10 Downing Street, the home of British prime ministers since 1735, vies with the White House as being the most important political building anywhere in the world Behind its iconic black door, the most important decisions affecting Britain for the last 275 years have been taken
In the 20th century alone, the First and Second World Wars were directed from within it, as were the key decisions about the end of the empire, the building of the first British nuclear bomb, the handling of economic crises from the Great Depression in 1929 to the modern day, and the development of the welfare state
Some of the most famous political figures of modern history have lived and worked in Number 10, including Robert Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher
Number 10 has overlapping functions It is the official residence of the Prime Minister: it is their office, and also the place where they entertain guests from Her Majesty The Queen, world leaders and other British and overseas guests from business and charities
Front door and entrance hall:
Most of the modern exterior shape and features of Number 10 were created by Kent when he combined the house at the back with the Downing Street townhouses in 1735 Its outside appearance is basically the same today as it was when he completed his work An exception is the now famous front door entrance
Number 10’s door is the product of the renovations Townsend ordered in 1766; it was probably not completed until 1772 Executed in the Georgian style by the architect Kenton Couse, it is unassuming and narrow, consisting of a single white stone step leading to a modest brick front The small, six-panelled door, originally made of black oak, is surrounded by cream-coloured casing and adorned with a semicircular fanlight window Painted in white, between the top and middle sets of panels, is the number “10” The zero of the number “10” is painted in a very eccentric style, in a 37° angle anticlockwise One theory is that this is in fact a capital ‘O’ as found in the Roman’s Trajan alphabet that was used by the Ministry of Works at the time A black iron knocker in the shape of a lion’s head is between the two middle panels; below the knocker is a brass letter box with the inscription “First Lord of the Treasury” The doorbell is inscribed with “PUSH” although is rarely used in practice A black ironwork fence with spiked newel posts runs along the front of the house and up each side of the step to the door The fence rises above the step into a double-swirled archway, supporting an iron gas lamp surmounted by a crown.
After the IRA mortar attack in 1991, the original black oak door was replaced by a blast-proof steel one Regularly removed for refurbishment and replaced with a replica, it is so heavy that it takes eight men to lift it The brass letterbox still bears the legend “First Lord of the Treasury” The original door was put on display in the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms
The door cannot be opened from the outside; there is always someone inside to unlock the door
Beyond the door, Couse installed black and white marble tiles in the entrance hall that are still in use A guard’s chair designed by Chippendale sits in one corner Once used when policemen sat on watch outside in the street, it has an unusual “hood” designed to protect them from the wind and cold and a drawer underneath where hot coals were placed to provide warmth Scratches on the right arm were caused by their pistols rubbing up against the leather
No 10 Downing Street has a lift
Couse also added a bow front to the small cottage—formerly Mr Chicken’s house—incorporated into Number 10 in Walpole’s time.
When William Kent rebuilt the interior between 1732 and 1734, his craftsmen created a stone triple staircase The main section had no visible supports With a wrought iron balustrade, embellished with a scroll design, and mahogany handrail, it rises from the garden floor to the third floor Kent’s staircase is the first architectural feature visitors see as they enter Number 10 Black and white engravings and photographs of all the past Prime Ministers decorate the wall They are rearranged slightly to make room for a photograph of each new Prime Minister There is one exception Winston Churchill is represented in two photographs At the bottom of the staircase are group photographs of Prime Ministers with their Cabinet ministers and representatives to imperial conferences.
In Kent’s design for the enlarged Number 10, the Cabinet Room was a simple rectangular space with enormous windows As part of the renovations begun in 1783, it was extended, giving the space its modern appearance Probably not completed until 1796, this alteration was achieved by removing the east wall and rebuilding it several feet inside the adjoining secretaries’ room At the entrance, a screen of two pairs of Corinthian columns was erected (to carry the extra span of the ceiling) supporting a moulded entablature that wraps around the room Robert Taylor, the architect who executed this concept, was knighted on its completion The resulting small space, framed by the pillars, serves as an anteroom to the larger area Hendrick Danckerts’ painting “The Palace of Whitehall” usually hangs in the ante-room It also contains two large bookcases that house the Prime Minister’s Library; Cabinet members traditionally donate to the collection on leaving office a tradition that began with Ramsay MacDonald in 1931
Although Kent intended the First Lord to use this space as his study, it has rarely served that purpose; it has almost always been the Cabinet room There have been a few exceptions Stanley Baldwin used the Cabinet Room as his office A few Prime Ministers, such as Tony Blair, occasionally worked at the Cabinet Room table Painted off-white with large floor to ceiling windows along one of the long walls, the room is light and airy Three brass chandeliers hang from the high ceiling The Cabinet table, purchased during the Gladstone era, dominates the room The modern boat-shaped top, introduced by Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, is supported by huge original oak legs The table is surrounded by carved, solid mahogany chairs that also date from the Gladstone era The Prime Minister’s chair, the only one with arms, is situated midway along one side in front of the marble fireplace, facing the windows; when not in use, it is positioned at an angle for easy access The only picture in the room is a copy of a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole by Jean-Baptiste van Loo hanging over the fireplace Each Cabinet member is allocated a chair based on order of seniority Blotters inscribed with their titles mark their places
The First Lord has no designated office space in Number 10; each has chosen one of the adjoining rooms as his or her private office
State Drawing Rooms:
Number 10 has three inter-linked State Drawing rooms: the Pillared Drawing Room, the Terracotta Drawing Room and the White Drawing Room (See the three state drawing rooms)
Pillared State Drawing Room:
The largest is the Pillared Room thought to have been created in 1796 by Taylor Measuring 37 feet (11 m) long by 28 feet (85 m) wide, it takes its name from the twin Ionic pilasters with straight pediments at one end Today, there is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I over the fireplace; during the Thatcher Ministry (1979–1990), a portrait of William Pitt by Romney was hung there
A Persian carpet covers almost the entire floor A copy of a 16th-century original now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is an inscription woven into it that reads: “I have no refuge in the world other than thy threshold My head has no protection other than this porchway The work of a slave of the holy place, Maqsud of Kashan in the year 926”
In the restoration conducted in the late 1980s, Quinlan Terry restored the fireplace Executed in the Kentian style, the small Ionic pilasters in the over-mantel are miniature duplicates of the large Ionic pillars in the room The Ionic motif is also found in the door surrounds and panelling
Sparsely furnished with a few chairs and sofas around the walls, the Pillared Room is usually used to receive guests before they go into the State Dining Room However, it is sometimes used for other purposes that require a large open space International agreements have been signed in this room Tony Blair entertained the England Rugby Union team in the Pillared Room after they won the World Cup in 2003 John Logie Baird gave Ramsay MacDonald a demonstration of his invention, the television, in this room.
Terracotta State Drawing Room:
The Terracotta Room is the middle of the three drawing rooms It was used as the dining room when Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister The name changes according to the colour it is painted When Margaret Thatcher came to power it was the Blue Room; she had it re-decorated and renamed the Green Room It is now painted terracotta
In the renovation of the 1980s Quinlan Terry introduced large Doric order columns to this room in the door surrounds and designed a very large Palladian overmantel for the fireplace with small double Doric columns on each side with the royal arms above Terry also added an ornate gilded ceiling to give the rooms a more stately look Carved into the plasterwork above the door leading to the Pillared Room is a tribute to Margaret Thatcher: a straw-carrying ‘thatcher’
White State Drawing Room:
The White State Drawing room was, until the 1940s, used by Prime Ministers and their partners for their private use It was here that Edward Heath kept his grand piano It is often used as the backdrop for television interviews and is in regular use as a meeting room for Downing Street staff The room links through to the Terracotta Room next door In the reconstruction during the late 1980s, Quinlan Terry used Corinthian columns and added ornate Baroque-style central ceiling mouldings and corner mouldings of the four national flowers of the United Kingdom: rose (England), thistle (Scotland), daffodil (Wales) and shamrock (Northern Ireland)
State Dining Room:
When Frederick Robinson (later Lord Goderich), became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1823, he decided to leave a personal legacy to the nation To this end, he employed Sir John Soane, the distinguished architect who had designed the Bank of England and many other famous buildings, to build a State Dining Room for Number 10 Begun in 1825 and completed in 1826 at a cost of £2,000, the result is a spacious room with oak panelling and reeded mouldings Accessed through the first floor, its vaulted, arched ceiling rises up through the next so that it actually occupies two floors Measuring 42 feet (13 m) by 26 feet (79 m), it is the largest room in Number 10 Soane was the guest of honour when the dining room was first used on 4 April 1826
The room is usually furnished with a table surrounded by 20 reproduction Adam style chairs originally made for the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro For larger gatherings, a horseshoe-shaped table is brought in that will accommodate up to 65 guests On these occasions, the table is set with the Silver Trust Silver set given to Downing Street in the 1990s Above the fireplace, overlooking the room, is a massive portrait by John Shackleton of George II, the king who originally gave the building to the First Lord of the Treasury in 1732 Celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson have cooked for Prime Ministers’ guests using the small kitchen next door Entering through the Small Dining Room, Blair used this room for his monthly press conferences.
The great kitchen located in the basement was another part of the renovations begun in 1783, probably also under the direction of Robert Taylor Seldom seen by anyone other than staff, the space is two storeys high with a huge arched window and vaulted ceiling Traditionally, it has always had a chopping block work table in the centre that is 14 feet (43 m) long, 3 feet (091 m) wide and 5 inches (130 mm) thick (See The Kitchen c1930 View showing the table, window and ceiling)
Smaller Dining or Breakfast Room:
Above Taylor’s vaulted kitchen, between the Pillared Room and the State Dining room, Soane created a Smaller Dining Room (sometimes called the Breakfast Room) that still exists To build it, Soane removed the chimney from the kitchen to put a door in the room He then moved the chimney to the east side, running a Y-shaped split flue inside the walls up either side of one of the windows above The room therefore has a unique architectural feature: over the fireplace there is a window instead of the usual chimney breast
With its flat unadorned ceiling, simple mouldings and deep window seats, the Small Dining Room is intimate and comfortable Usually furnished with a mahogany table seating only eight, Prime Ministers have often used this room when dining with family or when entertaining special guests on more personal state occasions .
Terrace and garden:
The terrace and garden were constructed in 1736 shortly after Walpole moved into Number 10 The terrace, extending across the back, provides a full view of St James’s Park The garden is dominated by an open lawn of 05 acres (2,000 m2) that wraps around Numbers 10 and 11 in an L-shape No longer “fitted with variety Walle fruit and diverse fruit trees” as it was in the 17th century, there is now a centrally located flower bed around a holly tree surrounded by seats Tubs of flowers line the steps from the terrace; around the walls are rose beds with flowering and evergreen shrubs The terrace and garden have provided a casual setting for many gatherings of First Lords with foreign dignitaries, Cabinet ministers, guests, and staff Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, hosted a farewell reception in 2007 for his staff on the terrace John Major announced his 1995 resignation as leader of the Conservative Party in the garden Churchill called his secretaries the “garden girls” because their offices overlook the garden It was also the location of the first press conference announcing the Coalition Government between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats
Number 10 is filled with fine paintings, sculptures, busts and furniture Only a few are permanent features Most are on loan About half belong to the Government Art Collection The remainder are on loan from private collectors and from public galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery.
About a dozen paintings are changed annually More extensive changes occur when a new Prime Minister takes office and redecorates These redecorations may reflect both individual taste as well as make a political statement Edward Heath borrowed French paintings from the National Gallery and was loaned two Renoirs from a private collector When Margaret Thatcher arrived in 1979 she insisted that the artwork had to be British and that it celebrate “British achievers” As a former chemist, she took pleasure in devoting the Small Dining Room to a collection of portraits of British scientists, such as Joseph Priestley and Humphry Davy During the 1990s John Major converted the first floor anteroom into a small gallery of modern art, mostly British He also introduced several paintings by John Constable and J M W Turner, Britain’s two best known 19th century artists, and cricketing paintings by Archibald Stuart-Wortley including a portrait of one of England’s most celebrated batsmen W G Grace
In addition to outstanding artwork, Number 10 contains many exceptional pieces of furniture either owned by the house or on loan One of the most striking and unusual is the Chippendale hooded guard’s chair already mentioned that sits in a corner of the entrance hall To its left is a long case clock by Benson of Whitehaven A similar clock by Samuel Whichcote of London stands in the Cabinet anteroom The White State Drawing Room contains elegant Adams furniture The Green State Drawing Room contains mostly Chippendale furniture including a card table that belonged to Clive of India and a mahogany desk that is thought to have belonged to William Pitt the Younger and used by him during the Napoleonic Wars In addition to the large carpet previously described, the Pillared State Drawing Room also contains a marble-topped table by Kent The State Dining Room contains an elegant mahogany sideboard by Adam