Clarence House: the beauty of ‘romantic gloom’

Picture credit: Royal Collection Trust

At Clarence House on London’s Mall, an imposing white stucco façade overlooks a small parterre garden: the Rosicrucian Garden, planted by the Prince of Wales, present owner of Clarence House, in honour of its previous one, his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The garden conjures a mix of scents as the sun warms the low box borders, Imperial Gem lavender and ruby roses (Bishop of Elvaston and New Age).  Light filters through the holm oaks punctuating each segment.

As royal residences go, Clarence House is a relatively modern one.  Constructed in 1825-7 by Buckingham Palace architect John Nash, the thing that is most striking is the small scale intimacy of the place.  It really does feel like a home, albeit a super-glamorous one.  The five public reception rooms currently on display bear the unmistakable presence of the Queen Mother, both in décor and through her portraits and books (art, geography, current affairs, Dick Francis racing thrillers….). She is reported to have described the atmosphere in the House as “romantic gloom” and that’s a fair description – light filters through curtains, reflecting off giltwood furniture and countless family photographs and portraits (including racehorses and corgis).

Deep reds and greens predominate in the furnishing but the room I found loveliest was the morning room which has been re-furbished by the Prince of Wales in homage to his grandmother in the Strathmore racing colours of blue and buff.   The tone is actually a lovely eau-de-nil that perfectly offsets the giltwood Chippendale furniture, apparently much favoured by both Noel Coward and the royal corgis, sometimes simultaneously.

The Queen Mother is still present in portrait form.  In the morning room, a late portrait has her in a familiar pastel-coloured feather hat; the library shows her painted in the 1930s while still Duchess of York, holding her straw capeline trimmed with a wide navy scarf; and the dining room has an unfinished 1940 portrait by Augustus John, glistening in beaded white tulle Norman Hartnell couture and tiara (though with mismatched earrings).

The Prince of Wales has brought his own touches to the house.  The organic gardens and beehives supply the kitchens.  A new recycling centre takes care of waste.  Two magnolia saplings have been planted in the garden by the Dalai Lama and by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Garden Room boasts a harp (the Prince instituted the role of Royal Harpist, for which one of the criteria is that the holder be Welsh) as well as a number of ethnic touches in cushions and ornaments, typical of the Prince’s interest in ethnic culture and artisanship.

Though the house reflects changes made by generations of owners, it is the Prince and his grandmother that seem to have done most to make it a home, or as close as it is possible to get to one in a royal palace.  It is a charming home, a functional space and an extraordinary historical document.

It is open to the public during August and you can book tickets through the website. Don’t hesitate – it is a rare opportunity to experience something very special.


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