The history of the site where Buckingham Palace now stands can be traced back to the reign of James I (r.1603-25), who established under royal patronage a plantation of mulberries for the rearing of silkworms in what is now the Buckingham Palace garden. It is clear that when Charles I (r.1625-49) granted the garden to Lord Aston in 1628, a substantial house already existed on the site. The house had a succession of owners and tenants until, in 1698, it was let to the man who was to give the house its name – John Sheffield, later the Duke of Buckingham.
Finding the house very dated in appearance, the Duke demolished the building to create the new ‘Buckingham House’. The house stood exactly on the site occupied by Buckingham Palace today. It was designed and built with the assistance of William Talman, Comptroller of the Works to William III, and Captain William Winde, a retired soldier. John Fitch built the main structure by contract for £7,000.
At one stage Buckingham House was considered as a potential site for the British Museum, but was eventually turned down on account of ‘the greatness of the sum demanded for it [30,000] [and] the inconvenience of the situation’.
Buckingham House remained the property of the Dukes of Buckingham until 1761, when George III (r.1760-1820) acquired the whole site as a private family residence for his wife, Queen Charlotte, and their children. It came to be known as ‘The Queen’s House’.
Sir William Chambers was put in charge of remodelling and modernising the house between 1762 and 1776, at a cost of £73,000. With ceilings designed by Robert Adam and painted by Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Queen’s rooms on the principal floor were among the most sophisticated of their time.
There was a great debate at the start of the 19th century about building an entirely new royal palace, but when George III’s son, George IV (r.1820-30), acceded to the throne, the plan was abandoned. George IV was 60, overweight and in poor health. Having felt very much at home at The Queen’s House during his childhood, the King wanted the existing house to be transformed into his palace. The King put John Nash, Official Architect to the Office of Woods and Forests, in charge of all the work. During the last five years of George IV’s life, Nash enlarged Buckingham House into the imposing U-shaped building which was to become Buckingham Palace.
Nash’s design was essentially an enlargement of the plan of Buckingham House. He extended the central block of the building westwards and to the north and south, and the two wings to the east were entirely rebuilt. The wings enclosed a grand forecourt which transformed the aspect of the Palace from St James’s Park. Nash also created a triumphal arch in the centre of the forecourt. The arch formed part of a ceremonial processional approach to the Palace and celebrated Britain’s recent naval and military victories.
The Buckingham Palace created by Nash was widely regarded as a masterpiece. It came, however, at a considerable cost. By 1828 Nash had spent £496,169 on the changes to the building. Soon after the death of George IV two years later, the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, dismissed Nash from his post for over-spending. Lord Duncannon, First Commissioner of Works, took over the task of overseeing the completion of the Palace. Duncannon appointed a new architect in Edward Blore, who extended the east façade at both ends and created a new entrance (the Ambassadors’ Entrance) on the southern side.
The furnishing stage had not been reached at Buckingham Palace during George IV’s lifetime. His successor, his brother William IV (r.1830-37), showed no interest in moving from his home at Clarence House, and, when the old Houses of Parliament were destroyed by fire, he offered the still-incomplete Buckingham Palace as a replacement. The offer was respectfully declined, and Parliament voted to allow the ‘completing and perfecting’ of the Palace for royal use.
Under Duncannon and Blore’s supervision, the State Rooms were completed between 1833 and 1834. They were furnished with some of the finest objects from Carlton House, George IV’s London home when Prince of Wales, which had been demolished in 1827.
In February 1845, eight years after ascending the throne, Queen Victoria (r.1837-1901) complained to the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, about the lack of sufficient space in Buckingham Palace for accommodation and entertaining. Edward Blore was therefore instructed to prepare plans for a new wing, enclosing Nash’s forecourt on its eastern side. Brighton Pavilion was sold in 1846, and the proceeds of the sale (£53,000) were used to fund the works. By far the most significant element of Blore’s design was the central balcony on the new main façade, which was incorporated at Prince Albert’s suggestion. From here Queen Victoria saw her troops depart to the Crimean War and welcomed them on their return.
In 1852 the architect James Pennethorne completed the Ball and Concert Room and the Ball Supper Room, linked by galleries to Nash’s State Apartments at their southern end. As part of the redevelopment, the triumphal arch (the Marble Arch) was moved to the north-east corner of Hyde Park. The Renaissance-style interiors of the new rooms placed Buckingham Palace in the avant-garde of decoration in England, leading the critic of The Builder to designate the Palace as the ‘Headquarters of Taste’.
When the new King Edward VII (r.1901-10) came to the throne, he swiftly set about the complete redecoration of the interior of the Palace. The new white and gold decorative scheme can today be seen in a number of the State Rooms, including the Ballroom. Improvements were also made to the heating, ventilation and electric lighting.
During the reign of King George V (r.1910-36), the decision was taken to reface the front of Buckingham Palace in harder-wearing Portland stone. Completed in 1914, this is the grand façade that overlooks the Mall today.
Under King George VI (r.1936-52) and Queen Elizabeth, very few changes were made to Buckingham Palace, as the outbreak of the Second World War coincided with the first half of the King’s reign.
In 1962, on the initiative of The Duke of Edinburgh, a new public exhibition gallery for the Royal Collection, The Queen’s Gallery, was created from the bombed-out ruins of the former Private Chapel. The Queen's Gallery was completely refurbished and expanded in 2002 to mark Her Majesty's Golden Jubilee.