Kensington Palace is being extensively renovated. In the interim it is the venue for an interactive exhibition called “The Enchanted Palace”. On my one and only previous visit I found myself having to vacate the palace in a hurry owing to a security alert. A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to return.
Signs of renovation work were very much in evidence. By the ornate gilded gates, once surrounded by a sea of floral tributes for Diana, fabric had been strung along poles to mimic hedging, a less than subtle ruse to conceal evidence of the building work from view.
Close by the sunken gardens is the Orangery designed by Sir Christopher Wren and commissioned by Queen Anne. As well as housing her collection of exotic plants over the winter months, the queen used the Orangery to host supper parties. Now it serves as a café and wedding venue. Unfortunately, I could not afford to treat myself to coffee and cakes there. She who once dined like a prince now sups like a pauper.
The rooms off the Entrance Hall were used by soldiers guarding the monarch. One door frame bears the legend: “Solds room no 2, 7 men”. The other: “Solds room no 3, 23 men”. Above the fireplace in a glass case was Black Jack, one of the legendary ravens kept at the Tower of London. Poor Jack died of fright when cannons were fired to celebrate the arrival of the Duke of Wellington as the new Constable of the Tower in 1852.
A slogan has been painted on the hall walls encouraging visitors to find the 7 princesses, whose stories provide the theme for the Enchanted Palace.
As I walked along a corridor a woman’s pre-recorded voice repeatedly asked “Can you find me?” Rather eerily the voice reminded me of my late friend, Ruth. In contrast to my previous visit, the walls of the corridor had been painted a vivid blue and flowers hung from the branch barring the way up the stairs.
In the Room of Royal Sorrows glass vials had been crammed onto a table to symbolise the tears shed by Queen Mary and her sister, Queen Anne, at their repeated failure to bear healthy children. The headless mannequin, dressed in jeans and a top by the designer Aminaka Wilmont and suspended above the bed, had been removed. Instead, a white ball gown donated by Bruce Oldfield, one of Princess Diana’s favourite couturiers, had been placed by the mirror.
In a small panelled room, a portrait of Katherine Elliot by John Riley looks down from the chimneypiece. Katherine had been a nurse to James II and a woman of the bedchamber to both his daughters. For the purpose of the exhibition Katherine had been designated a housekeeper and a file on the table was regularly updated during the day with any “problems” the actors had encountered regarding the housekeeping. Perhaps that is what I had observed the actors typing in the King’s Gallery on my previous visit. Modern white plates on the table were decorated with images of fish and ale to reflect the fact that the Stuarts had used this closet as a private dining room, where fish and beer were firm favourites. It was in this very room that I had been mistaken for a ghost by a Spanish visitor, as she opened the emergency exit.
The next closet was equally small. For the exhibition it was called the Room of the Quarrel after a tempestuous row between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill that destroyed their friendship forever. Sarah, the chatelaine of Marlborough House and wife of the Duke of Marlborough, had been a childhood friend of Anne. Unfortunately the volatile Sarah was not known for her tact or for keeping either her temper under control or her tongue in check. She had developed the habit of behaving in an imperious manner towards the vulnerable Queen. Eventually Sarah went too far and neither her tears nor her tantrums could persuade Anne to resume their friendship.
I retraced my steps to enter King George I’s Privy Chamber and what would later have been Queen Caroline’s Drawing Room. Gone was the glorious collection of Phillip Treacy hats, which I had so admired. They had been replaced by a light show. The Privy Chamber was at the heart of the former Nottingham House, which King William III had bought from Daniel Finch, the 2nd Earl of Nottingham, in 1689. Wren was commissioned by William to transform the Jacobean house into Kensington Palace. Daniel Finch’s daughter Elizabeth, by his second marriage, later went to live at Kenwood House after she married its owner, William Murray. Being prejudiced in such matters I much prefer Robert Adams’ glorious Kenwood House to Wren’s austere Kensington Palace. Unlike in the Kings’Apartments at Hampton Court there was insufficient light in the Privy Chamber for me to be able to examine the tapestries hanging on its walls in any real detail.
Grinling Gibbons produced the carvings of fruit, garlands, birds and flowers decorating the chimneypiece in the Presence Chamber. Much as I admired the stunning carvings of wheat sheaves in the Eating Room at Hampton Court, the wooden putti at Kensington made me shudder, looking more like dead babies than lively pagan infants. This, it transpired was deliberate as Gibbons wished to reflect the inherent sorrow of Queen Mary’s early death at Kensington. Perhaps in honour of his beloved Mary, King William III chose to die at Kensington Palace. He had sustained a mortal injury when he had fallen off his horse at Hampton Court. Instead of remaining at Hampton Court William insisted he be moved to Kensington. Queen Anne also died at the palace whereas her successor, George I, died whilst on a visit to his native Hanover. George II was the last ruling monarch to live and eventually die at the palace. It seems following the demise of Queen Caroline the now widowed king left the palace half empty as Horace Walpole explained in a letter he wrote in 1749 to his namesake Sir Horace Mann. Walpole, who built his gothic masterpiece at Strawberry Hill, was prompted to write after a fire had broken out in Lady Yarmouth’s grace and favour apartment. He wrote: “Kensington Palace had like to have made an article the other night; it was on fire: my Lady Yarmouth has an ague, and is forced to keep a constant fire in her room against the damps. When my Lady Suffolk lived in that apartment, the floor produced a constant crop of mushrooms. Though there are so many vacant chambers, the King hoards all he can, and has locked up half the palace since the Queen's death.’
It was impossible for me to get a clear photograph of the ceiling in the double height Presence Chamber as flash photography was strictly forbidden. The decorative scheme reminded me of the Etruscan Room at Osterley. The central medallion depicted the sun-god Apollo riding in his chariot drawn by a white horse across the heavens. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine of December 1821, Kent based the scheme for the ceiling on paintings from Herculaneum.
|Kensington Palace. King's Grand Staircase May 2010|
The King’s Grand Staircase built in black and white marble was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. As the blinds had been pulled down across the three Venetian windows, the hall was in semi-darkness. Moreover, we were no longer allowed to walk part way down the marble steps to examine the dress on display more closely. Vivienne Westwood’s mid 18th century style ballgown had been replaced by another one from her collection, more in keeping with the styles favoured by the Regency princess it represented. The popular Princess Charlotte, only child of George IV, had died in childbirth in 1817 plunging the nation into mourning. Lighting gives the impression that the princess is being shadowed by Death as she flees down the stairs. In a closet by the staircase gallery, words painted on a mirror advise the viewer to turn back. On the other side of the open door is part of a 19th century London newspaper chronicling the princess’s state funeral.
The lack of light made it impossible for me to capture anew the murals on the walls painted by William Kent. The success of his work at Kensington Palace led to Kent being commissioned to paint the walls and ceiling of the Queen’s Staircase at Hampton Court. At the latter he repeated his vision of a trompe-l'œil dome with the Order of the Garter as the centrepiece he first displayed in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. Jean Tijou crafted the ironwork balustrades both for the King’s Staircase at Kensington and at Hampton Court.
Ranged in niches around the Cupola room were gilded statues of Ceres, Diana, Apollo, Juno, Mercury and Bacchus. Even as early as the 1720s George Vertue, the English engraver and antiquary, was expressing a similar sentiment to my own when he complained that the “gilt antique statues in marble niches is too incongruous to be tolerated in the presence age.” There were also busts of Caligula, Nero, Claudius, Marcus (et tu) Brutus, Lucius Verus, Septimus Severus. The latter, with the exception of Marcus Brutus were all Roman Emperors. Marcus took part in the assassination of the very first emperor, Julius Caesar. Alongside these busts were 2 unidentified Roman emperors, which must represent the ultimate posthumous humiliation for their respective reigns.
From the replica 18th century chandeliers hung parts of a giant mechanical clock to represent the exhibition’s theme of Time for this room.
Over the mantelpiece was a marble bas relief of a Roman marriage by Michael Rysbrack, who designed the stunning sculptures for the chimney pieces at Clandon Park.
The centrepiece of the ceiling in the King’s Great Drawing Room depicts the story of Jupiter and Semele, whose story was hitherto unknown to me. According to the myth, the god Jupiter fell madly in love with the mortal Semele and she became pregnant by him. When Jupiter’s wife Hera discovered the affair, she disguised herself as an old crone and made Semele doubt that Zeus was indeed her lover. Semele insisted that Zeus assume his god like form to prove his divinity. Zeus conceded to Semele’s request but knew she would be destroyed by the heat from his thunderbolts. The foetus of their son, Dionysus, only survived incineration because his father sewed him into his own thigh.
The Drawing Room contained a bust by the Flemish sculptor John van Nost of what is thought to be one of William III’s black slaves..
It also had an ornate marble fireplace decorated with garlands of carved acorns and a representation of Medusa.
I have no idea what function the chamber styled the Room of Dancing Princesses originally served. Diana’s ballgown had been changed since I last visited the palace and not for the better in my opinion. The glass case representing Princess Margaret displayed the tiara she wore at her wedding to Anthony Armstrong Jones. Her portrait had been placed above the fireplace. I am the woman in the faux fur hat, clutching a bag containing my 19th century Japanese silk wedding kimono. Earlier in the day I had sold my 1920s black and white Cantonese shawl to a keen collector in nearby Holland Park. Hence my presence at the Palace Alas, the recession has forced the sale of exhibits from my museum to save the Brimstone Butterfly from the workhouse.
On the mantlepiece I discovered a copy of a fascinating letter from Princess Margaret. She lamented that the press treated princesses “as if we were unreal figures from Dynasty with nothing better to think about (than fashion). They criticise us if the same thing is worn twice but also criticise us if too much money appears to be spent. It’s hard to get it right.” Some things have not changed much since the 1980s.
The Room of the Sleeping Princess contained a bed heaped with mattresses as if for the princess and the pea in the fairytale. It was in this room that Princess Victoria was informed that she was now queen, following the death of her uncle William IV. Other rooms were displayed as Victoria’s royal nursery. There were models of a dolls’ house in the shape of Kensington Palace and a greenhouse containing a doll trapped inside. I assume the latter signifies the hothouse environment the young Victoria was exposed to by her domineering mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent, and Sir John Conroy, who appears to have exercised a malign influence over Victoria’s mother. Some suspected him of being her lover. There have also been suggestions that Conroy was Victoria’s real father. She proved to be a carrier for the genetic condition haemophilia, which rapidly spread through the royal houses of Europe as her children married into them. The condition, which predominantly affects males, had been unknown in the royal family prior to Victoria’s birth. The devious Conroy and her mother schemed to get Victoria to sign a document that would have made her mother Regent until Victoria was 21, if she had succeeded to the throne before her 18th birthday. Victoria refused to sign the paper. Even if she had done so I cannot imagine that the Establishment of the period would have allowed the Duchess and Conroy to enforce it.
Unlike the Stuart sisters Mary and Anne, Queen Victoria was extremely fecund. The carved gilt wood cradle on rockers and lined with red silk was used by 5 of her children. Apparently the cradle is embellished with the royal coat of arms, one at either end.
The King’s Galley is 94 feet long by 21 feet wide. The coved ceiling was also painted by William Kent in 1725 and represents 7 scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. The decorative work surrounding the panels was added by his Spanish assistant, one Francisco de Valentia. Poor de Valentia’s contribution might have remained unknown were it not for the fact that in more recent times his name was found on the back of one of the canvasses.
On the chimneypiece is an anemometer or wind dial dating from 1694 and set within a map of the 4 continents of the world: Australia had yet to be discovered when the map was drawn up. In the 19th century the Duchess of Kent incurred the wrath of William IV when he discovered that his tiresome sister-in-law had turned the King’s Gallery into 3 rooms for herself and her daughter, the future Queen Victoria. This was a direct flouting of royal protocol which did not allow anyone other than the monarch to live in the king’s state chambers. Such was William IV’s hatred of the Duchess it was said he clung desperately to life simply to ensure Victoria was of age when she succeeded him to the throne in 1837. Becoming queen gave Victoria the chance to flee the stifling atmosphere of a household dominated by her mother and Conroy. Too many unhappy memories of her childhood at Kensington made Victoria resolve to leave it behind forever.
Off the King’s Gallery is a room staged to represent the lair so to speak of Wild Peter, the 18th century feral child, who George I had brought to Court from Germany. Peter’s striking portrait can be seen on the wall of the Grand Staircase. Such was his fame that Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe wrote a pamphlet about him called: Mere Nature Delineated. Defoe did not for a moment believe the fanciful story that Peter had been raised by wolves. But he did regard it as a great act of compassion on George I’s part to take the boy in and was intrigued by whether the child’s intellect could be developed: an early 18th century study into nature versus nurture. One of the actresses at the Enchanted Palace warned me that Wild Peter might take a fancy to my faux fur hat. Unlike my encounters with costumed guides at Hampton Court, I was not sufficiently gemmed up on the subject and thought she meant he would mistake me for an animal and attack me. “I have an excellent right hook” I declared stoutly, rendering the actress momentarily speechless, no doubt thinking Peter was not the only Wild One in the vicinity.
The final room was the Queen’s Gallery. All 7 princesses were shown on television screens as period music for their respective eras was played on a loop. The princesses were in chronological order: Mary and Anne, the last Stuart rulers, Queen Caroline of Ansbach whose rooms I had explored at Hampton Court, Princess Charlotte who died in childbirth, Queen Victoria, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana. The latter two were sister and daughter-in-law respectively of our current queen. It was too dark to be able to take photos in the Gallery. I was surprised that the barrel vaulted ceiling was unadorned. In a similar vein the Queen’s Staircase were somewhat Spartan, sporting wooden panelling rather than an elaborate painted decorative scheme. The stairs led out of the palace and into the night.
It will be interesting to see the interior and exterior of Kensington Palace once the renovation work is complete. William and Mary had planned to demolish the entire Tudor palace at Hampton Court palace save for the Great Hall and replace them with wings designed by Wren. Daniel Defoe had been much taken with these changes at Hampton Court Palace. In his "Journey from London to the Land's End" published in 1724 he wrote approvingly: " King William fixed upon Hampton Court, and it was in his reign that Hampton Court put on new clothes, and, being dressed gay and glorious, made the figure we now see it in". Defoe and I are not of one mind on the matter. Judging by Kensington Palace, Hampton Court would be a far duller place today if the Stuarts had had the means to tear down the oldTudor palace in its entirety. Kensington Palace is just a tad too staid for my liking and I can’t imagine it ever capturing my imagination the way Hampton Court has never ceased to do. Nonetheless, it is well worth a visit.