Nick Hackworth

Clarence House, 2003

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Clarence House, home to the Queen Mother for almost 50 years and now the official residence of the Prince of Wales and the Princes William and Harry, opens to the public for the first time today. For the princely sum of £5 you will be taken on a short, guided tour of the five main rooms on the ground floor of the house, used to entertain official guests.

Left largely unchanged from the Queen Mother’s time, the rooms are intelligently and harmoniously decorated. A domestic and private, rather than a formal, air is maintained by the predominance of light background colours and the highly personal collection of furniture, art and objects in the rooms.

The Garden Room is particularly delightful with its profusion of freshly cut flowers, fine Gobelins tapestry and doors that open on to the garden, creating a pastoral feel that adds to overall lightness of the rooms on the tour.

Beyond the fresh flowers, however, one of the major attractions at Clarence House should be the art, for the Queen Mother had a justified reputation for being a judicious collector of paintings on a domestic scale. On show here are works by some of the most significant 20th century British painters, including Graham Sutherland, Walter Sickert, Augustus John and John Piper. Unfortunately the works cannot be counted among the finest work in her collection.

The Sutherland portrait of the Queen Mother that hangs in the Morning Room is one of the worst he ever painted and is deeply unflattering. The Sickerts are dull and the Augustus John portrait fey and unfinished. However, not all who visit will be interested in the art. They can comfort themselves with the knowledge that the Duke of Clarence, for whom the house was built in the 1820s, felt much the same way.

Casting an eye over an Old Master painting that belonged to his brother, George IV, the Duke, a career sailor with no pretence to cultural sophistication, observed: “Aye, it seems pretty. I dare say it is. My brother was fond of this sort of knick-knackery.” In this non-knick-knackery appreciating category, alongside the tourists and dedicated royal fans, will be those interested in an intimate tour of a living relic of Britain’s aristocratic past.

Clarence House is the last great aristocratic town house to be maintained in use for the purpose for which it was built. The upheavals of the last century quite suddenly did for the rest of them and the dominance of the families that owned them. So perhaps it would be foolish to pass up a chance to see this symbolic survivor.

Open to the public until 17 October. Tickets must be booked in advance: 020 7766 7303