Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Enchanted Palace Part Two

Statue of William III

Having been stunned by the sheer vulgarity of the gilded statues in the Georgian Cupola Room, I quickly made my way to the King’s Gallery. Upon the floor of the latter had been set out countless rows of toy soldiers to represent the kind of games King William III would play with one of his young nephews, which seems rather a departure from the overall theme of Princesses. When I was a child I played war games with my “brother” using toy bricks to build the walls of a fort and miniature cannons that fired matchsticks to try and make them tumble down again. Inspired by such battles I later studied Military Strategy as one of my electives at University.

I took the opportunity of a vacant window-seat to sit down and examine the William and Mary gallery in more detail. Unlike certain other rooms it seemed little changed from when it had first been built. As I was looking around one of the Wildworks’ artists strode into the room, placed herself at a desk and began to loudly bash the keys on an old fashioned typewriter and sing at the same time. I always feel somewhat disconcerted when faced with such interactive installations. Usually I am not at all fazed by actors dressed up in period costumes, although I do baulk at being accosted by a group of such actors and tend to steer well clear if I see Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I bearing down on me amidst a huddle of courtiers. The Wildworks actors were an altogether different kettle of fish. For a start I had no idea what or who they were supposed to represent. They wore a strange outfit of long grey trousers and skirts with a kind of miners’ light affixed to their heads. They would walk from room to room singing or declaiming loudly. I wondered if the woman typing away would have bothered to do so if I had not been there to hear her. I also toyed with the idea of sneaking over and seeing if she had actually typed anything legible or whether it was sheer gibberish. As a result I failed to observe the famed weather dial William III had had installed so that he could take note of wind direction and calculate the effect on his navy.  

From William’s gallery I passed in to what was once the comparatively modest bedroom of one of his successors, now decked out with a sleigh covered with wild furs to represent Wild Peter, the feral child of the Georgian Court, whose likeness is immortalised along the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase.

Eventually I made my way to the set of rooms most closely associated with Queen Victoria before she came to the throne. One room had what I took to be her original crib along with a modern light sculpture of Kensington Palace made to resemble a doll’s house. 

An adjoining chamber had her coat of arms in the fireplace. Yet another had an installation of a pile of mattresses placed upon a bed, presumably symbolising the story of the Princess and the Pea. I was more interested in the mirrored dressing table. Sitting at a dressing table and whiling away countless hours carefully applying unguents, potions and powders to my face is not something that has ever formed part of my own beauty regime. Hence my extreme bashfulness on those rare occasions when I have tentatively approached a beauty counter in a department store seeking advice.(Mr de Mille I'm ready for my close-up)

The King’s Drawing Room held a large cabinet of curiosities, whose drawers contained items placed there by a range of artists and an 18th century dress  by the 21st century illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan, fashioned out of paper and illustrated with antique maps to represent a dress of the world.

The King’s Council Chamber had been staged as enchanted woodland by night. Two glass cases contained dresses which once belonged to the Princesses Margaret and Diana respectively. Margaret’s was a lace-covered confection which did not appeal to me in the slightest. By contrast I was rather taken with the diamond encrusted tiara she had worn at her wedding floating above it. Diana’s dress was a simple ivory silk gown topped with a delicate lace jacket. As we were once the same height and of a similar build, I could well imagine myself wafting around Brimstone Butterfly Towers in the same outfit. The glass case in which Diana’s dress was displayed was adorned with white feathers. At first I took them to be feathers from the Prince of Wales’ insignia but decided they were perhaps more likely to represent the feathers of a swan.

One of the smaller closets was set out as if for a meal. Two women’s voices could be heard close by, raised in argument. I though they were supposed to represent the 17th century Queen Mary and her sister Anne, whose relationship was particularly fraught at times. I later discovered that the voices were supposed to be those of Queen Anne and her erstwhile chief friend and companion Sarah Churchill, the wife of the Duke of Marlborough. I have never been nor wish to go to Marlborough Palace built by the nation for the Duke after his outstanding success against the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV of France. Marlborough Palace strikes me as being too bombastic and on too large a scale to have any inherent appeal for me, lacking too the turbulent historical dramas associated with a palace like Hampton Court.  It seems the Duke and his Duchess also found the palace somewhat overwhelming and oppressive at times. It was said that in the last years of his life the Duke preferred to keep to his own chamber rather than wander endlessly from one splendid state room to the next. The closet at Kensington Palace, like the King’s Gallery nearby, appeared little changed since the late 17th century when it was first built. At one point one of the doors suddenly opened and a woman stepped into the room. She gave a small gasp of shock when she saw me. She later admitted that she had taken me for a ghost on account of my elaborate straw hat. I was rather tickled at the thought of being mistaken for the shade of a long dead courtier.

The final state room on the tour was that of the Queen’s Gallery, which displayed the images of the seven royal princesses whose personal histories had inspired the exhibition. From thence I descended the staircase to the ground floor and the exit. I popped into the shop and bought a couple of postcards. I then tried to ascertain whether I had time to walk across the way to the Orangery and partake of afternoon tea before embarking on another perambulation of the exhibition. I always feel the first tour is to take my bearings and the second to consolidate my memories of a place. Fortunately, as it transpired, I decided to heroically forgo my date with a pot of china tea and a cream cake and wander anew around the palace instead. I noticed on the ground floor that the door frames had legends on them, bearing witness to the fact that soldiers, (yeoman of the guards, one of whom is depicted behind Wild Peter) had once been billeted there.

On this second tour I had only got as far as the Room of Enlightenment with its display of haute couture hats when the guide received a message on his walky-talky instructing him to arrange an orderly closure of the palace. We were thus herded out of the state rooms. Outside the Organgery too was closing its doors to the general public but I was able to sneak a picture of its interior from one of the windows. My exit across Kensington Gardens to the High Street was similarly barred as helicopters whirred overhead. As Kensington Gardens was the stomping grounds of the Cad of Kensington it struck me that he might have sent out one of his snatch squads to ferry former girlfriends hurriedly from the vicinity.

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