Carlton House:   Never-Ending Renovation

King George III gave his eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, Carlton House as his London residence when the young man attained his majority. From that day, until it was finally and completely demolished, it was an almost constant drain on the resources of the nation. This was because the Prince continually and repeatedly renovated, remodeled and redecorated his London mansion and its surrounding grounds for the duration of his residence there. Despite the ongoing changes at Carlton House, it was also the scene of many important events throughout the Regency period. Not to mention, it also gave its name to those in the Prince’s inner circle, who became known as the "Carlton House set." Authors may find that it would make a rather sumptuous setting for scenes in stories of romance set during our favorite period.

Carlton House though the Regency years . . .

The Prince of Wales turned twenty-one on 12 August 1783. At that time, his father, King George, granted him the use of the vacant London mansion, Carlton House for his first home as an adult. That house had been the home of his grandparents, Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Augusta. Prince Frederick had become estranged from his own parents, King George II and Queen Caroline, and was unwilling to live with them at Hampton Court. The house was originally built on a plot of land leased from Queen Anne, by Henry Boyle, the First Baron Carleton, in 1709. Upon his death, in 1725, it became the property of his nephew, Richard Boyle, the Third Earl of Burlington. In 1732, Lord Burlington made his mother a gift of Carlton House. That same year, the Dowager Countess of Burlington sold the house to Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Prince Frederick refurbished and expanded his new house for use as the primary London home for his family. Lord Carlton’s original house had been built of red brick, but that was no longer considered fashionable. Therefore, Prince Frederick had the front of the house faced with fine stone. He also had the extensive grounds landscaped with a garden which was based on Alexander Pope’s famous garden at Twickenham. Nearby, the Prince had an attractive bowling green laid out. A large grove of trees was planted on the grounds, into which was introduced a rookery. In addition, the principal designer, Sir William Kent, designed a waterway with a cascade which meandered though part of the property. After Prince Frederick’s death, his wife, Augusta, the Dowager Duchess of Wales, continued to live at Carlton House. During her lifetime, she enlarged the house by acquiring abutting properties and making them part of Carlton House and its grounds. It was here that she spent a great deal of time with her children and her special favorite, Lord Bute. When Princess Augusta died, in February of 1772, the property reverted to her eldest son, who by then, was King George III.

After the passing of Princess Augusta, Carlton House stood empty for more than a decade. But in 1783, as her eldest grandson, the Prince of Wales, was approaching his twenty-first birthday, he would require his own residence in London. King George III decided that Carlton House would be the best choice for his son and heir’s first home as an adult. Apparently hoping to instill some sense of responsibility, or perhaps simply to keep his eldest son occupied, King George stipulated that the Prince would only be given the property if he was willing to undertake " all repairs, taxes and the keeping of the gardens" at Carlton House. The Prince agreed to his father’s terms and the grant of the mansion was accompanied by £60,000 with which to repair and refurbish the house and grounds of his new home, separate from his parents.

Prince George was very interested in architectural design and threw himself into refurbishing and remodeling of his new London home. His father had appointed Sir William Chambers, who had tutored the king in architecture, as the principal architect for the work at Carlton House. But Prince George resented what he considered to be his father’s interference. The Prince of Wales thought that Sir William’s taste and ideas were staid and dull. He wanted to choose his own architect, preferably, a younger man with more progressive tastes, and with whom he had a more positive rapport. His chance came, once the initial survey of the property was completed. Sir William was replaced by the Prince’s own choice, Henry Holland. As it happened, this would be Holland’s first major commission for Prince George, and would lead to many more, including a significant commission for the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

Henry Holland had spent time studying classical architecture in Rome. However, his taste, and that of the Prince, both ran more to the neo-classical style which was then emerging in France. Holland had completed his plans for Carlton House within a few months and they were soon approved by his royal client. Early in 1784, initial construction began at Carlton House. The most obvious new construction was the free-standing colonnade of Ionic columns which was erected along the boundary of Pall Mall and the north facade of Carlton House. The other significant exterior construction was the grand entrance portico, or porte-cochëre, of six Corinthian columns supporting a triangular entablature that featured the royal coat of arms. This porte-cochëre was attached to the facade of the north front of Carlton House, which faced Pall Mall. The columns of this porte-cochëre supported nothing but the entablature, and it is believed that this inspired a visiting Italian artist to write in chalk on one of them the following couplet:

Care colonne, che state qua?
No sapiamo in verita

Meaning "My dear Columns, what are you doing here?" To which the columns reply, "We do not know, in truth" The insinuation being that they have no clue as to their purpose, since they do not really have one.

The pillars of the free-standing Ionic colonnade are believed to have inspired a bon mot of the era which has been ascribed to the famous poet and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The Prince’s brother, the Duke of York, had a circular court in the front of his home, while the Prince had a row of pillars. Sheridan is reported to have quipped, "The Duke of York has been sent, as it would seem, to the Round House, and the Prince of Wales to the Pillory." Despite the fact that Sheridan was a staunch Whig, both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York were less than pleased with this popular and widely circulated bon mot, but there was little either of them could do about it.

In addition to the publicly visible exterior construction, Henry Holland had also prepared designs for the remodelling of several rooms into State Apartments for the Prince. These elegantly appointed rooms faced the garden side of the house. Once they were remodeled, these rooms would become the principal reception rooms for the Prince and his important guests. Horace Walpole paid a visit to Carlton House about a year after construction began there. He wrote to friends that he thought this refurbished mansion would be "the most perfect in Europe" when it was completed. The Prince himself was very pleased with the work done by Henry Holland, as well as the various interior decorators who had been employed to finish his new rooms with elegant furniture and soft furnishings.

Remarkably, despite the fact that he had been given £60,000 to refurbish his new home, within two years, the Prince of Wales had run through the whole amount. Less than a year after his marriage to Maria Fitzherbert, in December of 1785, the Prince’s debts totaled over £250,000. A significant percentage of that debt was due to the renovations at Carlton House, which eventually had to be halted. In fact, the skyrocketing costs of the work at Carlton House created such a stir within the government that it led to the appointment, by Parliament, of a commission to investigate the issue. That same commission also estimated that it would take another £60,000 to complete the renovations at Carlton House. With no other way to get the necessary funds, the Prince had to go to his father and plead with him for more money so that he would be able to finish the work at his London mansion. The King gave the Prince another £60,000 and work once again began at Carlton House, in the summer of 1787. During the time that the renovation work was stopped, Henry Holland had taken a trip to Paris. While there, he took the time to study the latest in French neo-classical architecture, knowledge he would employ on the next phase of work at Carlton House.

This second round of renovation went on for more than ten years and cost much more than £60,000. By 1794, the Prince was once again deeply in debt. The King used the Prince’s extravagance to force his recalcitrant son and heir into a legitimate marriage to a royal princess. Desperate for cash, Prince George had no choice but to agree to the marriage, at which point he would get a significant increase in his allowance. Once he had agreed to marry Princess Caroline of Brunswick, one of the first things the Prince of Wales did was to order Henry Holland to create a set of apartments on the second floor of Carlton House for his new wife. The completion of these apartments marked the end of the second round of renovations at Carlton House.

The Prince of Wales married Princess Caroline in April of 1795. He disliked her on sight, but went through with the ceremony because he needed the money Parliament would grant him as a married man. By then, he was probably pleased that he had arranged for separate apartments for her in Carlton House, as it is reported they only spent their wedding night together. However, Caroline maintained that they also spent the second night of their marriage together as well. The only child of that marriage, Princess Charlotte, was born at Carlton House, in January of 1796. Princess Caroline continued to live at Carlton House for about two more years. But by 1798, the relationship between the royal couple had become so strained that she moved out of Carlton House and into her own residence at Warwick House. But she was forced to leave her baby daughter, Princess Charlotte, with the Prince of Wales to grow up at Carlton House.

Prince George made no significant changes to Carlton House for nearly a decade after his marriage. However, about 1804, he began planning a new round of renovations. By that time, Henry Holland was very busy planning for the conversion of the former Melbourne House, located in Piccadilly, into a set of bachelor apartments which was then renamed Albany. Therefore, the Prince engaged a new architect, James Wyatt, who had done work for his mother at Frogmore House. Wyatt was responsible for shifting the Prince’s bedchamber from the third floor to the ground floor on the garden side of Carlton House. Beginning in 1805, several rooms on the ground floor, and some on the third floor, were redecorated to fit them out for new purposes after the relocation of the Prince’s bedchamber. This sumptuous, and very costly, interior decorating work was supervised by Walsh Porter, who served as the Prince’s artistic advisor, from 1805, until his sudden and unexpected death, in 1809.

In his typically quixotic and improvident manner, within two years, in 1807, the Prince decided that he wanted his bedchamber moved back up to the third floor of Carlton House. By that time, Henry Holland has passed away and James Wyatt was busy with other commissions. Therefore, on the recommendation of Walsh Porter, the Prince commission the self-taught but talented architect, Thomas Hopper, to make the changes he wanted. In addition to moving the Prince’s bedchamber back to the third floor, and remodeling the space, Hopper also designed and oversaw the construction of the famous iron and stained glass Gothic Conservatory on the ground floor. This large and elegant room was said to have been inspired by the Chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey.

This magnificent conservatory became the culmination of a grand suite of rooms at ground level which faced the extensive gardens on the south side of the building. These rooms included the formal dining room, the Library, and the Chinese Drawing Room. Access to each of these rooms was by folding doors, all of which could be opened to create a dramatic and impressive enfilade suite of six rooms. In June of 1811, the Prince of Wales hosted a magnificent fête at Carlton House, ostensibly to celebrate the King’s birthday, but in actual fact to celebrate his recent appointment as Regent for his mentally ill father. This enfilade suite of rooms was opened for use as a colossal banqueting room for that evening, with one long dining table running though its complete length. A miniature stream flowed down the length of the table, filled with tiny live gold and silver fish.

Only a couple of years later, in 1813, the Regent was once again looking for yet another architect to make still more changes to Carlton House. In that year, he commissioned the noted Whig architect, John Nash to create new designs and to supervise the next round of renovations to Carlton House. At the direction of the Regent, Nash created new plans to completely remodel the rooms on the ground floor of Carlton House. Nash also added two new rooms to the long enfilade suite there. These new rooms were the Chinese Dining Room, decorated in a style of which the Prince was fond, though it was going out of fashion by that time. The room beyond the Chinese Drawing Room was the Corinthian Room, decorated in the French neo-classical style. With the addition of these two new rooms, the enfilade suite on the garden front of Carlton House included eight rooms, all of which could be opened up to create a huge space for entertaining.

The following year, in 1814, after the first abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte, a series of victory celebrations were planned, when the Allied leaders all assembled in London that summer. The Regent intended to host the sovereigns at several important events at Carlton House during the course of their visit. For that reason, he also had Nash add a pair of temporary rooms above the new Chinese Drawing Room and the Corinthian Room. In addition, Nash also designed and supervised the building of a large wooden rotunda, 120 feet in diameter, in the gardens at Carlton House. This building was also intended to be temporary, and was constructed for use during the sumptuous outdoor celebration which the Regent had planned to honor the Duke of Wellington, in July of 1814.

The work done by Nash, in 1814, marked the last of the major renovation/construction projects at Carlton House. But that was not the end of the interior work that would be done there, nor of the significant attendant costs. The Prince of Wales frequently ordered that the furnishings in one room be moved to another. Whenever possible, he did his best to lead people to believe that this was being done to "economize." In truth, there was almost always a significant cost to reworking those furnishings, such as furniture, draperies, cushions and even some chimney pieces, in order to make them suit the new room into which they were moved. There were also a number of instances in which the Prince placed large orders for expensive fabrics or trims in which he had lost interest by the time they were delivered. Since most of the work was custom, the materials could not be returned. They were stored, or, in some cases, given away to friends or favorites. Not only was the Regent moving expensive furnishings around in Carlton House, from time to time, he also ordered that some fittings and furnishings be removed from his London mansion, to be installed in his seaside resort, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. These changes typically also incurred significant costs, to remove them, transport them and to re-install them in the Royal Pavilion. These kinds of changes occurred so often that scholars today find it difficult to track all of them.

It is known that one round of redecorating occurred early in 1816, in order to prepare for the marriage of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold that spring. The ceremony took place in the Crimson Drawing Room, which the Regent had ordered to be transformed into a royal chapel for the event. Some of the furnishings and accessories were borrowed from other royal palaces, but many more were acquired just for that wedding. Following the ceremony, the Regent hosted a magnificent dinner for the young couple and his large group of distinguished guests.

Sadly, less than two years later, Princess Charlotte died after a very difficult labor and her baby son was stillborn. The Prince Regent was devastated by the loss of the future queen and her heir. Then, just a year after the death of his daughter, his mother, Queen Charlotte, also died. By that time, the people of London were no longer showing the Regent the public support and affection he craved. He was grossly overweight, suffering from gout and advancing age. By early 1819, he was spending more and more time at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where he got more expressions of public support and affection. It is likely that for many of these reasons, he began loosing interest in further construction at Carlton House.

In 1818, the Prince Regent ordered that the "temporary" wooden Rotunda which had been erected in the grounds of Carlton House, in 1814, for the grand fête for the Duke of Wellington, be removed. It was carefully dismantled and transported to Woolwich Common. John Nash wanted to convert the rotunda into a church, but he was over-ruled. The Regent preferred that it be used as a museum for the Royal Artillery, as a place in which they could display the trophies that had acquired during the Napoleonic Wars, along with models of weapons and other military curiosities. The Rotunda was re-erected in Woolwich in 1820, during which process, Nash added a central supporting pillar and a led roof. The Rotunda still stands on Woolwich Common to this day, though it is no longer used as a museum.

Beginning in 1819, because he was spending so much more time in Brighton, the Regent ordered that more and more fixtures and furnishing from Carlton House be removed and re-installed in the Royal Pavilion. One of the largest and most notable of these transfers was the entire contents of the Chinese Room, which had been constructed in Carlton House between 1788 and 1790. None of these transfers was inexpensive. Early in 1820, after the death of his father and the Regent became King George IV, he decided that Carlton House was too small for his new position. Not to mention that it was in such a bad state repair that it would have been prohibitively expensive to make it habitable again. King George IV began seeking a new home in London, and hit upon his mother’s former home, the Queen’s House, also known as Buckingham House. Over the course of the next few years, Carlton House was gradually stripped of its contents. Those things that were not sent to Brighton were either sent to Windsor Castle, or were stored for incorporation into the renovations which the new King was planning for what would become Buckingham Palace.

Late in 1827, Carlton House had essentially been stripped of all of its fixtures and furnishings, right down to the walls. The building was then demolished and the gardens were completely cleared. Even the rookery, which had been established in the woods there over a century before, was eliminated when the trees were all cut down. Most of the birds that were living in the rookery were relocated to a stand of trees near Spring-Gardens. The entire property was razed in preparation for new construction which would begin there over the course of the next couple of years. The only architectural survivals from Carlton House that exist today are the Rotunda on Woolwich Common and the columns from the main entrance portico on the north facade. Those columns were stored and re-erected as part of the entrance to the National Gallery, in 1835. Only the name survives, as Carlton House Terrace, to remind us where it once stood.

In his later years, King George IV had become nearly blind, like his father, and was increasingly hard of hearing. In addition, he was often so ill that he became a virtual recluse. He spent most of his time, in the last few years of his life, living at Windsor Castle. He died there, in June of 1830, barely two years after the demolition of Carlton House. Though work at Buckingham Palace continued during his lifetime, he was never to live there, or even live to see the work completed. But many of the fine furnishings and exquisite pieces of decorative arts which the Prince of Wales had commissioned for Carlton House are now part of the decor of Buckingham Palace.

Though Carlton House is long gone, the Internet has made it possible for those who are interest to take a virtual tour of this grand royal mansion. At the Lothians blog, a very energetic and diligent gentleman in New Zealand has created a series of eight blog posts which allows his visitors to enjoy a host of images relating to Carlton House. These images include views of the exterior and the interior, as well as photos of some of the contents and floor plans of the different levels. For those of you who would like to take this virtual tour back in time to Carlton House, you can start here. Any Regency author who is planning to set any scenes from a story at Carlton House will find this set of blog posts invaluable in getting a sense of the appearance of the rooms there when the Regent was in residence.

For those of you who prefer your research sources on paper, there is only one printed volume on Carlton House of which I am aware:   Carlton House:   The Past Glories of George IV’s Palace. This is a catalog of an exhibition held in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, from 1991 to 1992. Most of the catalog consists of entries on individual objects in the Royal Collection which were originally acquired for Carlton House. But the introductory material in the book includes a time line for both George IV and Carlton House which runs in parallel so it is easy to see at a glance which events in the Regent’s life coincide with changes at Carlton House. That is followed by a richly illustrated essay on the history of Carlton House which includes some images I have never seen anywhere else. This essay is followed by essays on the furniture, the pictures, the plate, the porcelain and the arms in the collection of the Prince of Wales, all of which were once in Carlton House. Though this catalog is now long out of print, used copies can be found in online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. For example, several copies can be found at the online book-seller aggregator, Biblio, on this page.

[Author’s Note:   For those of you who would like a digital copy of the Carlton House exhibition catalog, it is available for download from the Royal Collection Trust website, here.]

Dear Regency Authors, through the years that the Prince of Wales owned Carlton House, it was a drain on the resources of the nation. But it was also a showplace of the nation as well. Though he was an incorrigible spendthrift, and his taste in architecture was often over the top, the Prince had rather good taste in art, as well as several knowledgeable advisors who guided him in his purchases for the objects with which he furnished his London home. And many of those acquisitions were very fine indeed, as can be ascertained by those objects which have survived into the twenty-first century. We do know that Jane Austen paid a visit to Carlton House, in November of 1816, though she left us no record of her opinion of the place, just of James Stanier Clarke, the Prince’s librarian, who gave her a tour of the main rooms. Fictional characters in a Regency romance might also visit Carlton House. What might be their view of this opulent royal mansion? Or, could it be that some of the characters in your next romance might be appalled by the waste of money which was an almost chronic problem at Carlton House? Then again, one or more of your characters might make their fortunes while supplying goods and services to Carton House. Are there other ways in which Carlton House might find a place in an upcoming Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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