It has 775 rooms, a cinema, pool, tennis court, secret doorways, 42 acres of gardens and a lake, so why has it fallen out of favour?
Each year, millions of tourists press their faces through the gates of Buckingham Palace just to marvel at its Portland stone facade and imagine the sumptuous interiors that lie beyond.
But, for all its majestic scale and appearance, admirably central location and extraordinary range of accommodation and facilities, none of those qualified seem keen to take up residence.
Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had no affection for the place, and King Charles and Queen Camilla do not, by all accounts, relish the prospect of relocating there from Clarence House once current refurbishment work is completed. The late Queen signed off the ambitious £369 million project in 2017.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for the King said it was “currently the intention” that their majesties would move in when workmen move out in 2027. It was a long way short of saying they could not wait to live in the world’s most famous palace, and will do little to dampen speculation that the couple might never occupy it.
By the time the reservicing work is completed, the King and Queen will both be pushing 80 – not the sort of age at which most people are considering a house move. The King has lived at Clarence House for 20 years and made it his own with the help of interior designer Robert Kime, whereas the Palace’s interiors are preserved in aspic.
The truth is that Buckingham Palace is the least homely of the 12 residences that the King uses each year, so it is little wonder that it inspires so little affection.
Even his mother, the epitome of duty, was reluctant to move in when she became sovereign in 1952. According to legend, it was only when her prime minister, Winston Churchill, put his foot down that she gave up hope of staying in Clarence House.
“You are basically living above the office,” said one former servant, “so it doesn’t lend itself to privacy and it’s not an easy place to relax.”
Monarchs only stay at Buckingham Palace when they are working, meaning that for them it is a physical representation of the responsibilities that weigh heavily upon them, rather like the Downing Street flat is to the Prime Minister. Conversely Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor (and Highgrove in the King’s case) represent a chance to get away from those duties, even if red boxes and prime ministerial visits continue.
Nor does the Palace compensate its occupants by offering them the sort of luxury living that those millions of tourists might imagine.
“Ironically, you couldn’t describe the Royal living quarters at Buckingham Palace as palatial,” says one former servant. “When private citizens buy a big house, they use all of it as their living space, but at Buckingham Palace they are confined to a small corner of quite a draughty building.
“You are talking about a bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, reception area and not much more than that.
“It has to be said that the King has always operated on the basis that he is happy with a bedroom, study and sitting room, but even Clarence House has more private living space, as the first and second floors are just for the King and Queen.”
Generations of Royal family members have found Palace life challenging. Edward VIII complained about “the gloom of Buckingham Palace” and how the family would “freeze up” as soon as they went inside. When the then Princess Elizabeth moved in with her family in 1937, the Palace had a full-time pest controller to dispose of mice, and her governess likened staying at the Palace to “camping in a museum”.
The mice were still in residence when the Obamas stayed at the Palace in 2011 (Barack Obama was terrified his wife, Michelle, who is frightened of mice, would find out), and the couple found themselves accommodated for the first and only time in a presidential guest suite that did not have an en-suite bathroom. The Obamas had to cross a corridor to clean their teeth and wash.
The private apartments are contained at the back of the north wing – the rear right-hand corner when looking at the front of the building – with a view looking out onto Constitution Hill.
The majority of the 775 rooms are accounted for by the 188 staff bedrooms, 52 guest rooms, 92 offices, 78 bathrooms, 19 state rooms and various other service rooms, including kitchens, storage rooms and staff canteens.
Clarence House is also rather easier to heat. Throughout her life, the late Queen used a two-bar electric fire to heat rooms at Buckingham Palace in which enormous fireplaces were never lit. The King is so appalled at the energy bills for Buckingham Palace that he has ordered staff to set the thermostats at no higher than 19C (66F) in the winter, and when rooms are not being used they are turned down to 16C, with radiators turned off completely at weekends. He has also stopped heating the swimming pool. It has cut the carbon footprint and kept costs down, but adds to the impression of a building that has been mothballed.
The King likes his homes to be well ventilated anyway, but the Queen feels the cold, and friends of the couple say it is no secret that Her Majesty is even less keen on a move to Buckingham Palace than her husband.
“The King is very mindful of appearances and having the monarch living at monarchy HQ,” said one royal source. “He doesn’t view these things as a choice; he just views it as what is done.”
Would all those millions of tourists still flock to Buckingham Palace come rain or shine if it were unoccupied?
Visit Britain says it has never asked that question in any tourist surveys, but the King does not want to risk finding out the answer. He knows that family appearances on the balcony, in particular, are a hugely important driver of public affection for the monarchy, and that staging such moments in a vacated building would never be the same.
Sir Michael Stevens, keeper of the privy purse, said last month that the Palace will remain “at the heart of Royal and national life” once the current refurbishments are complete, which have included rewiring and the installation of lifts to make the building more accessible.
He was at pains to point out that even with building work going on, the Palace hosted garden parties, receptions, lunches, investitures and formal dinners.
It will take 18 months to clear 70,000 objects from the north wing, which houses the royal apartments, followed by two years of construction work on the wing.
At the presentation of the Royal Household’s annual accounts last month, a Buckingham Palace spokesman said: “It is currently the intention that Their Majesties will occupy the private apartments of Her Late Majesty at the end of the reservicing programme. At this point, I’m not in a position to speculate about the future use of Clarence House.”
Part of the equivocation could be down to a realisation that as the King and Queen approach their 80s, their health could be a factor in any decision to upend their lives with a move to the Palace.
If for any reason they did not move in, it could mean that the late Queen was the last monarch to reside in the building.
What, then, would become of it? One thing that is already guaranteed is that the Palace’s 10-week summer opening to tourists will be extended in order to maximise revenue (all of which goes towards running costs), and more parts of the Palace could be opened up to the paying public.
There has already been speculation that the whole building could be turned into a museum, enabling the Royal Collection Trust to display more of its million-object collection.
The drawback with that idea is that it would clash with set-piece events such as garden parties, investitures and state banquets, which cannot realistically be carried out at any other royal building in the capital.
There is also little appetite from the London Assembly for another art gallery in a city that already has the National Gallery, the Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Hayward Gallery and the Wallace Collection, among others.
So it seems likely that the King will have to become a reluctant resident in a home built for Georgian tastes and finances, embraced by Queen Victoria, but imperfect for the means and mores of a 21st-century monarch.