In November 1992 a catastrophic fire destroyed much of Windsor Castle. The castle is the largest inhabited castle in the world and has been in continuous use by the Royal Family for nearly a thousand years. More than 100 rooms covering an area of 7,000 square metres were damaged in the blaze which was probably started by a spotlight shining on a curtain during the course of maintenance work on the castle. The conflagration was tackled by 250 fire fighters. It took 15 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water to put it out. Much of the subsequent damage was caused by this water rather than the original fire.
Initial estimates put the damage at between £40m and £60m, which sparked a public debate about who should pay for the repairs. Windsor Castle is owned by the state not the Royal Family and state assets are not insured as the Government takes the view that no insurer is bigger than the state. However, there was significant disquiet about the idea of the taxpayer picking up this bill. This triggered a wider debate about the funding of the Royal Family in general, particularly some of the “fringe royals” who were at that time still paid out of the Exchequer’s Funds.
In February 1993 John Major, the Prime Minister, announced to the House of Commons that the Queen had offered to pay income tax for the first time and that only herself, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother would be paid from the public purse. Other royals would be funded from her private income.
70% of the cost of restoring the castle would be financed by opening Buckingham Palace for the first time to the public and by a contribution from her reserves. A trust for donations was set up to cover the rest of the cost. The budget was set at £40m in June 1994.
This decision meant that the restoration of the castle was privately conducted by the Royal Family with the assistance of English Heritage and with no involvement by Government officials.
Last week my wife and I had lunch with Steven Brindle who has worked for English Heritage since 1989 and was closely involved in the restoration as Inspector of Ancient Monuments in the Crown Buildings Team. Steven has published a number of works on the castle, including the description in the new Buildings of England – Berkshire volume. He is currently planning a major new history of Windsor Castle, to be published by the Royal Collection.
My wife has a keen interest in the subject of restoration and runs her own Art Restoration business. (See her website at www.restorationoilandgild.co.uk)
Steven told us that the fact that the Royal Family supervised the project and not the Government was a tremendous advantage. Prince Philip and Prince Charles chaired the two committees involved and their combined efforts brought the project in six months ahead of schedule and under budget at £36.5m.
In strict terms the project was not a pure restoration. Over half the damaged and destroyed rooms, including the State and Octagon dining rooms, were to be restored as original. There were to be new designs for the St George’s Hall ceiling (with steel reinforcing beams in the roof) and East Screen, the Queen’s Private Chapel, Stuart and Holbein Rooms.
These decisions caused some controversy in architectural circles as some modern architects thought that an opportunity for much more imagination in design was being lost. Since Prince Charles was the Chairman of the Design Committee it is perhaps not surprising, given his well-known views on modern architecture, that these criticisms fell on deaf ears. Given the long history of the building and the surviving fabric it was believed that the new work had to be primarily Gothic. But opportunities were taken to get rid of some of the worst 19th century interventions and put in a hammer beam ceiling in St George’s Hall. In addition the new chapel and adjoining cloisters were realigned to form a new processional route from the private apartments, through an octagonal vestibule, into St George’s Hall.
The Old Private Chapel where the fire originally started was transformed into the Lantern Lobby. This area combines eight grand oak columns cascading into the central flower feature, encompassing Engel wing carvings within the scheme. The highest level of workmanship and grade of materials was used and the result is a stunning design of originality and beauty.
After this successful restoration the Castle has been used much more for the entertainment of foreign dignitaries and there has even been talk of no longer using Buckingham Palace as a residence and transforming it into a different kind of venue. My daughter, who has degrees in Art History and Cultural Heritage, worked in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and also at Windsor Castle, for a period. That would not have been possible if it were not for this chapter of events.
One wonders if the Government had taken the responsibility for the project whether it would have been completed by now and what would its total cost have become.
Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved