In 1992 there was a fire at Windsor Castle (owned by the same family, of course), so in 1993 for the first time they opened the Buckingham State Rooms to mere mortals for a handsome fee (today it is £37.00 / $50.00) to help with the Windsor repairs. (Irrelevant postscript: A half dozen years later I spoke at a European Conference on volunteerism at Windsor Castle. Yes, you may kiss my hand. If you buy me a ring, you can kiss my ring.)
Now they open it to the masses for about two summer months and, as far as I can tell, put the takings towards their significant, inherited art collection. Of course the Queen and those who share her aristocratic DNA are staying at one of their other domiciles during the onslaught, probably Balmoral, Scotland.
There is a great deal of walking involved with this visit, which each year consists of two sections: first there is a special exhibition of some sort, and second is the tour of the State Rooms, that is to say, the rooms people are allowed in anyway, not the family bathroom or kitchen or tv room. The State Rooms are where the Queen meets diplomats and ambassadors and other worthies.
This summer’s special exhibition, Fashioning a Reign, starts off with a four panel Andy Warhol portrait of Queen Elizabeth that is sprinkled with diamond dust. Even though he comes from my hometown, Pittsburgh, I’m not a fan of Warhol, but frankly this portrait is a high point. We are led through endless displays of Elizabeth’s couture, from her christening gown, used by 62 royals before it fell apart and was reproduced for subsequent generations, to all the clothes she wore at this and that coronation, anniversary, national celebration, and bar mitzvah. It is a boxy collection, all monochrome (so that she can be easily found in the crowd), leaving at least one journalist wondering why, with infinite (unearned) wealth, she chose the dowdiest items on the rack. There is also a very extensive line of hats, which, when hung as they were without a head, make for a strangely post-modern tableau.
I rushed past the mesmerized millions of visitors to escape this exhibition. What I really wanted to see were the State rooms. The original building was enlarged by John Nash when King George III bought it. The two of them were Masons, so there are secret man-symbols interwoven in the designs. These rooms are full of the expected domed roofs and gilded everything; the newer wings seem a bit less ornate. Somehow the overall impression is pale, restrained, at least when compared to many of the ornate European palaces.
I did love the chandeliers, in particular the four in the Blue Drawing Room with the doubly high ceiling. But then when you realize that George IV kept 30 people employed just to keep the candles in good order (on, off, changed, etc.), you understand why Queen Victoria converted them to electricity. I hated the Table of the Great Commanders (1806-12), a spindle shaped round-topped thing made entirely of gilded porcelain. Napoleon commissioned it to be decorated with the profile head of Alexander the Great circled by heads of the less worthy commanders and philosophers from ancient days. To name a few of these minor figures: Pericles, Pompey, Augustus, Caesar, and Hannibal.
Here’s what the Royal Collection website has to say about this tribute to testosterone: “The table was the most prestigious and conspicuous present given to George IV by a grateful Louis XVIII, two years after the defeat of Napoleon. So highly did George IV regard this gift, and such was its status in his eyes, that it became part of the ceremonial backdrop for all his state portraits.”
Then we get to the royal gallery – a long expanse made from knocking down the walls of four rooms in a row. These people (I’m trying to be generous to the Royals) own the biggest intact art collection of any of the world’s royals. I could run down the copious invaluable paintings, but one will serve: the exquisite, inviting 1638 portrait of Agatha Bas by Rembrandt (my favorite painter). Why, I ask myself, should this family inherit such a treasure when it should be in a museum that does not cost a soul $50 to see two months of the year? If I weren’t an anarcho-socialist already, I would have been converted quicker than Victoria switched to electric.