Touching Up Rubens: Close Encounter With Whitehall’s Famous Ceiling

Banqueting House on Whitehall is famous for three things: (1) It’s the last surviving chunk of Whitehall Palace*; (2) It’s where Charles I had his head lopped off; (3) it’s got a bloody impressive ceiling by Rubens.

Like King Charles, we recently overcame our trepidation and mounted a terrifying scaffold at Banqueting House. The multi-storey platform stretches to within touching distance of the great hall’s ceiling, where we came face-to-face with royalty.

The vast decoration was painted by Rubens in 1635, and glorifies King James I and VI, who’d died a decade before. It’s thought to be the only surviving ceiling work by the artist still in situ.

Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after the 17th century building, is currently examining the ceiling ahead of restoration work — hence the scaffolding. It wobbles as we ascend. Quite a bit.

From our privileged vantage point, the vast scale of the work becomes apparent. We are surprised to find that the artwork was not painted directly onto ceiling plaster, but instead comprises numerous panel-mounted canvases. Indeed, the entire set was removed during the Second World War and stored in a Hertfordshire barn. Some panels had to be cut in half to fit through the doors.

A group of specialists, who don’t mind heights, are minutely examining both the paintwork and the surrounding coffering. Their findings will inform the restoration team, who’ll spruce up this most important of ceilings during a forthcoming period of closure.

For now, Banqueting House remains open to visitors every day from 10am to 5pm. You won’t be able to get as close as this, but the magnificent ceiling is certainly worth a good gawp from below.


*There are other survivals, most notably an old wine cellar beneath the Ministry of Defence, but they’re generally off-limits for the public and we’ve been told never to share our photos, for some reason.

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