Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Carlton House - The legacy of an incessant need for splendour

I have always been fascinated with Royalty and the magnificent residencies they occupy and was recently watching a documentary about the history of Buckingham Palace. In doing so I discovered a Royal residence long departed..Carlton House. 

An existing house was rebuilt at the beginning of the 18th century which would eventually become the residence of the Prince Regent. The Prince lavished the equivalent of millions today turning the house into a bonafide palace filled with the finest interiors, paintings and treasures imaginable. However when he became King, the Prince decided that Carlton House was inadequate as the primary residence of a powerful Monarch and the house was simply demolished. Many important pieces of furniture and objects from Carlton House did survive the demolition and can be seen today in Buckingham Palace, the Prince’s new project ‘du jour’ which transformed a rather humble house into the splendiferous symbol of Monarchy we see today. 

It was then that my imagination went into overdrive with wanderlust, trying to picture the interiors of a house that no longer exists. I knew the extent of George’s lavish taste and his incredible eye for exquisite decoration, so it was clear that Carlton House must have been a house on the grandest of scales. Thankfully, one does not need to look very far in order to satisfy such curiosity; The house and it’s interiors were painted in all their glory and are now part of the vast Royal Collection. As you will see, the portrayal of Carlton House is as one would expect and does not disappoint.

The Prince Regent is perhaps infamous for his greed and vulgarity in a time when the gap between rich and poor was interminable, however without his perpetual need for more gilding, more silks, more splendor, one could argue that we would not have the legacy that is left to us today. I for one am thankful that we are able to witness the decadence of the Georgian era.

Architectural changes

The Exterior of Carlton House after the Prince Regent's subsequent alterations to the facade.

The picture above gives some idea of the grandeur of Carlton House, however it did not always look so impressive and was said to be 'a rambling structure without architectural cohesion.'  The Prince was granted the residence in 1783 and with this came £60,000 (roughly the equivalent of £3.6million today) to carry out 'necessary' alterations and remodelling. The revered architect Henry Holland was commissioned to undertake the work which was completed in 1802 and succeeded in creating the grandeur so desired by the Prince.  Holland was a proponent of the French neoclassical style of architecture, thus Carlton House was extremely influential in not only introducing but also for the popularity of Louis XVI style in England.

The Layout and Interiors

It has to be said that the layout of Carlton House is indeed very impressive. Unlike many aristocratic homes of the time, the principal rooms were located on the ground floor instead of the usual Piano Nobile layout. What I find charming in particular is the way the layout takes the visitor through an enfilade of hallways and ante rooms in the centre of the house before reaching the main Drawing Rooms. In doing this, suspense is built up by the grandeur of these public areas and the visitor is taken on a journey of decadence. I am also impressed by the Octagon Room which forms the centre of the house and is a room which one passes regularly to access the Grand Staircase, Hall and Private Apartments. The unusual octagon shape is rather a clever concept for a room that will be used to serve so many areas of the house. Instead of a regular rectangular shape, the room becomes a place to remember and a joy to pass through.

The floor plan showing the layout of the house. Visitors would pass through the front doors into the Hall and through the Octagon Room eventually reaching the First Ante Chamber where they would turn left into HRH's Private Apartments, or right into the State Rooms

The Hall
The Hall. This picture shows the Hall from the East with the colums on the left leading through to the Octagon Room and the colums on the right leading to the front Entrance

As you can see, the Hall is top lit which immediately draws the eye upwards to examine the enormity and grandeur of the room. Did you notice the gentleman depicted in the Hall? I suppose he is included to show the scale of the room, almost looking insect like compared to his impressive surroundings.

Ionic columns of yellow marble scagliola are possibly the main feature of the Hall and are symmetrically placed on all four sides of the room, providing the harmony and grace of Georgian design. 

The red carpet leads the visitor in the correct direction, perhaps to provide a sense of reality in a place of breath taking amazement, through to the Octagon Room.

The Octagon Room

As mentioned previously, the Octagon Room is in the centre of the house and serves the Staircase, First Ante Room and Hall. Also to the East are Service Rooms. It is impossible to note what first calls one's attention when seeing this magnificent room; Is it the rich velvet curtains with their gold thread details, the green walls with their fine mouldings and busts hanging handsomely, or is it the view up ahead to the domed lit roof? What is clear is that nothing is left to chance. Every inch of the space has been planned and executed to the tiniest and most intricate detail. It is no wonder that Carlton House was described as 'the headquarters of taste.'

 Each archway is embellished with rich velvet draperies tastefully festooned with cords and tassels. The other four sides are richly ornamented and decorated with busts in statuary marble of the Duke of Devonshire the Duke of Bedford, Lord Lake and the Hon Charles James Fox sculptured by Mr Nollekins and placed on handsome brackets. The ceiling of the vestibule is perforated forming a gallery to the chamberstory and illUmined by a skylight in the centre of the upper ceiling which is composed of fan groinings springing from the angles of the octagon; these combining with the enriched flat ceiling in eight ornamented segments of circles present a beautiful variety of lines and produce a captivating effect from the vestibule below. 

The view of the hall directly above the Octagon Room

The Great Staircase

The Great Staircase. The archway to the left of the picture goes back through to the Octagon Room.

For me personally, there is nothing more magical than a grand sweeping staircase. I have no doubt that this was an important factor for George also, who had this exquisite staircase installed at his request. We can see evidence of this today at Buckingham Palace which has a very similar staircase rising to the State Apartments. The beautiful steps are made of Portland Stone and the railing of metal gilt. This was a man who knew exactly what he wanted.

The Great Staircase of Buckingham Palace which is clearly similar to that of Carlton House

 The great staircase is circumscribed on the chamber floor by a gallery divided into arches, two of which are formed into niches and contain bronzed colossal figures, one representing Time supporting a clock of curious workmanship, the other Atlas bearing on his shoulders a circular map of Europe as the face of a wind dial, the pivot being placed on the meridian of London by which contrivance the index denotes the point whence the wind proceeds and also what part of land or sea it visits in its progress. The other apertures excepting the entrance contain Termini supporting lamps and guarded by handsome gilt railing in accordance with that of the staircase. The ceilings, pilasters, panels and other decorations of the staircase are excellently worked in stucco or carved in wood of which description is the support of the upper landing a coronet and a spreading plume of feathers. 

The First Ante Room

The First Ante Room is the last of the rooms in which the visitor must travel through in order to obtain HRH's Private Apartments to the left or the State Rooms to the right. This picture shows the view looking back through to the Octagon Room.  The decadence of this Ante Room is again striking to say the least. The rich blue carpet adorned with gold weave, the fine collection of artworks hanging gracefully. This is perhaps the first room in which the Prince's taste for French Interiors becomes obvious. 

The Ante Room as viewed from the Octagon Room looking to rear facing gardens

The Rose Satin Drawing Room

The Rose Satin Drawing Room is the first room entered after turning right from the First Ante Room. It could be argued that this room also serves as an Ante Room before entering the Throne Room. It has a bow shaped window bay and the room sits in the centre of the house. 

The Throne Room

Throne rooms are designed to impress and display the powerful symbol of Monarchy; The throne room at Carlton House certainly delivers this message with every square inch of the room elaborately decorated in high Royal style. I am in awe of the ceiling detail which draws the eye upwards to marvel at the superb gilding and festoons of fruit and other decoration detailing.  

 On each side of the apartment are pedestals supporting tripods and branches for lights beautifully designed and well executed and at each end magnificent candelabra. The carpet is figured with arabesque devices and beneath the pier glasses in the arched recesses are splendid couches, the frame work of which is carved and gilt and the backs ends and cushions of crimson velvet and rich fringes to cerrespond with the draperies and the chairs which are also composed of the same materials. Indeed the whole of the furniture and decorations are in agreeable unison with the architectural character and splendour of the apartment.

The Crimson Drawing Room

It is in the Crimson Drawing Room, another incredible feast for the eyes, that one is once again reminded of Buckingham Palace and in particular the present Throne Room. The sense of theatre in this room is deliberate, the swags of red velvet elegantly surrounding the room with luxury and exuberance. Just look at the chandeliers, impossibly enormous yet still so far from touching the floor, testament to the sheer scale of this fabulous room.

On entering this spacious apartment the eye is agreeably struck with the happy combination of splendid materials tastefully arranged consisting of a profusion of rich draperies, large pier glasses, grand chandeliers of brilliant cut glass, massive furniture, richly gilt candelabra, tripods, bronzes, elegant vases _ and other corresponding decorations displaying at once the improved taste of the arts and manufactures of Great Britain. To these are added some valuable original pictures by English and foreign masters. 

The Throne Room of Buckingham Palace, although not nearly as elaborate, somewhat resembles the Crimson Drawing Room of Carlton House

The Circular Room

The Circular Room or Music Room adjoined the Crimson Drawing Room and as the name suggests is circular in shape. Although in no way a plain room, it is rather more humble than it's counterpart, the Crimson Drawing Room. Perhaps this was deliberate to allow the elegant circular shape to be the dominant feature. The room is surrounded by scagliola columns and the ceiling is painted to represent the heavens. 

Each door is inserted in an arched recess, the architraves, archivolts and cornices are superbly carved and silvered. The doors are painted in arabesque and bronze on a silvered ground in devices consisting of well designed subjects in groups of figures representing the triumphs of Harvest and Vintage. Above the doors are bassi rilievi painted in imitation of sculpture and the whole is surrounded by vine foliage interspersed with boys after designs from the Vatican. Similar candelabra to those upon the chimney pieces and pier tables are placed on each side of the door way, the pedestals being of Breccia violet marble and elevated on tripods of bronze elegantly designed. 

The Blue Velvet Room

The Blue Velvet Room is the first room accessed after turning left from the First Ante Room and is the first of HRH's private apartments. This room would have been used an audience chamber to conduct private meetings with distinguished guests such as Prime Ministers and heads of state.

The walls are divided into compartments, the panels of which are dark blue velvet surrounded by a richly carved and gilt moulding, each angle being filled with a boldly carved device formed of an open escalop foliage and branches of oak highly embossed and richly gilt. The surrounding margins are of light peach blossom and bordered by a burnished gold moulding. The doors are of the same colour with the margins the architraves and mouldings are gilt and the panels contain finely executed carvings in burnishedgold representing trophies of Roman armour arms and other implements of war. The shutters are enriched in correspondence with the doors as are also the plinths bases and surbases of the whole apartment.

I hope you have enjoyed this rather long post! Even if the pictures were a source of enjoyment, my aim has been accomplished. It is impossible to truly imagine the scale or grandeur of this fine residence just by observing old depictions, no doubt in 'real life' the interiors of Carlton House were out of this world.



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