Clarence House, the real home of Charles and Camilla

A few hundred meters from Buckingham, on the edge of Saint James’s Park, Clarence House erects its sober and classic white façade. Since 2003, Charles and Camilla have made it their London residence. And they don’t seem to want to give it up…

Last of the great aristocratic residences of London, Clarence House was built from 1825, in the purest style Regency, by the famous architect John Nash, then Inspector of Crown Buildings. Its recipient was Guillaume Henri, Duke of Clarence and Saint-André, the third son of George III. He then spun the perfect love with an actress from Covent Garden, Dorothea Jordan, who had given him ten children! He hardly dreamed of getting married, and the house of Hanover threatened to die out. Summoned to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, the prince was offered this residence, worthy of his fiancée, as a consolation prize.

John Nash will spare no expense, and the initial budget of 9,000 pounds will be more than doubled! It is also said that the unfortunate Dorothea, abandoned for reasons of State, would have died of grief, an outcome all the more sad that the German wife of the Duke of Clarence will leave him without any legitimate descendants. As for the prince, he liked his new hotel so much that, having become King William IV in 1830, he preferred it to the nearby Saint James Palace, which he considered too cramped.

Clarence House
Clarence House. © Getty Images

When Victoria succeeded her uncle in 1837, Clarence House fell back into relative anonymity. After William IV’s sister, Augusta-Sophie, who died there unmarried in 1840, the house passed to Victoire de Saxe-Cobourg-Saalfeld, the young queen’s mother, then, from 1866, to Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh. After the latter’s death in 1900, Clarence House became the residence of his youngest brother, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, until 1942.

Prince Philip supervises the renovation

It was not until the aftermath of the Second World War – during which the buildings were requisitioned by the Red Cross – that they regained their brilliance. When the heir to the throne, Princess Elizabeth, married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, the young couple needed a London residence. Clarence House was damaged by Blitz bombing. Damp and uncomfortable, its ceilings crumble. Several rooms are still lit with gas. There is no central heating, and only one bathtub… lodged at the back of a cupboard.

In order to contribute to the installation costs of the new household, George VI released 100,000 pounds from the savings made on his budget during the war. To finance the restoration and the modernization, in spite of the rationings, the Parliament votes in addition an exceptional credit. Philip intends to give his precise opinion on the layout, supervised by the decorator Isley Donald, a friend of his aunt Edwina Mountbatten.

The almost orphan, the eternal traveler aspires to weave the warm family cocoon he has always dreamed of. On occasion, he is seen in shirt sleeves, helping movers move furniture. Work on Clarence House was finally completed on July 4, 1949, the American National Day. Jokingly, Philip assures that it is, for him too, his independence day !

At Clarence House, he has a Regency-style bedroom, complete with a walk-in closet converted into a ship’s cabin. Its library is made of white sycamore from Canada. His living room is adorned with portraits of his father and mother, signed by the society painter Philip Alexius de László, as well as that of his grandfather Battenberg. Next to his desk, he had an ultra-modern drafting table installed with a movable panel. The prince will hardly use these arrangements because, from November 17, 1949, he leaves for Malta where he is appointed first lieutenant and second in command of the HMS Checkers.

Queen Mum actually “the fanciest house in London”

King Charles, born at Buckingham Palace, will spend his first three years in the nursery at Clarence House. He then has a blue elephant on wheels as a playmate! Her sister Anne was born there on August 15, 1950, at 11:50 a.m., in Elisabeth’s room, on the 2nd floor, overlooking the Mall. The Duke of Edinburgh, beaming with happiness, immediately toasts the new princess with the staff. The death of George VI two years later forced the new sovereign and his family to move to Buckingham, the symbol of the monarchy, while the Queen Mother replaced them at Clarence House with Princess Margaret. Charles will always miss this residence, especially since he will often go to have a tea party at his dear grandmother’s or stay with her during his parents’ long official trips.

For its part, Queen Mum first described Clarence House as a “horrible little house”, whose garage was too cramped to accommodate all his cars! However, she will live there for almost half a century. From this observatory, she discreetly monitors those “next door”, in Buckingham. Every morning, Elizabeth II telephoned him, even before calling his private secretary. The switchboard operator who puts them in communication pronounces the ritual sentence, which makes the new attendants laugh: “Your Majesty? His Majesty, Your Majesty…” The rest of the communication is scrambled, but there is no doubt that the opinions of the old sovereign are listened to religiously.

Despite its relative smallness, the Queen Mother will know how to make it “the most chic house in London”. Because the mistress of the place takes comfort, and even luxury, without ever sinking into snobbery. With her, grandeur is tamed by charm and well-being. Clarence House is tastefully decorated with paintings, busts, porcelain, tapestries, travel memorabilia and family photos. You can admire paintings by Monet, Sisley, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Fantin-Latour. Sumptuous bouquets of flowers, frequently renewed, color each living room. In the Queen Mother’s bedroom hangs a Madonna and Child by Raffaelino del Garbo, inherited from his grandmother Scott. On each side of the bed stand guard two angels bought at the Bordighera market when Elisabeth Bowes-Lyon was only eight years old.

Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret around Queen Mum on her 90th birthday outside Clarence House in August 1990.
Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret around Queen Mum on his 90th birthday outside Clarence House, in August 1990. Left to right, Prince Philip, Peter Philipps, Princess Anne, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, Prince Edward, Princess Diana, Prince Charles. © PA-EMPICS/ABACAPRESS.COM

It is at Clarence House that Diana spends the last weeks before the wedding. Already hunted down by journalists, she finds a reassuring presence with the old queen. Elisabeth took the opportunity to teach him the basics of royal etiquette. Every year on August 4 – his birthday – admirers of Queen Mum are several thousand to crowd in front of his residence. Almost ritually, she appears on her balcony, then on the porch of her residence, where her daughters and grandchildren join her. She then gives a short speech of thanks. A few children are allowed to approach her to give her flowers, gifts and greeting cards. A brass band sings happy birthday

A living house and a working residence

After the death of Queen Mum, in March 2002, Elizabeth II decided to give Clarence House to her eldest son. Retained as it was since the 1950s, the beautiful residence needs a complete overhaul. It is necessary to restore and repaint the facades, change the electrical wiring, replace the plumbing and carry out a thorough asbestos removal. This structural work, paid for by the British taxpayer, amounts to the trifle of 4.5 million pounds sterling.

Charles, for his part, paid on his own purse for the “extras” to the tune of 1.6 million pounds, in particular the furnishing of Camilla’s apartment, which did not yet have official status. He entrusted the care of the site to his official decorator, Robert Kime, who had already renovated Highgrove and Birkhall. However, the works are supervised by the prince’s former valet and his personal adviser, Michael Fawcett, as well as by Camilla.

Charles wants above all to preserve the spirit, to capture the style of the Queen Mother. The reception rooms on the ground floor will retain their original decor and furniture for the most part. A few armchairs and paintings are out of place, the walls hung with new pastel tapestries, the windows with oriental-inspired curtains, but the memory of the deceased matriarch remains omnipresent. Everywhere, we find his portrait, his Chelsea porcelain, his silverware or his precious books, the watercolors of Peter Biegel immortalizing his corgis and the oils of the “cracks” of his stable.

The Garden Room is adorned with a large tapestry offered by Napoleon III to Queen Victoria, representing the Massacre of the Mamluks by Mehemet Ali in Cairo. On the ceiling of the Salon du Matin, where Queen Mum liked to welcome its guests, a stucco crown evokes the former hostess. The south-facing window opens onto the magnificent garden. It is in this room that the official photographs of the baptisms of Princes George and Louis were taken.

In the entrance hall, between canvases of royal ancestors, unfurls the banner of the late queen, Dame of the Order of the Garter, which Charles had brought back from St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. “Robert Kime introduced new color combinations and new furniture, while maintaining the familiar atmosphere of a much-loved family home, explains the site of the Royal Collection. The layout of the rooms and the grouping of their contents remain recognizable as they were in Queen Elizabeth’s time, with much of Her Majesty’s collection of artwork and furnishings in their former positions. “

Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales did not want to create a sanctuary or a museum, frozen in a bygone past, even if the ceremonial salons are open each summer to the public, by reservation. It is primarily a living house and a working residence. Charles’ official office overlooks the garden. Access by a private staircase to the first floor, where the one who will become the Duchess of Cornwall in 2005 and today the queen consort, has a bedroom, a boudoir and a bathroom, next to those of Charles. For two decades, Clarence House has become the true home of the couple who left their mark there and weaved memories. There is no doubt that both will find it difficult to leave him…

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Clarence House, the real home of Charles and Camilla

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