Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Banqueting House Whitehall



I have to hold my hands up to the fact this blog isn’t mine – but made up of extracts from a series of blog posts of someone I always wished had been a closer friend, but who left us two years ago. I have not forgotten Caroline Riikonen, who wrote some lovely articles based on the historical houses she visited in and around London. Caro gave her friends pseudonyms which add to the character of her prose, and here she describes with her usual charm her visits to the Banqueting House in Whitehall.
Banqueting House Circa 1810
It has been several years since the Brimstone Butterfly has alighted at the Banqueting House, Whitehall. Recently I had another chance to see Inigo Jones' masterpiece. On my very first visit as a schoolgirl I witnessed with awe my friend Cristobel mount the English throne until I launched a coup d'état and told her to get off as I wanted a turn sitting on the red velvet chair beneath its canopy of state.

Ceiling
The original Palace of Whitehall dates back to the reign of Henry VIII. Cardinal Wolsey had built a sumptuous residence for himself near Westminster which he named York Place. This residence rivalled the palaces of the king himself for sheer opulence. Henry was quick to help himself to York Place just as he had to Hampton Court when Wolsey fell from royal favour. 

Henry renamed the palace Whitehall and set about enlarging the palace and pleasure grounds to include a cockpit, bowling green and tennis court. I was once fortunate enough to view an extant turret and walls of the double storey covered Tudor tennis court, complete with large leaded window, concealed within a modern office complex. That was when modern Whitehall regularly threw open its doors to the public as part of the London Open House weekend.

Undercroft
When Tudor monarchy entertained foreign ambassadors and put on a show, they had a temporary banqueting hall erected built of timber. Clearly they had not forgotten the fabulous temporary hall of timber and glass Henry VIII had built for the Field of Cloth of Gold, to get one over the King of France, who had to make do with a mere tent, albeit one fashioned from the finest materials and no doubt furnished with an equally splendid interior. After all, a king like Francois I, who kept Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" on display in his bathroom at Fontainebleau, was hardly likely to skimp on things affecting his own creature comforts.


When it came to holding grand receptions, the Stuart kings wanted to announce to the world at large the arrival of a new dynasty on the throne of England. The first structure King James I had built was destroyed in a fire so he commissioned his surveyor of works, Inigo Jones, to come up with a new design. The Queen’s House at Greenwich for James’ wife, Anne of Denmark was also inspired by Inigo Jones' visits to Italy and that great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.

Jones’ double cube Banqueting House is two stories high, 110 feet in length and 55 feet wide. The pillars of the undercroft bear the weight of the Hall above which owes more to Ancient Rome and Greece than to the medieval Great Halls of England with their hammer beam roofs and gothic windows. The exterior was refaced with Portland stone in the 19th century but in keeping with Inigo Jones’ original design. Unfortunately this meant that the effect of three different hues of stone on the façade as planned by Inigo was lost forever.

The Banqueting House was completed by the end of March 1621, its undercroft the scene of raucous drinking parties between James and his male favourites and hangers-on. One pastime they would not have indulged in would have been cadging a smoke off one another. James was a virulent anti-smoker and even published a pamphlet lambasting the habit in 1604 called 
“A Counterblaste to Tobacco” in which he roundly condemned the weed as being:

James I
"A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse".
The upper hall, reached by a flight of elegant stairs, was the scene of more sedate pastimes such as grand receptions for foreign ambassadors and masques, the early mixture of opera, dance and theatrical spectacle so beloved by the Stuarts . It was also where hoi polloi got the chance from the upper gallery to gawp at the king dining in public. To ensure they stayed at more than arm’s length the gallery could only be accessed by separate external stairs. In more recent years an internal staircase was built to link the ground floor of the hall with the gallery but it was not open to the general public when I popped by.
 
Inigo Jones found himself roped in to produce stage designs for court masques in collaboration with the noted playwright Ben Jonson.  A recurring theme was the world plunged into chaos until the Stuart monarchs restored harmony and order to the world; a conceit which found expression in the ceiling panels. 
Charles I
King Charles I, son of James I, commissioned Rubens in 1635 to glorify his father and the House of Stuart in a sequence of 9 paintings which culminated in a central painting showing James ascending into Heaven. Other panels signified the union of Scotland and England with the accession of the Scottish Stuarts to the throne of England or else promoted, in allegorical form, the divine right of kings.

It can be no coincidence that Parliament chose to erect a scaffold outside the Banqueting House upon which to execute King Charles I on Tuesday 30th January 1649. The hapless monarch was forced to walk under the Rubens ceiling which exalted his own family and the divine rights of kings before stepping out of a window on the second story to face his own frail mortality on the block outside. With the execution of the sovereign and the earlier execution in 1645 of the king's own Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, Dr Juxon discreetly retired into private life. Following the Restoration he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the late king's eldest son, Charles II. . 
Charles' I Execution 30th January 1649
With the return of King Charles II to the throne the Banqueting House was again used for royal receptions. John Evelyn described a less than happy visit to the Jacobean undercroft on 19th July, 1664 where he took park in a lottery with Charles II, his wife Catherine of Braganza and his father's widow, Henrietta-Maria:  
John Evelyn
"To London, to see the event of the lottery which his Majesty had permitted Sir Arthur Slingsby to set up for one day in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, I gaining only a trifle, as well as did the King, Queen-Consort, and Queen-Mother, for nearly thirty lots; which was thought to be contrived very unhandsomely by the master of it, who was, in truth, a mere shark." 

The Banqueting House stopped being used as a reception saloon and became instead the Chapel Royal after the rest of the palace of Whitehall burnt down in 1698. In the late 19th century it was in danger of being divided up. Fortunately it was spared such a fate and became a museum instead, which itself closed in the 1960s. Nowadays, like so many other historic buildings, the Banqueting House pays its way by serving as a stylish venue for concerts, conferences, weddings and receptions.

The Banqueting House, Whitehall is to be found opposite Horse Guards Parade, though it is probably best neither to attempt to sit on the throne nor smoke a pipe lest you attract your own counterblast from the staff on duty.

Caro’s Blog is still live and can be found here



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