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Alumni visit to Marlborough House - report

12 April 2013

In March 2013, a party of Alumnus Association members paid a visit to Marlborough House. John Deards reports on what they saw.

Walking down the The Mall or turning north up Marlborough Road, between St James’s Palace and The Queen’s Chapel, many of us will have looked up at the grand red brick house with white stone dressings sitting securely behind its own garden wall and wondered about its history and its modern use. Not generally open to the public, its entrance is guarded by a road barrier and manned gatehouse off Pall Mall. However on one cold March afternoon under the aegis of a UCL History Alumni outing we were all made very welcome to Marlborough House and given a tour and commentary by the guide, Terence Donovan.

On entering the vestibule our first sight was a bank of individual pictures of young people from all over the world. Each of these is a citizen of a Commonwealth country and signals the house’s role since 1962 as that organisation’s international headquarters, offices and location of many of its conferences and gatherings. The Mission Statement in the reception area states ‘We work as a trusted partner for all Commonwealth people as a force for peace, democracy, equality and good governance; a catalyst for global consensus-building; a source of assistance for sustainable development and poverty eradication.’ Then, taken further in, we settled ourselves into a cube shaped space, known as the Wren Room, where the history and evolution of the house was explained.

Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, secured a lease from Queen Anne and the House was completed in 1711 though in a much simpler form than we see today. The chosen architect was Sir Christopher Wren, in preference to Sir John Vanbrugh who was then building Blenheim Palace. The Duchess was a famously argumentative woman who fell out with both of her architects and even went on to lose Queen Anne’s friendship. However, she died in the house and her descendants lived there until 1817 when the lease was bought back by the Crown. From then on it housed various members of the Royal Family and was put to a number of public uses, until 1959, when Queen Elizabeth II passed it to the Government to use as a Commonwealth centre. Thus, while the Wren Room with its timber wall panelling, ornamental plaster ceiling, chimney piece and other features would be recognisable to that architect and his contemporaries, the history and modifications made to many of the other spaces over the next century or so were bound up with subsequent royal inhabitants.

Some of this history was related as we sat comfortably next door in the State Dining Room admiring the royal portraits. Queen Adelaide lived in the house during her widowhood and gave a wedding banquet for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. Twenty or so years later it became the residence of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Extensive alterations were needed to accommodate his lifestyle; adding two additional floors to the building to give the outline that we see today and knocking two or three rooms together to create the State Dining and Drawing Rooms.

As our guide remarked, if Victoria was a Victorian then Edward was an Edwardian, and his London house and the parties he threw there gave its name to the dissolute Marlborough House Set. To the dismay of his mother, he gathered around him a raffish, rich and hedonistic set of friends and hangers-on whose life style and extramarital affairs led to many famous scandals and heartbreaks. We all felt very sorry for Queen Alexandra! Then in 1903, when the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) were given occupancy, the Duchess refused to move in until the whole place had been cleaned and refurbished to bury the memory of its recent history.

In the State Drawing Room, with its gilded pillars and ornate ceiling, we sat around the enormous table with its cherry mahogany veneer and were told of its current role as the Main Conference Room for Commonwealth meetings. In this setting, and under the portraits of four Commonwealth Secretaries-General, our guide explained that that the Commonwealth was a voluntary association of countries that supported each other and worked together towards shared goals in democracy and development. The Secretariat, located at Marlborough House, employed around 275 persons full time from around three-quarters of its 54 member states. Using this small staff it sets about quiet diplomacy for peace and the avoidance of strife and bloodshed amongst its members. Visitors were urged strongly to inform themselves and others better about all that it did.

From an artistic point of view the House is most renowned for its paintings, created from 1713 to 1714 by the French decorative painter Louis Laguerre, on the upper walls of the saloon, and the grand staircases that we ascended and descended. These murals show The Duke of Marlborough’s famous battles. Although we see the Duke in historic poses, no attempt was made to hide the horrors of the battlefield. This included a gruesome scene of a peasant woman stripping a dead soldier of his uniform that would then be resold, repaired and reissued to other troops. But a small human touch is supplied by the inclusion, at the Duke’s insistence, of his West African page who was with him at the Battle of Ramillies.

Finally, descending into the Main Saloon we looked up and admired the paintings of Orazio Gentileschi that had been taken from the Queen’s House in Greenwich, then cut down and reduced in size to fit their new location.

Our tour had lasted two hours and we had enjoyed a fascinating mix of history, architecture, art and royal gossip from an earlier age. We stepped back into Pall Mall with an overwhelming impression of a house whose foundations were in the European wars and aristocratic society of the early 18th century but whose role in our time was to provide a base for those who strove for peace and equality throughout the world.

Thanks to Peter Dawe for organising this event.

Page last modified on 12 apr 13 09:11 by Neil Matthews