Castle Blaze Sparks Debate Over Restoration

Cost-cutting measures hindered on-site firefighting capabilites

PLANS are already being laid by royal advisers to restore Windsor Castle, near London, following a fire that engulfed a large part of the building Friday, destroying famous works of art and other treasures.

But as damage assessors and workmen entered the smoldering north-east wing yesterday, there were charges that the fire could have been avoided and claims that taxpayers should not be required to foot the multimillion pound bill.

Prince Charles, heir to the throne, said his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was "devastated" by the blaze, which appears to have started in the 1,000-room castle's private chapel and swiftly engulfed halls and rooms dating to the 11th century and crammed with priceless paintings and antiques. Sources close to the monarch said she was upset by charges that fighting the fire had been hindered by the absence of a sprinkler system in the castle and a shortage of firefighting equipment.

The Queen was said also to be annoyed by members of Parliament who publicly doubted whether taxpayers should be asked to pay for repairs that experts say could cost well over 100 million pounds ($154 million) and take more than 10 years to complete. A large part of the Queen's private art collection was housed at the castle. Most was uninsured because no company was willing to write a policy for such a valuable collection.

In the early stages of the fire, Prince Andrew was among the many involved in removing paintings, statues, carpets, and tapestries.

A team of royal curators entered the ruined wing of the castle yesterday. They reported that St. George's Hall, a huge state banquet room, and the Waterloo Chamber, used for state visits to Windsor, were in ruins.

Early reports had suggested that only four paintings, including a large portrait of King George III on horseback by Sir William Beechey, had been totally destroyed. But there were suggestions yesterday that at least one canvas by Rembrandt and another by the Venetian master Pietro Longhi were among the losses.

Others, including Canaletto views of Venice, several Gainsborough portraits, and full-length paintings of Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs also may have been lost.

Most obvious, however, was damage to the castle structure, a huge, sprawling building on a hill 20 miles west of London. The ornate ceilings of vast state chambers were either destroyed or in a state of near-collapse.

The cause of the fire is not known. Sir Roy Strong, a former director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, said much of the damage had been caused by smoke and cascading water.

Peter Brooke, the government's heritage secretary, promised Saturday that all the damage would be repaired and paid for by the state, but government sources said he was referring only to the castle structure. The Queen probably would be asked to pay for the lost or damaged works.

Labour politicians called on the Queen to make a large contribution from her untaxed assets. Alan Williams, a member of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said the fire highlighted the "inconsistency of the relationship between the monarchy and the taxpayer." He said it was "unacceptable" that taxpayers should fund the repairs.

The Queen visited the ruins Saturday. For her, 1992 was supposed to be a year of celebration of 40 years as monarch and 45 years of marriage. Instead it has witnessed the breakdown of two of her sons' marriages and the divorce of her daughter, Princess Anne. Now has come the devastation of a large part of her main family residence.

Four months ago the Queen reopened Hampton Court, another royal palace near London, damaged by fire in 1986 and repaired at a public cost of 12 million pounds ($18.5 million dollars).

Some months ago Buckingham Palace rejected a request by English Heritage, which is responsible for historic buildings, to survey Windsor Castle while new electrical and gas services were being fitted. The London Sunday Times reported that cost-cutting recently ordered by the Royal Household reduced the number of fire engines at Windsor Castle from three to one, and that a high-pressure water pump had been withdrawn.

The fire started in a private royal residence where the fire service lacked authority to enforce regulations. Responsibility for firefighting at the castle had been transferred to a brigade some distance away. A firefighter at the scene said that after the first alarm, the fire burned for seven minutes before fully equipped engines could arrive, and then water pressure was low.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.