Located beneath the Banqueting House – a remnant of the Palace of Whitehall, the undercroft was originally designed by Inigo Jones (who designed the building as a whole) as a private drinking den for King James I.

French landscaper and architect Isaac de Caus was commissioned to decorate one end of the vaulted undercroft as a shell grotto where the king could relax with his friends. In 1623, it received a dedication from Ben Jonson:

“Since Bacchus, thou art father
Of wines, to thee the rather
We dedicate this Cellar
Where now, thou art made Dweller.”

Following the Restoration, during the reign of King Charles II, the basement was used to hold lotteries – John Evelyn describes one such event taking place in 1664 in his famed diary, although soon after this was moved into a purpose-built facility nearby.

The undercroft was subsequently used for storage including during the reign of King James II when it was apparently used to store furnishings from the Privy and Council Chambers of Whitehall Palace while they were being rebuilt.

From the late 1890s until the 1960s, it became part of the museum of the Royal United Services Institute (which also used the hall upstairs) but following a restoration in 1992, is now open to the public and also used for special events at the building.

WHERE: Undercroft, Banqueting House, Whitehall (nearest Tube is Westminster or Charing Cross); WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily (check if there is a private function); COST: £5.50 adults (16+)/children under 16 free/Historic Royal Palaces members free; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/

PICTURE: alh1/Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Fire2• A new “theatrical” exhibition marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London is opening at the Museum of London on Saturday. Fire! Fire! takes visitors on an interactive journey from before, during and after the great fire, looking at how the fire started and spread and the personal stories of Fire1Londoners present at the time. Visitors will be able to step in Pudding Lane and see what life was like for 17th century Londoners, walk into the bakery where the fire started, and identify objects melted by the flames. Exhibits on show include a restored 17th century fire engine, originally built in London in the last 1670s, other firefighting equipment including a squirt, a leather bucket and fire hook, a pair of bed hangings, a burnt Geneva Bible, and letters written in the fire’s aftermath. Admission charges apply. Can be seen until 17th April next year. A series of events, including walks, tours, lectures, workshop and family activities, accompanies the exhibition. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/fire-fire.  The museum has also commissioned a Minecraft building group recreate London as it was in 1666 with the first of three interactive maps to be released next week (available for free download from www.museumoflondon.org.uk) and further maps to follow in September and February. For more information on other events surrounding the anniversary, see www.visitlondon.com/greatfire350.

The long lost Palace of Whitehall is the subject of a new visitor experience which kicks off at the last surviving part of the palace – the Banqueting House – today. Handheld devices, binaural 3D sound and haptic technology is being made available to guests as they stroll around the streets of modern Whitehall, allowing them to immerse themselves in the former palace during the time of the Tudors and the Stuarts. The Lost Palace experience, created in a collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces and Chomko & Rosier and Uninvited Guests, includes a chance to see the jousts which so delighted Queen Elizabeth I at Horse Guards Parade, accompany King Charles I as he walks through St James’s Park to his execution at the Banqueting House, meet Guy Fawkes following his arrest in the Gunpowder Plot, take part in a performance of King Lear and eavesdrop on an encounter between King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn before their doomed love affair began. The Palace of Whitehall was once the largest palace in Europe with 1,500 rooms spread across 23 acres. Tickets can be purchased at the Banqueting House. Runs until 4th September. For more details, see www.hrp.org.uk/thelostpalace.

DressDresses worn by Queen Elizabeth II during two of the most significant events in Her Majesty’s life – her wedding and her coronation – can be seen as part of the Summer Opening of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace from Saturday. The two dresses will form part of a special exhibition – Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe, the largest display of the Queen’s dress ever held. Alongside the two feature dresses, both designed by British couturier Sir Norman Hartnell, are around 150 outfits created by designers including Hartnell, Hardy Amies and Ian Thomas. The then Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress (pictured), made for her marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh on 20th November, 1947, was made in ivory silk, decorated with crystals and 10,000 seed pearls and attached to a 15 foot long train, while the Queen’s Coronation dress – created for the event on 2nd June, 1953, is made of white duchesse satin and encrusted with seed pearls, sequins and crystals (along with an extra four-leaf shamrock on the left side of the skirt, added secretly by Sir Norman, to bring her good luck). The exhibition, open to 2nd October, is being accompanied by special displays at both Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.royalcollection.org.uk. PICTURE: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. 

The world’s largest collection of London images – more than 250,000, dating from 1450 to now – are being made available on a free-to-access website hosted by the London Metropolitan Archives from today. Collage – The London Picture Archive features more than 8,000 historical photographs of capital’s streets as well as images of the Great Fire of London in 1666 and photographs of the construction of Tower Bridge along with maps, prints, paintings and films, all drawn from the collections at the City of London Corporation’s Guildhall Art Gallery and the Clerkenwell-based London Metropolitan Archives. The collection can be accessed at www.collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

It’s hands-on gaming at the Science Museum for two weeks from Friday with more than 160 systems and hundreds of games available to play on. Power UP spans 40 years of gaming with games ranging from classics like Pong and Pac-Man to modern games like Halo and systems from Atari and SEGA to PS4 and Xbox One. Ninety minute sessions are being held four times daily from 11am tomorrow until 7th August. Ticket charges apply. For more , see www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/powerup.

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Dorothy-Wilding-1952A special photographic display has opened at Buckingham Palace this week to commemorate the fact that Queen Elizabeth II has this week become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. The outdoor photographic display Long To Reign Over Us features a selection of photographs spanning the period from 1952 to today including informal family moments, official portraits and visits of the Queen to places across the UK and Commonwealth. Highlights include a black and white portrait by Dorothy Wilding from the start of the Queen’s reign in 1952, Cecil Beaton’s official Coronation Day portrait from 1953 and a 2006 image of the Queen with her Highland Ponies. The displays, which are also being shown as Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, can be seen by visitors to Buckingham Palace’s summer opening until 27th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalcollection.org.uk. PICTURE: Dorothy Wilding. Royal Collection Trust/© William Hustler and Georgina Hustler/National Portrait Gallery, London 

Still celebrating the Queen becoming Britain’s longest reigning monarch, and a new film installation celebrating the reigns of Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria – whose reign she has now surpassed – has opened at Kensington Palace. The film installation explores key moments in the reigns of both – coronations, weddings, births as well as other key moments in their public lives –  and also examines the impact of new technologies in the reigns of both queens. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace.

Richmond Park in London’s south-west is holding its annual open day this Sunday with a range of activities for kids including pony rides, the opportunity to see inside a bug hotel with a fibro-optic camera and the chance make pills in a restored Victorian pharmacy. The Holly Lodge Centre, normally reserved for schools and learning groups, will open its doors to the general public will be at the centre of the day, offering a range of activities for children while there will also be a guided walk led by the Friends of Richmond Park, vintage car displays, and a World War I re-enactment. The day runs from 11am to 4pm. Entrance to the Royal Park is free but parking is £5. For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk.

This Saturday is Redhead Day UK 2015 and to mark the occasion, the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London is inviting visitors to celebrate by taking a selfie with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s iconic redhead La Ghirlandata. Painted by Rossetti in 1873, the artwork, said to be one of the finest pre-Raphaelite works in the world, is on permanent display at the gallery. The painting features on the cover of Jacky Colliss Harvey’s new book Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, three copies of which will be given away in a special draw at the gallery. Entry is free. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/Pages/guildhall-art-gallery.aspx.

A six metre high ceramic installation created for the V&A by artist Barnaby Barford has gone on display in the museum’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries in South Kensington. The Tower of Babel is composed of 3,000 small bone china buildings, each of which depicts a real London shop. Bamford photographed more than 6,000 shopfronts in the process of making the work, cycling more than 1,000 miles as he visited every postcode in London. The work can be seen until 1st November. Admission is free. See www.vam.ac.uk.

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Stuart-masque-at-Banqueting-HouseThe sights and sounds of the elaborate masques of the early Stuart Court – described as a cross between a ball, an amateur theatrical, and a fancy dress party – are being recreated at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Historic Royal Palaces have joined with JB3 Creative to create an “immersive theatrical experience” for visitors to the building – one of the last surviving parts of the Palace of Whitehall – with the chance to try on costumes, learn a masque dance and witness performance rehearsals for Tempe Restored, last performed in the building in 1632. Inigo Jones will be ‘present’ as masque designer to talk about his vision for the performance. Weekends will also see musicians performing period music and on 27th July there will be a one-off evening event at the Banqueting House based on Tempe Restored. Admission charge applies. Performing for the King opens tomorrow and runs until 1st September. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/. PICTURE: HPR/newsteam.

A new exhibition looking at how some of London’s great Georgian and Victorian buildings were lost to bombs and developers before, after and during World War II – and how people such as poet John Betjeman campaigned to save them – opened in the Quadriga Gallery at Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner yesterday. Pride and Prejudice: The Battle for Betjeman’s Britain features surviving fragments and rare photographs of some of the “worst heritage losses” of the mid-20th century. They include Robert Adam’s Adelphi Terrace (1768-72) near the Strand, the Pantheon entertainment rooms (1772) on Oxford Street, and Euston Arch (1837). The English Heritage exhibition runs until 15th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wellington-arch/.

IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) will be ‘uncovered’ in a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the National Army Museum. Unseen Enemy will tell the stories of the men and women in Afghanistan who search for, make safe and deal with the impact of the IEDs through personal interviews, images and mementoes. The exhibition has been developed with “unprecedented access” from the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and will include a range of equipment used in detecting and disarming the devices, such as bombsuits and robots as well as medical equipment used to help those injured in explosions. The exhibition is free. For more, see www.nam.ac.uk.

On Now: Club to Catwalk – London Fashion in the 1980s. This exhibition at the V&A explores the “creative explosion” of London fashion during the decade and features more than 85 outfits by designers including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett as well as accessories by designers such as Stephen Jones and Patrick Cox. While the ground floor gallery focuses on young fashion designers who found themselves on the world stage, the upper floor focuses on club wear, grouping garments worn by ‘tribes’ such as Fetish, Goth, High Camp and the New Romantics and featuring clothes such as those worn by the likes of Boy George, Adam Ant and Leigh Bowery. The exhibition also includes a display of magazines of the time. Entry charge applies. Runs until 16th February, 2014. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk. Meanwhile, tomorrow (Friday) night the V&A will celebrate the 25th anniversary of designer Jenny Packham with a series of four free catwalk shows in its Raphael Gallery. Booking is essential. Head to the V&A website for details.

While we’ve looked at some of the history of the Banqueting House during last year’s special on King James I’s London, we thought we’d take a more in-depth look as part of our Treasures of London series…

A perfect double cube with a sumptuous painted ceiling, this early 17th century building is the only remaining complete structure from the Palace of Whitehall which was destroyed by fire in 1698.

The building replaced an earlier banqueting hall built on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I and another, shorter-lived hall, built by King James I, which was destroyed by fire in 1619.

Following its destruction, King James had Inigo Jones design a new hall to provide, as the previous hall had, a location for state occasions, plays and masques – something of a cross between an organised dance, an amateur theatrical performance and just a chance to dress up.

Jones, who partnered with Ben Jonson to produce masques, designed the hall – which has a length double the width – with these performances specifically in mind. The first one – Jones and Jonson’s Masque of Augurs – was performed on Twelfth Night, 1622, even before the building was completed (the last masque was performed here, incidentally, in 1635, after which, thanks they were moved to a purpose built structure nearby, ostensibly to save the newly installed paintings from being damaged by the smoke of torches – see below).

The incredible paintings on the ceilings, which celebrate the reign of King James I and will be the subject of their own Treasures of London article at a later date, were installed by March 1636. Produced by Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens, they had been commissioned by King Charles I, King James’ son, in commemoration of his father. Ironically, it was outside the building where the monarchy was so celebrated that King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 (this is marked in a ceremony held at the Banqueting House on 30th January each year).

Following the king’s execution, Whitehall Palace wasn’t used for several years until Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell took up residence there in 1654, using the Banqueting House as a hall if audience. It stood empty after Cromwell’s death in 1658 until the Restoration in 1660 when King Charles II again used it as a grand ceremonial hall for receiving foreign embassies and conducting court ceremonies (these including the ancient custom of what is known as ‘Touching for the King’s Evil’ to cure those afflicted with the disease of scrofula as well as the washing of the feet of the poor by the sovereign on Maundy Thursday.)

King James II was the last king to live at Whitehall Palace and during his reign, from 1685-88, it was used as a royal storehouse. But it was revived for formal use following his reign – it was here that King William III and Queen Mary II were officially offered the crown on 13th February, 1689.

During their reign, the court’s focus shifted to Kensington but the Banqueting House was used for Queen Mary to lay in state after her death in 1694.

Following the destruction of the remainder of Whitehall Palace in 1698 – the origins of this fire are apparently owed to a maid who had put some linen by a charcoal fire to dry – the Banqueting Hall was used briefly as a Chapel Royal and, following a renovation in the late 1700s, it was used for concerts and, from 1808, as a place of worship for the Horse Guards.

Further renovation works followed and in 1837, it was re-opened as a Chapel Royal and used as such until 1890 when this practice was formally discontinued. In 1893, Queen Victoria gave the Royal United Services Institute the use of the building as a museum – among the things displayed there were the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo. In 1962, the exhibits were dispersed and the Banqueting House today is used for a range of royal, corporate and social events.

There is an undercroft underneath, designed as a place where King James I could enjoy drinking with his friends. It was later used for storage.

WHERE: Corner of Whitehall and Horse Guards Avenue (nearest Tube stations are Westminster and Embankment); WHEN: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm; COST: £5 adults/£4 concessions/children under 16 free (Historic Royal Palaces members free); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/.

PICTURE: Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

This year marks 400 years since the creation of the King James Bible (it was completed in 1611). So, in a new special Wednesday series, we’re taking a look at London during the reign of King James I (he’s the one who commissioned the Bible). First up in our list of some of the key sites from his reign in 1603 to 1625, is the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

All that’s left of the Palace of Whitehall after a fire destroyed the rest in 1698, the Banqueting House was completed towards the end of King James I’s reign in 1622. In a sharp break from the fiddly Elizabethan architecture found in the remainder of the palace, the Banqueting House was the first building in central London which paid homage to the plainer Palladian style, brought back from Italy by ‘starchitect’ Inigo Jones.

The three floor Banqueting House replaced an earlier banqueting house which, funnily enough, had been destroyed by fire only a few years earlier. The new building was built to host royal ceremonies such as the reception of ambassadors and, most importantly, performances of court masques, which at the time were growing in sophistication and were being designed to communicate to audiences messages about the Stuart concept of kingship.

The building is centred on a “double cube” room  – a hall built so that its length is exactly double its width and height. The great chamber also features a balcony believed to have been created not for ministrels but as a space for an audience to watch the proceedings going on below.

It should be noted that the massive ceiling paintings were added after King James I’s death – it was his ill-fated son, King Charles I, who commissioned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens to paint them around 1630 (they were in place by March, 1636). It was, incidentally, from one of the windows in the Banqueting House that King Charles I stepped out onto a scaffold and had his head cut off – although that was in 1649, long after the era we’re focusing on here.

Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson’s Masque of Augurs was the first masque performed here in 1622, even before the building was complete. The last was Sir William Davenant’s The Temple of Love in 1635 after which the masques were stopped, apparently because the torches typically used to illuminate them would cause smoke damage to the paintings now on the ceiling.

WHERE: The Banqueting House, Whitehall (nearest tube station is Westminster); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday (check website for closing dates as the hall is used for functions) ;  COST: £5 an adult/£4 concessions/children under 16 free; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/

PICTURE: Wikipedia

Running southward from Trafalgar Square towards the Houses of Parliament (the southern part of Whitehall is actually known as Parliament Street), Whitehall is lined with government buildings – everything from the Foreign Office to the Cabinet Office, from the Scotland and Wales Offices to the Ministry of Defence – and has become so identified with government that its very name is now used to mean just that. But where does the name come from?

Whitehall takes its name from the Palace of Whitehall which once stood on the site of the current street. The palace’s origins go back to the 14th century when a grand house known as York Place was built as the London residence of the Archbishops of York.

The building was gradually expanded over the years – work which continued when Thomas Wolsey was made Archbishop of York in 1513. When Cardinal Wolsey fell from favour in the late 1520s, however, King Henry VIII seized the house along with his other assests.

With the royal Palace of Westminster badly damaged in a fire in 1512, King Henry VIII had been staying at Lambeth Palace. He saw the newly acquired palace, renamed Whitehall, as a suitable new home and continued expansion works, constructing a series of recreationally-oriented buildings on the west side of what is now Whitehall including tennis courts, a cockfighting pit and a tiltyard for tournaments. By the time of Henry VIII’s death in 1547, the palace covered 23 acres and was the largest in Europe.

The palace continued to be used by subsequent monarchs until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1698. These days the only surviving part of the palace is the Banqueting House. Built by Inigo Jones for King James I, it was from a window on the first floor of this 1622 building that King Charles I stepped onto a scaffold where his head was cut off.

Apart from the Banqueting House, other significant sites in Whitehall including the Cenotaph, the focus of Remembrance Sunday commemorations. Downing Street, meanwhile, runs off the south-eastern end of Whitehall and behind gates which have blocked it off since 1989, stands the Prime Minister’s official residence.