The Queen’s House is a former royal residence built between 1616 and 1635 near Greenwich Palace, a few miles down-river from the City of London and now in the London Borough of Greenwich. It presently forms a central focus of what is now the Old Royal Naval College, with a grand vista leading to the River Thames. Its architect was Inigo Jones, for whom it was a crucial early commission, for Anne of Denmark, the queen of King James VI and I. Queen’s House is one of the most important buildings in British architectural history, being the first consciously classical building to have been constructed in the country. It was Jones’s first major commission after returning from his 1613–1615 grand tour[a]The phrase “grand tour” was virtually unknown until about 1670, but in essence Jones’s tour of Germany, Italy and France incorporated many of the elements of the later tour. of Roman, Renaissance, and Palladian architecture in Italy.
Some earlier English buildings, such as Longleat and Burghley House, had made borrowings from the classical style, but these were restricted to small details not applied in a systematic way, or a mix of different styles. Furthermore, the form of these buildings was not informed by an understanding of classical precedents. Queen’s House would have appeared revolutionary to English eyes in its day. Jones is credited with the introduction of Palladianism to England with the construction of Queen’s House, although it diverges from the mathematical constraints of Palladio, and it is likely that the immediate precedent for the H-shaped plan straddling a road is the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano by Giuliano da Sangallo.
The building is a Grade I listed building and a scheduled monument, a status that includes the 115-foot (35 m) axial vista to the River Thames. The house now forms part of the National Maritime Museum, and is used to display parts of its substantial collection of maritime paintings and portraits.
The Queen’s House, in Greenwich, London was built as an adjunct to the Tudor Palace of Greenwich, known before its redevelopment by Henry VII as the Palace of Placentia, a rambling, mainly red-brick building in a more vernacular style. It would have presented a dramatic contrast in appearance to the newer, white-painted House, although the latter was much smaller and really a modern version of an older tradition of private “garden houses”, not a public building, and one used only by the queen’s privileged inner circle.
Construction of the house began in 1616, but work stopped in April 1618 when Queen Anne became ill; she died the following year. Building restarted when the house was given to the queen consort Henrietta Maria in 1629 by King Charles I, and the house was structurally complete by 1635.
But the house was in use for no more than seven years before the English Civil War began in 1642, which swept away the court culture from which it sprang. Of its interiors, three ceilings and some wall decorations survive in part, but no interior remains in its original state. The process of dismantling began as early as 1662, when masons removed a niche and term figures and a chimneypiece.
Paintings commissioned by Charles I for the house from Orazio Gentileschi, but now elsewhere, include a ceiling Allegory of Peace and the Arts, now installed at Marlborough House, London, a large Finding of Moses, and a matching Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife still in the Royal Collection.
The Queen’s House, although it was scarcely in use, provided the distant focal centre for Sir Christopher Wren’s Greenwich Hospital, with a logic and grandeur that has seemed inevitable to architectural historians, but depended on Queen Mary II’s insistence that the vista to the water from the Queen’s House not be impaired.
The house remained in the possession of the royal family until 1805, when George III granted the Queen’s House to a charity for the orphans of seamen, becoming the Royal Naval Asylum in 1807.
The Queen’s House became the centre of what, from 1892, became the Royal Hospital School for the sons of seamen. This necessitated new accommodation wings, so a flanking pair to east and west were added, connected to the house by colonnades. The lower part of each wing housed schoolrooms for girls at one side and boys at the other, with dormitories above. In 1933 the school moved to Holbrook, Suffolk, and its Greenwich buildings, including the house, were converted and restored to become the new National Maritime Museum, opened by King George VI on 27 April 1937.
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