Exhibition review: Clarence House’s summer opening
There is something almost voyeuristic about visiting the five reception rooms that are opened to the public every August at Clarence House (Photo1), the official London residence of The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall and Prince Harry.
In most palaces I’ve visited, the paintings are first and foremost works of art. They might represent an ancestor or a relative of the person who once lived there but by the time the place was open, all had been dead, the family not reigning anymore. These are the paintings you see in history books as evidence of the past.
Clarence House is different. It’s not just the portrait of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon as a young and shy, recently married Duchess of York by Savey Sorine (Photo 2), or its twin of the newly titled Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh. They are pictures of Prince Charles’ grandmother and mother, of women whose lives we’ve seen documented in the papers and on TV.
Both lived in the house at various stages of their royal destiny. The Queen, shortly after her wedding to Prince Philip. They undertook heavy work to modernise the house following WWII, when it was used as a Red Cross office. The Lancaster room (Photo 5), the first you enter as a visitor, was named after the town of Lancaster. As a wedding gift, its inhabitants presented the Edinburghs with the funds to redo the room. A portrait of Edward VIII, painted during his time studying in Paris, hangs on the right of the fireplace, the most unexpected painting I saw during the whole visit.
The Edinburghs were not to live in Clarence House for long. The family moved to Buckingham, a few metres down the Mall, after George VI’s death. In moved the Queen Mother. Visiting the house, it’s all about how the Queen and Prince Philip modified it, the Queen Mother redecorated it and Prince Charles changed it again. The Morning Room (Photo 3, 8, 9) for instance, in the Queen Mother’s Strathmore racing colours, was essentially kept as she designed it, despite a recent refresh by Robert Kime. My favourite portrait of the Queen, as a young girl, hangs opposite the entrance (Photo 3). Walter Sickert’s A Lady in a Pink Ballgown is above the fireplace. Considering the books about Sickert on display on the Lancaster Room bookshelves, the visitor can suppose that the royal couple enjoys his work.
And that’s the thing about this guided tour: it is hard not to see it as an insight, if not in the life of The Prince of Wales and his wife, at least in the working of a royal household. For instance, there is a hole in the Dining Room (Photo 7) carpet so that people attending conferences there can plug in their laptops (or as the tour guide called it, “computer wizardry”). The rooms are the background to many official photos published in the media, such as the October 2011 reception in support of In Kind Direct, the Prince of Wales’ charity that redistribute surplus good to charities. It marked The Duchess of Cambridge’s first solo engagement, in an Amanda Wakeley vintage dress that matched the Morning Room’s colours.
The visit ends with the grounds, split between a very geometric Rosicrucian garden, where lavender grows between box trees (Photo 10), a lawn planted with trees, a fountain with cascades of wisteria rather than water and a vegetable patch. With this patch, Prince Charles wanted to prove that you could grow vegetables in the heart of London in a pretty way. The demonstration works until you realise the patch itself is probably the size of most London flats. Parts of the garden smell of the garlic used to keep off snails and other garden annoyances. To retain its organic label awarded yearly by the Soil Association, Clarence House can’t use any pesticide.
After the grounds, in the neighbouring St James’s Palace, comes the traditional gift shop where the Windsor’s business acumen is on full display. My tour was less than a month after Prince George’s birth but the store was already selling a book on royal babies, included the Cambridge one, a limited edition teddy and some blue-themed china.
Clarence House is now closed until next summer but if you happen to be in London in August 2014, it’s definitely worth a tour. The visit costs under £10 and takes about one hour.