After Queen Victoria, Buckingham Palace could never be the same

Queen Victoria’s costume for the Stuart Ball (Royal Collection Trust)

Buckingham Palace is both a home and an office for the monarch. But before Queen Victoria’s time it was an unloved and fairly rundown building. The 18-year-old Victoria ignored her advisers and moved into Buckingham Palace within weeks of becoming Queen in 1837 – and set about transforming it into the magnificent building it is today. A special exhibition on Queen Victoria’s Palace is part of this summer’s opening of the State Rooms at the palace.

The East Wing – the face of the palace that we recognise today, with the famous balcony – was added to the existing U-shaped palace between 1847 and 1849. Victoria was particularly frustrated by the lack of “a room capable of containing a larger number of those persons whom the Queen has to invite in the course of the season to balls, concerts etc”. The new ballroom, completed in 1856, is beautifully displayed, with digital projection revealing how its ceiling, wallpaper, paintings and windows originally looked.

“I wanted to create an exhibition showing Queen Victoria transforming Buckingham Palace, and in the process transforming how the monarch was perceived by the nation,” Amanda Foreman, curator of the exhibition, told me. Victoria had to change attitudes and undermine expectations; she brought “a completely new expression of sovereign power”, Dr Foreman said. Victoria wanted to emphasise her family, and the virtues of loyalty and public service. She would bring people into her palace, including wounded soldiers and eminent scientists, among others. She also opened up the garden; royal garden parties are still held at the palace three times a year.

I asked Dr Foreman which item in the exhibition meant the most to her, and she picked three. First is a small gold casket containing the teeth of the queen’s young children – an object that shows Victoria’s character, she said. Victoria has had a lot of negative publicity for her poor relationship with her children, but “she expressed her love through things, because of her own problems growing up” – her very fraught upbringing by her controlling mother.

The second object is a stunning dress trimmed with gold braid, lace and seed pearls that Victoria wore for a Stuart-themed Ball in the palace. The third is a painting of the first use of the balcony used by generations of royals after weddings and other celebrations – a balcony which Victoria herself decided should be at the centre of the new wing she had built at the front of Buckingham Palace.

The two most delightful parts of the exhibition are the ballroom, where a version of Pepper’s ghost shows dancers waltzing to Verdi’s La Traviata, and the State Dining Room, with the long table laid out with a replica of a sumptuous royal dessert course.

Queen Victoria’s Palace is part of the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace until September 29