The work of several architect over several generations, Buckingham Palace began life in the early 18th century as Buckingham House when it was originally built for the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham House, designed by William Winde, had a central block with two smaller wings on either side; the building was lavishly and controversially remodelled by John Nash for King George IV. It became the main residence of British monarch after Queen Victoria took residence in 1837, from then on reorganisation of the palace was followed by the building of a new wing designed by Edward Blore. Completed in 1850, the extension was to provide the space needed for the queen's growing family and the royal court of an expanding empire. But today it's not Blore's design the public sees from The Mall.
After Paris had been transformed by Haussmann in the 19th century, writers were often lamenting at how poor London looked in comparison. With the influence of Beaux-Arts planning, there was a desire to improve and beautify London into a city suitable for the spectacle and governance of an empire. At the beginning of the 20th century grand new routes such as The Mall, Aldwych and Kingsway changed the way people moved around the capital and how London was perceived by visitors.
Appearing in the Edwardian architectural press were discussions about the design for a new public façade for Buckingham Palace which would create a suitable setting for the new Victoria Monument and starting point to the processional route The Mall. Most visibly, it would replace Edward Blore’s much-criticised addition to the front of Nash’s quadrangle.
Sir Aston Webb’s design is well conceived. Considering all things
Sir Aston Webb in 1904.
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
When the Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the proposals, on view in the House of Lords, by Sir Aston Webb to reface the east side of Buckingham Palace, it commented that: “Sir Aston Webb’s design is well conceived. Considering all things” (1). His design, limited by the fact he couldn’t alter the interiors and had to follow the existing line of windows, showed the influence of Wren and the Renaissance. As a successful architect and part of the architectural establishment, throughout his long career Webb was able to adapt to changing fashions. Classical architecture had supplanted Gothic and the bric-a-brac of styles of Victorian times, and its triumph in the Edwardian era could be read in articles published at the time promoting it, for example, as the suitable style for the new capital of India, New Delhi – with or without the addition of indigenous motifs (2).
Typical of the British tradition of compromise, the Builder notes that the dream to rebuild the palace as the empire’s royal residence was impossible due to the nation’s finances, suggesting Webb’s scheme was the best in the circumstance (3) . The scheme would at least remove the crumbling work of Blore at a fraction of the cost of a completely new palace. There seemed to general agreement that Webb was the ideal person to take on this job. By this time he had won a Royal Gold Medal (1905) and been president of the RIBA. With Ingress Bell, he also headed a large firm of architects. These alone were not the only reasons why he was chosen. Webb had already provided the designs for the nearby Victoria Memorial, The Mall and Admiralty Arch. Both King George V and the committee for the Victoria Memorial were unanimous in approving Webb’s design for Buckingham Palace. The cost was estimated at £60,000.
In 1913 the work to create a new 300 ft façade of durable Portland Stone was complete. In the process, Webb was one of the few architects to be able to design an entire urban setting and route in London – an architectural feat that even Sir Christopher Wren failed to achieve – and in doing so he influenced how the Royal Family were to be seen by their subjects in the future (4).
References (available from the British Architectural Library , RIBA )
- Building News and Engineering Journal, 25 October 1912, vol.103, p.565
- Architects’ & Builders’ Journal, 9 October 1912, vol.36, pp.375-379
- Builder, 1 Nov 1912, vol.103, p.498
- Fellows, R., 1995. Edwardian architecture: style and technology . London: Lund Humphries, p.35
Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA