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Thursday, 28 January 2010

It had to be Kew, wonderful Kew.



If Marie-Antoinette wanted to escape the stifling formal atmosphere of the French Court she could retreat to the Arcadian delights of le Petit Trianon at Versailles. The palaces and follies at Kew served a similar function for the British royal family of the period. Although I have referred to the painting of Frederick, Prince of Wales, depicted outside the pink-walled palace (The Fifth Commandment, 24 January 2010) he never actually lived there. He lived in the so-called White House close by, which was later demolished by his son, George III. Nowadays,  Kew Palace is most closely associated with George III and his family.

The most famous of the follies is the Chinese Pagoda. This ten storey structure was completed in 1762. I once climbed the stairs to the top on a very hot day, whilst wearing a tightly laced corset. Corsets, even steel-boned ones, allow a surprising degree of movement. Exacting though it was, I am glad I took the rare opportunity to go inside the Pagoda, as prior to 2006 it had been closed to the public for many years. Regrettably, it has not re-opened again since the summer of 2006.


 Queen Charlotte's Cottage served as a summerhouse for the royal family. Given to the wife of George III as a wedding present it consists of a kitchen, in which servants could prepare food for the royal family, and a large room which now houses a collection of prints by the 18th century artist Hogarth pasted on to the walls, as was then the fashion.

The upper floor is reached by a curving staircase and consists of a large green picnic room, painted with flowers. It is thought that the Princess Elizabeth, known to be a talented artist in her own right, was responsible for painting the bamboo trellis of flowers, inspired no doubt by the many splendid botanical specimens to be found in the gardens. Unlike the Palladian splendour of le Petit Trianon, Queen Charlotte’s cottage has a more rustic air and is thatched. But its regal proportions and grand staircase would leave few in doubt that it was not the humble abode of the rural poor.

The Dutch House, or Kew Palace as it is now referred to, dates to 1631when  an English merchant called Samuel Fortrey built a mansion by the side of the Thames. Underneath the current house is the sturdy Tudor brick undercroft to the original Elizabethan mansion which once stood here. Normally closed to the public, I was fortunate to be able to explore the undercroft on my visit to the house last September. Though long disused, the well which supplied water to the Elizabethan house is still in situ. Unfortunately we could only look down into its depths by torchlight as the electric light bulb nearby had blown, so it was hard to get a sense of how deep it had been.  

Romantics like to think that Robert Dudley, perennial favourite of Queen Elizabeth I lived here and perhaps had trysts with his Monarch in the rooms above. There is no conclusive evidence to support this idea, although it is known that Dudley had a house in the vicinity.

Above the doorway of the Caroline period mansion are carved the initials of Samuel and his wife Catherine entwined in a lovers’ knot. This suggests that the original owners enjoyed a high degree of marital harmony. Until he was overwhelmed by his illness and subsequent personality change, the same could have been said of George III and his spouse, Queen Charlotte. For some of their children, the Palace did not hold such happy memories.

The ante room on the ground floor contains a life-size wax work of King George III made by Madame Tussaud. It was said by contemporaries to be a good likeness. To win the commission, Madame Tussaud no doubt played on her claim to have been intimately associated with the French Royal Family both in their lifetimes and more grimly, after their deaths when she made models of their decapitated heads for her wax work show. In Kate Berridge’s 2006 biography of Madame Tussaud, the author debunks some of the claims made by the impresario as being as far from an accurate depiction of reality as some of her  waxworks. The ante room also contains Tudor linenfold panelling of the type decorating several of the rooms in Ralph Sadlier’s Sutton House.  Some like to imagine that the panelling was taken from Robert Dudley’s former Elizabethan mansion at Kew, and therefore might have borne witness to his canoodling with his capricious royal mistress.

After the ante room, you enter what is now known as the King’s Library, although the myriad books owned by that great bibliophile, King George III, are long since gone. They formed part of the royal collection which his son, King George IV, donated to the nation and which in turn led to the establishment of the British Library. (The British Library Volume I: revised edition). George IV was not known to be as great a bibliophile as his father. This, despite the younger George’s penchant for engaging the services of a comely actress like Eliza Jane Chester, (whose dining room was tacked on to the poet John Keats’ House at Hampstead), to serve as his “reader” at Windsor Castle (A thing of beauty is a joy forever).

Underneath many subsequent layers of paint on the walls of the King’s Library at Kew, can be found an original 17th century wall painting. The decision was taken by the curators at Kew only to expose a small part of the 17th century decoration. Nevertheless, the monotone  depiction of a classical female figure gives an inkling as to what the room might have looked like in its Stuart heyday.

Nowadays, visitors can sit in the Pages’ Waiting Room and watch a son et lumière presentation narrating the story of Kew Palace from the perspective of Queen Charlotte. Given their sons’ inability to father more than two legitimate heirs between them and one of them, the Princess Charlotte dying in child birth, Queen Charlotte and George III not only provided the nation with the heir and the spare but 11 other children who also survived into adulthood. Consequently, a good part of the narration focuses on the many royal children born to the royal couple.

When King George descended into madness, he was kept confined in a service wing that was accessed from this room. The service wing, other than the door leading to it, was demolished long ago. It contained perhaps too many unhappy memories for the royal family. It might also explain why the grander White House, the former royal residence immediately in front of the Dutch House, was demolished in the King’s own lifetime. It was in the White House that the King was first confined following the initial diagnosis of his madness. Channel 4’s Time Team, who first aroused my interest in Igtham Mote, (Ightham Mote) devoted an entire programme to the archaeology of the White House, when they were given permission to dig for its remains under the green lawns in front of the Dutch House in 2003.

The next main room on the tour of Kew Palace is the Dining Room. As I have yet to make my own dinner, this seems an appropriate moment to bring the tour in my mind’s eye for an end until another day.

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