1st June 2001 at 01:00
The Queen's House. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

It's had a makeover, but Henrietta Maria's opulent retreat on the Thames is still a poser's paradise. Sean Coughlan reports

The Queen's House in Greenwich has been an architectural icon since its first eye-catching appearance more than 360 years ago. Now it has reopened, with a new emphasis on education.

The house's architectural claim to fame is as the first classical building in England, designed by Inigo Jones as an artistic status symbol, showing that the image-conscious Stuart dynasty could compete in the fashion stakes with the rival royal courts of Europe.

The building, part of the National Maritime Museum and standing beside the historic buildings of the former Royal Naval College on the Thames, has been renovated for a new role as an art gallery and education centre. It's the latest addition to the complex of museums in Greenwich, now designated a Unesco world heritage site. So what can visitors expect? And how will the intricacies of architectural history be made accessible to day trippers and school parties?

"The building helps us to put architecture into human terms. It's a way into discussing buildings and art, making it something you can walk around and talk about unpretentiously," says education officer Stuart Slade. "You could say 'look at the beautiful symmetry of the building', but people relate best to people, not to dry architectural history, and we can talk about the people who lived here - people who might have loved it or hated it."

To help bring the house to life, actor-interpreters will take on the roles of those who lived and worked here, such as a housekeeper, a portrait painter or a naval pensioner. And to show how the building was designed and then altered, there's a hands-on model which can be taken apart to demonstrate how the present house evolved.

As the house now serves as an art gallery, Stuart Slade suggests that another approach is to think of it as a big, formal portrait. From the self-conscious symmetry of the great hall - it's an exact cube - to the way that light is used, the Queen's House is a very painterly construction, intended to make a statement about its owner in its departure from the cosy vernacular of Tudor red-brick in favour of something light, bright and modern European. When you look at the Queen's House, with its mathe-matical formalities, marble floor and staircases suspended in the air, you can see an embryonic version of the big blockbuster classical stately homes of the 18th century. The surprise is that it was built between 1616 and 1638.

Helping visitors to make sense of the concept of portraits is another theme of the education work at the Queen's House. As part of the events for schools, a Looking at Portraits programme, available for age groups from five to 14, will seek to show children how to "read" a portrait and to understand the symbolism used by painters. If you've ever wondered why people in formal portraits look as natural as a shop-windowdummy, it could be because the poses were not painted from life, but picked out of a catalogue of stances. The 17th-century portrait studios offered patrons a selection of ways of standing or holding out a hand, with each pose intended to send a message about how they wanted to be seen.

The clothes worn in the portrait were similarly not from the subject's usual wardrobe, but symbols of how they wanted to be perceived; studios had dressing-up boxes. As an example, the museum uses a painting of the Duke of York (later James II) in Roman dress which looks about as historically authentic as Errol Flynn playing Robin Hood.

Children will also be invited to find some of the weird and wonderful symbolic objects that feature in portraits, with the education team helping to "decode" their meaning. For instance, the appearance of sunflowers isn't an indication of an enthusiastic gardener, but a sign that the royal favour has been shining upon the subject of the portrait.

Visitors can also construct their own portrait. There is a dressing-up box of clothes to get the right look and you can add a personal object to appear beside you as a symbol of your interests or tastes. Plan in advance so that you won't be restricted to a mobile phone or a newspaper.

A collection of 150 maritime portraits in oils, A Sea of Faces, will be on show all this year. And an artist in residence, Faisal Abdu'Allah, will be running workshops with school groups in June and July.

But the real challenge will be to kick-start the imaginations of young visitors and to help them picture how the Queen's House might have appeared in the time of its original occupant, Queen Henrietta Maria (it was commissioned by another queen, James I's wife Anne of Denmark, but she died while work was in progress). Classical sculptures had been brought from Italy to furnish the house and leading painters of the day were summoned from all over Europe to decorate the ceilings and walls, in a show of ostentatious splendour never before seen in England.

Daughter of the King of France and a member of the Medici family, Henrietta Maria made the Queen's House her "house of delights", where she hosted elaborate plays and masques. The cost appalled some of her more puritanical subjects and the age of opulence was short-lived, as within four years of the house's completion civil war had broken out, sending Henrietta Maria into exile in France and leading to the execution of her husband, Charles I.

But the house survived and after a variety of uses, including the lying-in-state of Cromwell's generals and a long stretch as a school, became a museum in the 1930s. Now, post-makeover, it contemplates the next stage in its elegant career.

The Queen's House, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF. Tel: 020 8312 6565. Website: Open 10am-5pm Monday to Friday. Entry free to children in full-time education and adults with five or more children. Parties of 10 or more are advised to pre-book on 020 8312 6608

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