Royal Museums Greenwich: National Maritime Museum and Queen's House
Daniel Asher Alexander
- Original design
- Daniel Asher Alexander, 1807
- Rick Mather Architects, 1999
- C. F. Moller Architects , 2011
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
The building which now houses the National Maritime Museum was originally used as a school. It was one of two wings constructed either side of the Queen’s House to accommodate and teach the sons and daughters of seamen. The wings were connected by open colonnades and these extensions were completed between 1807 and 1816. The architect was Daniel Asher Alexander who designed the buildings to complement the classical style of the Queen’s House. The west wing of the School was extended in 1862 and a gymnasium was created in 1873 in what is now Neptune Court. There were service buildings on the east of the site, where boys could learn useful trades, including baking, tailoring and laundry.
In 1927 preparatory work began to create the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The museum’s founding benefactor was Sir James Caird, a Scottish shipowner and member of the society for Nautical Research (SNR). The title ‘National Maritime Museum’ was suggested by the writer, Rudyard Kipling. In 1933 the naval school moved to Suffolk and a year later the NMM was founded by Act of Parliament. The Greenwich Hospital collections of naval relics and paintings were transferred to the NMM and James Caird paid for the conversion of the building. The Museum was officially opened by King George VI on 27th April 1937, along with the Queen’s House. During the Second World War items of great importance were quickly removed to safe storage and the buildings only narrowly escaped major bomb damage. The Museum and the Queen’s House re-opened to the public in 1947.
Between 1995 and 1999, the main body of the museum, Neptune Court, was refurbished by Rick Mather architects. The aim was to make the central courtyard more visible. They constructed Europe’s largest free-span glazed roof, which created a new central square. Streets were built on the ground floor and 10 new galleries created. In 2011 the new Sammy Ofer Wing was completed, named after the philanthropist and shipping magnate who funded most of the project. It extended the museum on the park side, created a new entrance, extra exhibition space as well as a new café and library. The wing has a contemporary aesthetic but is inspired by the classical design of the main museum building.
The National Maritime Museum is in possession of roughly 2.5 million objects and apart from loans it is all national property. The vast majority of these are documents on paper, such as ship plans, public records and photographs. There are also approximately 3300 models, 4000 oil paintings and 5000 navigational instruments. The museum continues to be one of the country’s leading attractions, bringing in between 1 and 2 million visitors a year.
In 1616 the first plans for the Queen’s House were made by the architect Inigo Jones. The house was designed as a retreat for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I. Jones spent time in Italy and was inspired by the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio. He brought his ideas back to England. The Queen’s House was the first truly classical building in England and was the inspiration for many others in succeeding years.
Anne of Denmark died in 1619, before the building could be completed. Work resumed 10 years later by James I’s son, Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria of France. The external structure was completed in 1635 and the interior about 1638. Queen Henrietta Maria went on to fill the rooms of the House with the most cutting-edge art and designs of the day.
There may have been some intention to use the House as a place to receive royal and diplomatic dignitaries, but its use by Henrietta Maria and Charles I was entirely private.
One of the House’s most famous features is the Tulip Stairs. They were the first cantilevered (centrally unsupported), spiral stairs in England, based on the Italian model. The flowers are probably fleurs-de-lis (lilies), the royal symbol of France. They were first referred to as tulips in respect of a blacksmith’s repair bills in the early eighteenth century. The House also boasts the earliest first floor loggia in England. A loggia is a gallery open along one side of a building, usually arcaded or colonnaded. It was intended to allow residents the opportunity to take in the beautiful view of the park and the activities taking place in it, such as hunts.
Henrietta Maria had little time to enjoy the building. She had to flee to France upon the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. After the defeat of the Royalists, parliament sold the royal art works at Greenwich, including those in the Queen’s House. There was some neglect and vandalism of the property. Oliver Cromwell briefly considered occupying the House but this went no further. During the Interregnum it was reserved for government use.
At the Restoration Charles II adapted the building. In 1661 work started on the East and West Bridge Rooms, turning the House from a ‘H’ shape into a fully connected square. Upon her son’s Restoration Henrietta Maria returned to England. She came back to live in the Queen’s House while Somerset House was adapted for her. Her move there in 1662 ended the history of Greenwich as a ‘royal seat.’ Since then, the Queen’s House has only been used occasionally by the royal family.
During the eighteenth century the House was sometimes used for state events. For example, in 1714 Prince George of Hanover held his first reception on British soil here. But the House’s main use during this period was as ‘grace and favour’ apartments and as a residence for the Ranger of Greenwich Park. Around 1699, when Lord Romney was Ranger, the Woolwich to Deptford Road was diverted, creating the Romney Road which still exists today.
In 1806 the royal connection with the house ended. It was purchased from Caroline, Princess of Wales to provide accommodation for the naval asylum, an orphanage school for the sons and daughters of seamen. The interior was drastically altered to make five staff residences and dormitories for pupils. The school moved to Suffolk in 1933. A massive programme to renovate the Queen’s House began in 1934 under the direction of George Chettle, architect and inspector of Ancient Monuments. The rooms in the central roadway were removed, and the interior of the house was restored to something close its original seventeenth-century state. The Queen’s House was formally re-opened to the public as part of the NMM in April 1937. During the Second World War the Queen’s House was requisitioned for military use. The area to the front of the Queen’s House was used for allotments.
There was a restoration project from 1984 to 1989, and from 1990 the House started to be used for corporate functions and other events, including weddings. In some ways this was a return to its original function as a ‘palace of delights,’ a place to be seen and to entertain. Since refurbishment in 2001 its main museum use has been to display aspects of the NMM art collection.
After 15 months of extensive refurbishment the Queen’s House reopened to the public in October 2016. The restoration project was carried out to mark the 400th anniversary of the House. The work re-introduced the original seventeenth-century colour schemes in many parts of the house such as the King’s Presence Chamber and the Tulip Stairs. A Turner Prize winning artist, Richard Wright was commissioned to create an artwork for the ceiling of the Great Hall. Today, the building continues to be popular with visitors. It is famous for its art collection and its architecture. It remains one of Greenwich’s most important historical landmarks.