One of the perks about writing is that one occasionally gets an interesting invite to preview days – such as the Press Day at Buckingham Palace last Thursday to link in with the fact that the palace gardens are now open to the public, throughout the summer. We’ve all seen the crowds queuing to meet the royal family at the formal tea parties – but this was different, a chance to explore the gardens, walk round the lake, and marvel at this quiet oasis surrounded by bedlam beyond the walls.
OK., there were dozens of other Press-related people there as well, but not that many, and sitting on the lawn in front of the palace, eating sarnies (crusts removed, of course) was quite delightful.Two things particularly interested this Georgian Gent – the Waterloo Vase and the Buckingham Palace gin, made with botanicals grown in the garden. First: the Vase. It is enormous – some eighteen feet tall, carved from a gigantic block of finest Carrara marble. Viewing it from a distance, from a slightly raised path and surrounded by blocks of colour created by the Queen’s rose garden, you don’t fully appreciate how big the thing is. Our guide hardly came up to the top of the plinth on which it stands. Except that it isn’t called a mere plinth – the Royal Collection website describes it as being “supported by a gadrooned torus and a spreading socle foot mounted on circular and square plinths and a large square stone stand”. The images are shown courtesy of the Royal Collections Trust (because private photography was not allowed at this point on the tour).
Interestingly, the vase was commissioned by Napoleon as his commemorative urn. Apparently, when he passed through Tuscany in 1812 on his way to the Russian Front he saw this enormous block of uncarved marble and asked for it to be set aside so that it could be adorned, at a later date, with symbols of his great victories-to-come. When he met his Waterloo the chunk of marble was gifted to the Prince Regent in 1815 by Ferdinand, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who presumably didn’t want it cluttering up his driveway. The Prince Regent thought it would look good as part of his collection of art and commemorative statuary in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, and so the sculptor Richard Westmacott was commissioned to carve decorative panels around the outside of the urn. No-one thought to hollow out the inside, so it remains as a thirty-something-ton block of somewhat weathered marble, serving no particularly useful purpose and adorning the rose garden which Harry Wheatcroft designed for the monarch.
Too heavy to sit on any of the palace floors, the vase was gifted to the National Gallery in 1836. The gallery was custodian of the unwelcome gift until 1906, when it was gleefully handed back to the royal family. And so it remains, adorned (apparently) with bas reliefs of King George III siting on his throne, and of the un-horsed Emperor Napoleon, viewed, until now, only by Her Majesty, the gardeners, and others permitted to walk round the rose garden. Until now, that is. Because the Palace Gardens are now open to the public, and a guided tour includes the rose gardens, leaving every hour on the hour. The guide is extremely helpful, and escorts you round in parties of 20 to 30 people, which makes the experience much more interesting. And so even hoi polloi, like me, can view this absurd, gigantic, but utterly pointless vase – and reflect on the way that the Prince Regent was so desperate to bask in the glory of the Battle of Waterloo that he claimed the victory for himself. That is why, in the words of the Royal Collections Trust: “The handles of the vase are personifications of winged Victory and Defeat, the latter cowering behind a shield. Above Victory is a third and smaller panel illustrating an allegory of Peace presenting the Prince Regent with a palm and Europe emerging from a refuge beneath a throne.” And there was I thinking that the Battle of Waterloo had very little to do with the Prince Regent, when all along, he was the one who saved Europe single-handedly….
As to the gardens, the website tells me that it is ‘a walled oasis in the middle of London’and that it is the largest private garden in the capital and boasts 325 wild-plant species, 30 species of breeding birds, and over 1,000 trees, including 98 plane trees and 85 different species of oak. Who would have thought that it provides a habitat for native birds rarely seen in London, including the common sandpiper, sedge warbler and lesser whitethroat? Well, you know now.
It also contains the National Collection of mulberry trees – harking back to the days when King James I planted a small forest of mulberries, hoping to stimulate a silk industry in this country. Unfortunately he planted the wrong sort of mulberry – the silk worms like the black variety, not the white one. But today the collection features some forty different types of mulberry bush. In the past I have eaten the fruit – looking slightly like an elongated raspberry. Odd taste. But I was interested because mulberry is one of the botanicals used in a new Palace Gin launched this year. I wasn’t too sure when the press release stated that it uses the mulberry leaves – I had assumed that it would be the berries which imparted the flavour. There are also berries from the hawthorn bushes growing in the gardens, along with lemon verbena and bay leaves. As my next-book-but-one will be all about the History of Gin, and how craft gins have flourished using different methods of production and with different ingredients, I was interested to try the palace gin – because I cannot imagine many other producers have access to mulberries. So I bought a bottle, and very nice it is too. (Actually this isn’t my pic, it’s from the Royal Collections Trust).
And now for the plug: The Garden at Buckingham Palace will open from Friday, July 9, to Sunday, September 19, 2021. £16.50 for adults. Garden Highlights Guided Tours should be booked with the main ticket and are priced at £6.50 for adults. Tours will run 12 times a day. www.rct.uk, +44 (0)303 123 7300. Pre-booking is essential.
That is enough product endorsement! All in all, a lovely day out.