Wednesday, August 26, 2015


The fascinating new summer exhibition A Royal Welcome at Buckingham Palace, open until September 27th, shows the visitor exactly what goes on behind the scenes to make a state banquet a success. The palace has recreated the banquet setting for the State Visit from Singapore in 2014.

The tables for the State Banquet are set

The moment I entered the palace, I thought: as a writer of novels set in the Regency period, this is the nearest I’m going to get to one of the Prince Regent’s state banquets at Carlton House. This is more than just a wild leap of imagination on my part; it was George IV who invited the architect John Nash to transform Buckingham House into a palace with nineteen appropriately splendid State Rooms; and much of the furniture, ornaments, chandeliers etc. came from Carlton House.

Nash’s Grand Staircase

Nash had a flair for the theatrical and the Grand Staircase, which welcomes important guests into the palace is in itself a sort of coup de théâtre, leading you into the unknown. You can’t see what’s at the top but you sense that it will be something special – as, indeed it is. Almost the first thing I spotted was Canova’s delicious white Carrara marble statue, Venus reclining, (1816, from Carlton House) a very Prinny touch!

Silver Pantry

For this exhibition, the palace has created a series of special ‘behind the scenes’ showcases. This is where we see what goes on behind the scenes. The Silver Pantry, for example, has the silver-gilt plates and the cutlery, much of it collected by the Prince Regent. He had eclectic tastes; he liked rococo and baroque, as well as classical; and he seems to have collected it piecemeal. There isn’t enough gold plate for a complete banquet set – so the guests’ plates and cutlery comprise several different sets.

Gold centrepiece, bought by the Prince Regent

The gold centrepiece, shown here in the process of being cleaned and put back together, was another of his purchases.

The porcelain for the State Visit from Singapore, 2014

The Prince Regent was equally interested in porcelain. The photograph shows two different sets used for the banquet. One set of plates is a very pretty turquoise and gold Minton bearing Queen Victoria’s VR monogram; the other set, decorated with birds was made by François Tournier for the Duc d’Orléans, and bought by the Prince Regent after the French Revolution.  

The Wine Cellar

The wine cellar showcase shows an array of glasses, decanters and wine etc. The decanters date from the Prince Regent’s time and are still in use today. Note the butler’s uniform hanging up. Each guest has six glasses: for water, white wine, red wine, champagne, sweet wine and port.

Banquet table detail

There are four servants: page, footman, under butler and wine butler, to look after every nine guests. They each have their specific jobs and it is all meticulously synchronized.

Making chocolate buttons

So, what’s going on in the kitchen? We are given a fascinating glimpse into the making of chocolate buttons (based on the buttons on the footman’s uniform). Note the copper moulds for the famous chocolate bombes – sure to have been a hit at a Carlton House banquet, too. The numerous copper utensils are all originals and some date from our period. They are regularly used and re-tinned when necessary.

Sugar orchid flowers

I also loved the beautiful orchid sugar flowers, as made for the Singapore State banquet, whose national flower it is. Nothing is too much trouble to make the guests feel welcome. Each guest is given a small booklet with the guest list, the menu, the wine, and the live music being played. The banquet ends with the Queen’s pipers circling the room twice, after which, the Queen, and then her guests, leave the room. The palace wants every guest to feel comfortable and to know what happens when.

Banquet: the head of the table. Note the organ – originally in the Brighton Pavilion

The room is candlelit for the banquet and the candlelight makes everything shimmer – especially the ladies’ jewellery and the gold centrepieces.

I just loved this piano

Afterwards, there is a formal exchange of gifts; followed by coffee and, in Prinny’s day, perhaps some music. The grand piano from Carlton House is also now in Buckingham Palace.

Looking back towards Buckingham Palace from the gardens.

So, dear readers, if you would like to experience how it might feel being invited by the Prince Regent to Carlton House for a formal occasion, I suggest that you visit A Royal Welcome at Buckingham Palace. You will not be disappointed.

Elizabeth Hawksley

All photographs by Elizabeth Hawksley


Amanda said...

This looks like a fantastic exhibition, Elizabeth. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'm hoping to go and see it very soon.

Fenella J Miller said...

I'd love to see it. How many can be seated around the table?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks for your comment, Amanda. I'm sure you'll love it - and the cakes in the café are delicious, too!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I can't remember exactly how many people can be seated, Fenella. I think about 100. The palace even hase a gadget used by the footmen setting the tables for the banquet which gives the exact space allowed between each guest!

Janet Gover said...

WOW. That's spectacular Elizabeth. I love the idea that they measure the space each guest is allowed. I wonder if a very large special guest arrived , did they have rules for how much space they would get.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks for your comment, Janet. I was wondering about that myself! They did say that, if a guest dropped out for some reason, they shuffled the remaining places along that side to even things up, so maybe they allow a bit of extra space anyway, just in case!