There was an error in this gadget

Monday, 22 February 2010

A Doll’s Palace



When I last described the interior of Kew Palace (It had to be Kew ) I stopped at the King’s Dining Room, having heard the siren call of my own stomach luring me away. The King’s Dining Room, though spacious enough by modern standards, gives little inkling of its former illustrious owners, other than the two oils, painted in profile, of King George and his wife gazing fondly at each other across the doorway that separates the two portraits. But then King George III was known to favour plain cooking in private. The dining room also contains a chamber organ dating from the 1740s. Although not original to the house there was a chamber organ in the dining room during King George’s reign.

Apparently King George III particularly enjoyed the music of the composer Georg Friedrich Händel, who was also extremely accomplished as an organist. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Handel’s own organ music would have been played in this room. Several years ago I went with the Partridge and her sister to a recital at Handel’s former home at what is now 23-25 Brook Street in London’s Mayfair. The upper storeys have been carefully restored to how they might have looked when Handel moved in in 1723. In the 1960s the rock star Jimi Hendrix rented a flat in part of Handel’s former home. Had Jimi Hendrix lived to a ripe old age, perhaps it would not be too fanciful to imagine that he might have been inspired to record some of Handel’s pieces himself. There is already a precedent for using Handel’s music to advertise that most iconic garment of modern youth culture: denim jeans. For the soundtrack of their Engineered Jeans range, Levis chose an adaptation of Handel’s Sarabande Keyboard suite in D (.Handel House Museum )

The next room on the “in my mind’s eye” tour of Kew Palace is the breakfast room. It displays mementoes of various royal children who spent their childhood in the house. My eyes were immediately drawn to the two storey doll’s house. Built by a ship’s carpenter for King George’s daughters in the 1780s it was decorated by the princesses. After a convoluted history in which the princesses later passed the house on to the family of an officer in the Royal Navy, it came back into the collection at Kew in the 21st century. I have always had a certain partiality to dolls house, even as an adult. My keenest memory of the farmhouse lived in by my late mother’s friend’s was her wonderful doll’s house placed on top of a table. If I had first seen the doll’s house at Kew Palace as a child I would have been extremely impressed.  However, that was before I came across the truly palatial doll’s house of Petronella Oortman in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

 Set in a house-shaped cabinet; the doll’s house at Kew consists of a bedroom with a four-poster  bed and a blue drawing room on the floor below, both rooms connected by a flight of wooden stairs. Petronella’s Oortman’s house by comparison is a 17th century mansion in miniature containing as it does:
 
  • a linen room, with a bedroom containing curtained box beds for the maids at the back,
  • a peat and provision loft used as a general storage area by the household,
  • A nursery containing a canopied bed and a cradle.  At the windows are wooden-framed silk-screens decorated with parrots. Coincidently, this winter I adopted a similar arrangement for my own windows, using a Chinese screen of cranes I had bought years ago.
  • A sumptuous salon, whose walls were painted  murals by the 17th artist Nicolaes Piemont,
  • An entrance hall picked out in marble and decorated with black and white paintings known as grisaille, very similar to the kind of grey tinted wall paintings that once adorned the King’s Library at Kew and a fragment of which can still be seen today,
  • A red lying-in room, in which the lady of the house would give birth and later receive visitors,
  • A best kitchen housing a dresser, containing porcelain specially imported from China and Japan,
  • The actual cooking was carried out in the back room, which has a sink which could be pumped full of real water by drawing on the special reservoir below the basin,
  • Nor does the house neglect other bodily functions: the backroom leads to a simple earth closet and a child’s close-stool, stands in the best kitchen.
  • The doll’s house even has a hidden cellar beneath the kitchen floor for housing beer barrels and pots and pans,
  • The tapestry room was also used as a mourning room to house the coffin of the recently deceased before burial,
  • The library containing over 80 bound books, made up of prints cut to fit the pages rather than actual literature.

As well as being exquisitely decorated, the rooms have been furnished and equipped down to the last detail, including miniature irons in the linen room and baskets containing miniature silver cutlery in the kitchen. But then Petronella’s doll’s house was designed for a very different purpose to that of the royal one at Kew. The latter was more properly called a baby’s house in the 18th century and was deemed to be a rather upmarket child’s toy. By contrast, Petronella’s house was never intended to be played with by children. Instead, it enabled Petronella to indulge her passion for commissioning artists and craftsmen to decorate and furnish her doll’s house as if it were a fashionable late 17th century Dutch mansion. For the same money she spent on creating her world in miniature, Petronella could have bought a full scale townhouse in Amsterdam. Fortunately she was a wealthy widow in her own right when she married the Dutch silk merchant Johannes Brandt in 1686 and so could afford her extravagant tastes. For historians it gives an unprecedented insight as to how an entire house of the period would have been furnished and decorated. Make it life-size, replete with electricity and plumbed in hot and cold water and sewerage and I would move in tomorrow. I never quite felt the same way about my own modest two storey tin doll’s house.

After the delights of the doll’s house in the Breakfast Room, we make our way up the elegant staircase to the Queen’s Boudoir on the first floor. It now has a chaise-longue for reclining on, a table set out for a game of cards and a needlework table.The next room is the Queen’s Drawing Room. This pale pink witnessed the double marriage of two of  the Queen’s sons in 1818, the Hanoverian dynasty being desperate for an heir, following the tragic death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, the only child of  the then Prince Regent and later King George IV, the year before. Last year, I read a fascinating account of Princess Charlotte’s life in ‘Charlotte and Leopold’ by the author James Chambers. Charlotte spent most of her brief life caught up in the bitter rivalry between her parents. In many respects, Charlotte’s family was as dysfunctional as any that exists today. But then the royal houses of England have always set the pace when it comes to dysfunctional families.
 
The Grecian canopied bed in Princess Elizabeth’s bedroom was recreated by craftsmen in the 21st century based on contemporary accounts. Had I the space, it is the kind of bed that I would not be averse to having  in my own bedroom. The plain green verditer-coloured wallpaper (based on original fragments found in this room) with the Greek key border is simple enough to allow the yellow and red chintz of the bed to look elegant as opposed to overpowering.

Queen Charlotte’s bed in the adjacent bedroom is more plainly decorated than her daughter’s. In this room is also the leather armchair in which the Queen died in November 1818. Royal protocol would have preferred her to have died within Windsor Castle and in fact she was travelling there when her illness forced her to stop at Kew. In that she would have been envied by her youngest daughter, the Princess Amelia who died of tuberculosis at Windsor castle in 1810. It seems Amelia had expressed a wish to die at her beloved Kew which was ignored. Amelia also harboured a desire to marry one of her father’s aides, Sir Charles Fitzroy. There were many, including her own sisters, who believed Amelia had secretly married and possibly had a child by him. This was later vehemently denied by Fitzroy. Nonetheless, Amelia had intended to petition the Privy Council for the right to marry him when she came of age at 25. Sadly, it was that very age that she fell into an irrevocable physical decline, which resulted in her death only a year or so later.

Princess Amelia’s and Princess Augusta’s empty apartments were not part of the programme of  renovation at Kew Palace and have been little altered since the royal family left Kew for good in 1818, giving the rooms a somewhat melancholy air. Augusta, like her younger sister Amelia was never destined to marry. Of the 6 royal sisters only three married: the eldest, Charlotte, later the Queen Consort of Frederick of Württemberg married in 1797, Elizabeth married the Landgraf of Hesse-Homburg in 1818. Two years earlier her sister Mary married Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh and lived with him in England. Mary outlived all her siblings and died in 1857 in her 80s.

For the unmarried adult princesses, life in the royal household was akin to living in a gilded cage. Their mother, Queen Charlotte was reluctant to allow them to marry once her husband had sunk into his mental decline, preferring to have them around her instead. Thus, despite giving birth to 13 children who survived into adulthood, Queen Charlotte  had only two legitimate grandchildren and of them only Victoria lived long enough to inherit the throne.Last year, I read a fascinating account of Princess Charlotte’s life in ‘Charlotte and Leopold’ by the author James Chambers. Charlotte spent most of her brief life caught up in the bitter rivalries of her parents. In many respects, Charlotte’s family was as dysfunctional as any that exists today. But then the royal houses of England have always set the pace when it comes to dysfunctional families.

It was unfortunate that when I attended a special late opening of Kew Palace, we only had a few minutes to explore that very part of the house usually closed to visitors: namely the servants’ quarters in the attic. What makes these bare drab rooms so special is that they still bear the so-called witches marks carved into the oak beams in the 17th century, in an attempt to bar the way of witches or other evil spirits from entering the house. These rooms are in too fragile a state to allow large numbers to wander freely around them. The subdued lighting and low hanging ceilings meant it proved something of an obstacle course as I dashed around, anxious not to forgo the rare opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of the house, having fallen under its spell, witch’s mark or no witch’s mark.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment or contact me. All comments are moderated before being published, so please mark any items you would prefer to keep private as confidential. Thanks.