The 20th century
Buckingham Palace panorama, 1909
In 1901 the accession of Edward VII saw new life breathed into the palace. The new King and his wife Queen Alexandra had always been at the forefront of London high society, and their friends, known as the Marlborough House set, were considered to be the most eminent and fashionable of the age. Buckingham Palace—the Ballroom, Grand Entrance, Marble Hall, Grand Staircase, vestibules and galleries redecorated in the Belle epoque cream and gold colour scheme they retain today—once again became the focal point of the British Empire and a setting for entertaining on a majestic scale. Many people feel King Edward's heavy redecoration of the palace does not complement Nash's original work. However, it has been allowed to remain for one hundred years.
The east front of Buckingham Palace was completed in 1850. Seen here in 1910, it was remodelled to its present form in 1913. The last major building work took place during the reign of King George V when, in 1913, Sir Aston Webb redesigned the famous east, principal, 1850 facade by Blore to resemble in part Giacomo Leoni's Lyme Park in Cheshire. This new, refaced principal facade (of Portland stone) was designed to be the backdrop to the Victoria Memorial, a large memorial statue of Queen Victoria, placed outside the main gates. George V, who had succeeded Edward VII in 1910, had a more serious personality than his father, which was reflected in life at the palace: greater emphasis was now placed on official entertaining and royal duties than on lavish parties and having fun. George V's wife Queen Mary was a connoisseur of the arts, and took a keen interest in the Royal collection of furniture and art, both restoring and adding to it. Queen Mary also had many new fixtures and fittings installed, such as the pair of marble Empire-style chimneypieces by Benjamin Vulliamy, dating from 1810, which the Queen had installed in the ground floor Bow Room, the huge low room at the centre of the garden facade. Queen Mary was also responsible for the decoration of the Blue Drawing Room. This room, 21 metres long, previously known as the South Drawing Room, has one of Nash's finest ceilings, coffered with huge gilt console brackets, and is referred to by the author and historian Olwen Hedley in his book Buckingham Palace as the most beautiful in the palace, grander and more lavish than either the Throne Room or the Ball Room, which was built to take over the Blue Drawing Room's original function.
Following the last major extension in 1850, the palace consisted (as it does today) of 19 state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. While this may seem large, it is small compared with the Tsar's palaces in St. Petersburg and at Tsarskoe Selo, the Papal Palace in Rome, the Royal Palace of Madrid, or indeed the former Palace of Whitehall. A minor extension was made in 1938, in which the north-west pavilion, designed by Nash, was converted into a swimming pool.
During World War I the Palace, then the home of King George V and Queen Mary, escaped unscathed. Its more valuable contents were evacuated to Windsor but the Royal family remained in situ. The largest change to court life at this time was that the Government persuaded the King to ostentatiously and publicly lock the wine cellars and refrain from alcohol for the duration of the war, to set a good example to the supposedly inebriated lower classes. The lower classes continued to imbibe and the King was left reputedly furious at his enforced abstinence. Edward VIII later told a biographer that his father had a furtive glass of port each evening, while the Queen secretly laced her fruit cup with champagne. The King's children were photographed at this time serving tea to wounded officers in the adjacent Royal Mews.
During World War II the Palace fared worse: it was bombed no less than seven times, and was a deliberate target, as it was thought by the Nazis that the destruction of Buckingham Palace would demoralise the nation. One bomb fell in the palace quadrangle while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence, but while many windows were blown in, no serious damage was reported. However, war time coverage of such incidents was severely restricted. The most serious and publicised bombing was the destruction of the Palace chapel in 1940: coverage of this event was played in cinemas all over England to show the common suffering of rich and poor. The King and Queen were filmed inspecting their bombed home, the smiling Queen immaculate in a hat and matching coat. It was at this time the Queen made her famous quote: "I'm glad we have been bombed. Now I can look the East End in the face". It has only recently been reported that on some trips, prior to this event, to inspect the London bomb damage, the Royal family were booed rather than cheered as was reported at the time, hence the bombing of the palace was a propaganda coup for the British establishment. It has however been observed that it was the Minister accompanying the Royal family who was the subject of public hostility rather than the King and Queen themselves. As The Sunday Graphic dutifully reported:
The Royal Family, and Winston Churchill, on the balcony of the Palace on VE Day.
By the Editor: The King and Queen have endured the ordeal which has come to their subjects. For the second time a German bomber has tried to bring death and destruction to the home of Their Majesties……..When this war is over the common danger which King George and Queen Elizabeth have shared with their people will be a cherished memory and an inspiration through the years".
On September 15, 1940 an RAF pilot, Ray Holmes, (2) rammed a German plane attempting to bomb the palace. Holmes had run out of ammunition and made the a quick choice to ram it. Both planes crashed and their pilots survived. This incident was captured on film. The plane's engine was later exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London. Following the war the British pilot became a King's Messenger. He died at the age of 90 in 2005.
Eleanor Roosevelt was accorded the status of visiting head of state during her World War II visit. The British war-time press, anxious to show the monarchs sharing the hardships of their subjects, announced that as the contents of the palace had been evacuated to the country for the duration of the war, as an honoured guest Mrs. Roosevelt was "billeted" in the only comfortable room remaining, Queen Elizabeth's own bedroom. However, it is possible that this story is apocryphal: it is now known that for the duration of World War II, the Royal Family spent many nights sleeping at Windsor Castle, for their own safety. It is unlikely that they would have left Mrs Roosevelt in the empty palace to face the nightly blitz alone.
On VE Day (May 8, 1945), the Palace was the centre of British celebrations, with the King, Queen and the Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, and Princess Margaret appearing on the balcony, with the palace's blacked-out windows behind them, to the cheers from a vast crowd in the Mall.
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