Kensington Palace

21 March 2012

Evening campers. I have something very exciting for you all today as I spent most of today drinking in the delights of the newly remodelled Kensington Palace and have returned with a multitude of photographs for your perusal. Of course, photographs are not really comparable to the real thing so I hope that if you are ever in the London area you’ll go and see for yourself!

I am ashamed to admit that the first time I went to Kensington Palace was last year when I went to view the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection and the Enchanted Palace installation. It was a bit of a building site at the time and it was hard to see what it was going to look like when completed. I’m amazed though by how different it is though to my expectations – it’s a really unique, bright and modern space that sacrifices none of its historical gravitas.

I’ve never actually been to a press day before so had no idea what to expect but oh my, it was so much fun and I met some really lovely people including the truly superb Lucy Worsley who has been a heroine of mine for quite some time now. If you haven’t already read them, I really recommend all of her books – Courtiers and Cavalier have recently held me entranced with their descriptions of scandal, intrigue, domestic iniquity and derring do in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Uncannily, it turned out that we both fell in love with history after viewing the Blue Peter special about Marie Antoinette back in the late 1970s!

Upon arrival at the palace, we were split into two groups and I went off with mine to take a look at the refurbished royal apartments which were once home to Mary II, Queen Anne and various grumpy Hanoverian. They really are absolutely sumptuous – full of rich colour, beautiful paintings and really interesting and thought provoking interactive pieces and installations such as the one in the Queen’s bedroom (which houses the actual bed that poor old Mary II died of small pox in with her devoted husband at her side) which shows each of the claimants to the English throne after the death of Queen Anne.

What I really love about the state apartments at Kensington Palace is the way that although you are clearly walking in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, George I, Queen Anne and their families and courtiers there is absolutely nothing stuffy about the way that they are presented. In fact there are really beautiful and whimsical touches everywhere that give it a dream like feel. In every room there seemed to be something unexpected and quirky, which immediately makes it a much more engrossing and thought provoking experience than most stately homes.

In the Queen’s Apartments, the focus is on the dying embers of the Stuart dynasty with the tragic sisters Mary and Anne and the latter’s young son, William who died at the age of eleven after dancing himself to death. The rooms are rich and beautifully decorated but there is a touch of gloom in the panelled chambers it is clear that sad events unfolded in them over the years. This is a women’s world of whispers, tears and intrigue – as claustrophobic in its way as a harem.

For instance, it is known that in the Queen’s closet, Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough had an epic bust up that resulted in the two women never speaking to each other again. Mind you they both seemed to fall out with pretty much everyone…

The King’s Apartments on the other hand are glitzy, bright and spacious with a beautiful cupola room, a masterpiece of gilt and flamboyance as their centrepiece. There’s also a lovely gallery, presided over at one end by George I’s unfortunate cousin, Charles I and a sumptuous drawing room, where in October 1742 one of the court ladies decided to play a prank on George II’s mistress, the Countess of Deloraine and pull her chair out from under her while she was playing one of the grimly boring card games that they were so fond of back then. George II thought this was hilarious and keeled over laughing, at which point, the infuriated Countess pulled HIS chair out from under him, sending him sprawling on the floor. He was not amused and dumped her. Tsk.

There’s also some beautiful clothes on display in this part of the palace, including these splendid robes and dresses.

I think that is really amazing and a credit to everyone who has worked so hard to bring the palace up to date – their aim was to make it a place that was open to everyone and for all to enjoy and I think they succeeded admirably.

I loved having the King’s Staircase to myself. Isn’t is gorgeous? The paintings depict actual members of George I’s court and they eye you disdainfully, interrupted in their gossip and flirtations as you pass. It’s pretty eerie actually.

The late Stuarts and early Hanoverians are all too frequently ignored by posterity, probably because they are considered to be a tiresome, squabbling, pop eyed lot with not much to say for themselves and lacking the verve and dash of their more interesting predecessors and successors. I mean, come on, Charles II is a bit of a hard act to follow. I think that’s a bit unfair though – there’s something so intriguing about the sister Queens, Mary and Anne and their glum Hanoverian successors and I really love that the apartments at Kensington Palace are devoted to their stories and do a great deal to evoke what a den of iniquity court life was probably like at the time.

After this I paid a visit to a display devoted to the late Princess of Wales, one of Kensington Palace’s most famous residents, which was decorated with the most amazing wallpaper, which is a bespoke design created by artist Julie Verhoeven. I want it for my house.

It’s amazing though to witness the effect that Diana’s name still has – as soon as it was mentioned that there was a display of some of her dresses, people were off like a shot, me among them, to have a look!

They have five of the Princess’ dresses on display, including the in/famous black taffeta one designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel that she wore in March 1981 on her first official public outing as the Prince of Wales’ fiancée. It’s pretty gorgeous up close, with some lovely sequin detailing and a real flounce to it. I covet it very much.

We then went on to the Victoria Revealed exhibition on the first floor, which evokes the reign of Queen Victoria, who was born in Kensington Palace and spent her childhood there via the medium of several different themed rooms, complete with interactive fun and really innovative installations and displays that utilise more than three hundred beautiful and rarely seen before items from the Royal collections, which bring Victoria to life in an unprecedented and almost intimate way. Oh dear, is it okay to say the word ‘intimate’ in conjunction with Queen Victoria?

The display begins with the young Queen’s first ever council meeting on her first day as a monarch and this is wonderfully evoked in a large room full of shadowy figures, sound and imagery. The high point is, of course, the tiny flounced dress Victoria wore on this historic occasion, which used to be profound mourning black but has lightened over the years to a very becoming pale copper.

After this there are rooms devoted to the young Queen, her romance with her very own handsome prince Albert (he was a bit of a looker by any standards), their growing family, the Great Exhibition and then her subsequent widowhood. It’s really brilliantly done.

I was amazed by some of the items that were out on display, which included Victoria’s wedding dress.

Albert looked pretty dashing too!

Prince Albert sketched this portrait of his Victoria in the first bloom of their love for each other.

Queen Victoria’s baby shoes!

The famous doll collection. She gave her dolls some fabulous names, which sound just like Harry Potter characters! Victoria was clearly a Hufflepuff.

They had some amazing portraits on display too, including this lovely one of the Princess Louise.

I love the Victoria rooms – they are really light and cheerful and stuffed full of really amazing objects.

Of course, the mood darkens when the displays focus on the Queen’s widowhood and I was especially touched to see the book that was being read to Prince Albert during his final illness, complete with a piece of mourning paper marking the spot they had reached when he died.

There’s also one of Queen Victoria’s mourning dresses, which was lent to an artist who was working on an uncompleted painting of her family shortly after the Prince’s demise.

There was even the famous bust of Prince Albert, commissioned by the Queen after his death and which was to take a prominent place in several royal family photographs after the event.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Victoria Revealed. I’ve always had a fondness for Queen Victoria and it was a real treat to see so many rarely seen paintings and things that actually belonged to her. It’s also nice to see some attention paid to the young Queen as well as the rather forbidding black clad widow that she was for the majority of her reign.

She loved dancing!

Pretty dresses!

She also liked going to the opera in a LOT of jewellery – decked out like a Christmas tree in fact and why not?

This post is just a taste of the delights that now await at Kensington Palace when it officially opens to the public next Monday. The palace has always seemed to me to be a bit forgotten in the general fuss and pageantry of the London tourist trail but I’m certain that from now on it’s going to be a jewel in its crown and rightly so.

Recommended reading:

Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion and Great Houses

Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion: A Biography

Becoming Queen

The Diana Chronicles

A Dress for Diana

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