When we made our visit to the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace last week, we also went to see Clarence House, the London home of Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. It is somewhere I have been meaning to visit for years, but as it is generally only open for one month in the summer, when Their Royal Highnesses are in Scotland, I have never got round to it before. This year though, would finally be my chance.
Clarence House from the garden
Clarence House is still very well known for being the London home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (from here on referred to as ‘Queen Elizabeth’) between 1953 and 2002. It was from its gates that Her Majesty and members of her family emerged each year on 4th August, her birthday, to greet the public.Before that, it was the home of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh (Princess Elizabeth) and their two small children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. Princess Anne was actually born at Clarence House in 1950, and it is said that the family so loved the house, that when The Queen acceded to the throne in 1952, Prince Philip asked if they could remain living there and use Buckingham Palace as an office. The government of the day refused, stating that the Royal Family should live at Buckingham Palace itself. After they had made so many changes to Clarence House and turned it into their home, The Queen and The Duke must have been disappointed. To date, the only monarch who has ‘ruled’ from Clarence House is actually William IV, who reigned from 1830-1837 and immediately preceded Queen Victoria.When Queen Elizabeth died in 2002, the house became the London home of her grandson, the Prince of Wales, and he moved in, after its refurbishment, with Princes William and Harry in 2003. It is this refurbishment that is rather interesting: as he was so close to his grandmother, he asked for the rooms to be ‘refreshed’ rather than refurbished, and apart from a few noticeable changes, they now look much as they did between 1953 and 2002. Many of the paintings so lovingly collected by Queen Elizabeth remain in their original places, and there are tributes to her everywhere, including, in the Library, a bookcase containing only her books – with a complete collection of Dick Francis books. Apparently, the former jockey and favourite of Queen Elizabeth, would send her a signed first edition of every new book he had published. Touchingly, on the other side of the door in the Library, is a bookcase containing the books of George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, who died in 1952.
As a side note and little bit of history, Clarence House is part way down The Mall on the North side, not far from Buckingham Palace. It is a part of St James’s Palace and was built by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV between 1825-27 and was designed by John Nash. Subsequent occupants included Victoria, Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mother), Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s second son) and Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn (Queen Victoria’s third son).
But back to our tour, and we entered the gardens of Clarence House from an unobtrusive double gateway on The Mall. We were immediately shown into a tent, erected for the summer opening, and greeted by a large photograph of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall smiling down at us. Tours depart from this tent every 15 minutes and visitors are straight away taken through the gardens. We were informed by our knowledgeable and friendly guide that the gardens have also been ‘refurbished’ by the Prince of Wales, with several parts created in memory of Queen Elizabeth. We passed the famous ‘birthday’ gates on the inside and went into the house itself.
Queen Elizabeth, The Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry outside Clarence House
From The Entrance Hall, we were taken straight into The Lancaster Room which is now used as a waiting room for visitors. It was named thus because money was given by the people of Lancaster to Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on their wedding day for the fitting-out of the house. Several items were pointed out in here, including a silver model of the famous Aston Martin owned by Prince Charles and driven by Prince William on his wedding day in 2011. On the other side of The Entrance Hall is The Morning Room where several well known paintings can be seen, including the only Monet in the Royal Collection, Study of Rocks, the Creuse: ‘Le Bloc’. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth was advised not to purchase this, as “it was unlikely to increase in value”, but she bought it anyway because she liked it! We also saw A Conversation Piece at Aintree showing George V and his stud manager by Walter Sickert. This was a controversial portrait when first painted in the late 1920s as it was painted without George V’s permission, something which was never done. Double doors lead us from here into The Library, where we can see portraits of Queen Elizabeth (when Duchess of York in 1923) and Princess Elizabeth (in 1948) both painted by Savely Sorine. They were never intended to be companion pieces but were placed as such by the Prince of Wales. We then entered The Dining Room through more double doors. The three rooms can in fact be linked by opening both sets of doors – Queen Elizabeth is said to have done this when entertaining.Walking back through The Hall, we passed through The Horse Corridor, so named, unsurprisingly, as it is filled with “the large collection of sporting pictures assembled by Queen Elizabeth which celebrate her own victories on the turf along with those of the most successful owner and breeder of the Bowes family, John Bowes”. At the end of this corridor is a staircase to the first floor where the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall have their own private apartments, but we turned off before this into The Garden Room, created by Queen Elizabeth by knocking two rooms together. The larger of these former rooms was Princess Margaret’s sitting room before her marriage in 1960. In here are such treasures as a signed copy of The Noel Coward Song Book. The famous playwright was a friend of Queen Elizabeth for many years. This room leads onto the garden, but we weren’t allowed to exit that way, instead returning through The Horse Corridor and The Hall back into the garden. This is the last ‘room’ that we were to see. Queen Elizabeth liked to dine outside with her guests under the enormous tree in the garden. It is said that drops of rain take 20 minutes to get from the top of the tree to the diners at the bottom, so if rain started, there was plenty of time for guests to get inside, and for the staff to remove the meal and fully laden dining table and chairs. Our tour ended in the small gift shop, temporarily housed in one of the rooms of St James’s Palace next door to Clarence House.
The Morning Room at Clarence House
I think what struck me most about this tour, was that this Royal Residence must be unique in that the state rooms, which is what our tour consisted of, look like they are actually lived in. In every room are paintings collected by Queen Elizabeth and family photographs in silver frames are on numerous surfaces – personal photographs too, so we see Prince Charles hugging a young Prince Harry, a beaming Prince William in his childhood years, and the usual family wedding photographs displayed in every home. These state rooms are used constantly by the Prince and the Duchess, for entertaining visitors and meeting members of the charities with which they are connected. We heard that in The Library every year, the Duchess hosts an event for terminally ill children, who will probably not see another Christmas, to decorate a large Christmas tree. They reach up as far as they can, and when they can reach no further, the doors open to reveal the tallest soldier of The Household Cavalry that Clarence House can find, who helps the children decorate higher up. He then lifts the star to the top of the tree with his sword. Previous soldier participants of this ritual have reported practising for ages beforehand to make sure that they don’t drop the star! But the state rooms really have that family feel to them too – it is quite hard to believe that the Prince and Duchess don’t pop down in their private time to use the rooms. There is no grandeur, just an elegant lived in feel. And that, I think, is the very essence of Clarence House. It is a working Royal Residence, yes, but it is also a family home.
If you are interested in Queen Elizabeth’s art collection, I would recommend the book Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by Susan Owens and published by The Royal Collection. The book contains many of the paintings I have mentioned above, as well as pictures of how Clarence House looked in Queen Elizabeth’s time, and other paintings displayed in the house.