What you see today is a Portland stone facade constructed as recently as 1930. It replaced an earlier facade by Edward Blore, a fashionable architect of his time, and the Blore front had itself replaced an even earlier one by the great Georgian architect John Nash, who had risen from a humble background in Lambeth to become the man who most changed the face of Central London.
The Prince Regent, later George IV, had commissioned Nash to build Regent Street, Trafalgar Square and Carlton Gardens, all of which were great successes at the time. Nash remodelled the state rooms of the Palace – which still survive – but his most dramatic change was the construction of much larger north and south wings, with a triumphal arch in the middle to commemorate the victories of Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo (see picture).
The arch was a mistake as it looked a bit out of place and was too narrow for some royal carriages to get through. Queen Victoria had it removed and re-located at the north east part of Hyde Park, where we know it and the neighbourhood to which it gave its name as Marble Arch.
Nash’s Buckingham Palace looked quite dramatic compared with the bland facade we see today, and there were mixed reactions at the time. Many regarded it as a masterpiece. However, in the words of the 1869 Ordnance Survey map: “Nash’s one great failure was Buckingham Palace, where many windows and doors would not open or shut properly, where the drains were a disgrace. The front of the palace, too, became a laughing stock and was rebuilt by Edward Bore” (we think the OS may have meant Blore but we are not completely sure).
Nash’s extravagance cost him his job, and when William IV – George IV’s younger brother – succeeded him in 1830 he got Bore, sorry, Blore, to finish the job, though the King never actually moved in. When Parliament burned down in 1834 he offered the palace as an alternative home for it. No one seems to have mentioned reviving the option as a way of avoiding spending billions on temporary accommodation while today’s Parliament buildings are being restored.
For all the money spent on the palace by previous sovereigns, Queen Victoria was the first monarch to actually live there (from July 1837) and it had to be expanded yet again – including a fourth wing – to accommodate guest rooms and nurseries for the many children. George IV’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton was sold to help pay for the extensions.
By the start of the 20th century London’s pollution – soot and smog – was eroding Blore’s facade and Sir Ashton Webb was commissioned in 1913 to reface it with Portland stone, which is hardier and largely self-cleaning.
Buckingham Palace has at last enjoyed a long period of stability after a series of different ownerships. It started off as Goring House (the nearby Goring Hotel recalls this memory) before becoming Arlington house (after the Earl of Arlington). In around 1703 it was rebuilt by the Duke of Buckingham, whose name it still bears.