Say what you like about we Britishers, but we are incredibly fortunate when it comes to the amazing historic properties we have access to in our country – castles, palaces, stately homes, cosy thatched cottages, we have them all. However, for those with a serious passion for history, it has to be said that the properties managed by the Historic Royal Palaces are something very special indeed as they look after not just Hampton Court Palace but also Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, Banqueting House and Kew Palace, all of which bear unique witness to the amazing, often grisly but always fascinating history of our country.
It was with great excitement therefore that I headed off to London on Monday morning (after a 4am start to make sure that I would be there in plenty of time – ouch!) to meet up with the Historic Royal Palaces press office crew at Kensington Palace to learn more about the exciting and, as always, innovative upcoming programme of events for this year’s season celebrating three hundred years since the Georgians arrived to claim their throne and also take a little peek behind the scenes at the vast amount of work that the Historic Royal Palaces puts into keeping the buildings under their care looking beautiful for the millions of lucky visitors that they welcome every year.
We started the day in the sunny Orangery in the gardens of Kensington Palace, where Dr Tracy Borman, Interim Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces gave us a brief but illuminating talk about the special significance of the Hanoverian take over of the throne which will be celebrated with the upcoming The Glorious George’s season at three of the main properties.
‘These three unlikely monarchs, George I, his son George II, and great-grandson George III, presided over a remarkable era of British history which transformed society and saw the emergence of much that remains ‘quintessentially British’ today. At the very heart of this flourishing nation, within the walls of magnificent royal palaces, sat the Court. Elegant, yet decadent and riven with intrigue and scandal, it captured the imagination of the 18th century British public and the printing press, making celebrities of the Georgian monarchs and their courtiers.‘ – Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator, Historic Royal Palaces.
During the morning we heard more about the events programme planned for the palaces, which aim to transport visitors to Hampton Court, Kensington and Kew Palaces back in time to different points in the Georgian Court’s long and fascinating history, using music, food, fashion, intellectual salons and great celebrations to bring the Hanoverians and their glittering crowds of hangers on back to vivid life. It sounds absolutely fantastic, with something for pretty much everyone from sleepovers at Kew and Hampton Court to new instalments to fireworks to special grand events. It’s going to be an unforgettable summer at the palaces.
After the talk, we went on a quick tour around the state apartments at Kensington Palace, which is currently being prepared for next month’s opening. Each of the three palaces has been given a different ‘George’ as a theme and the displays at Kensington will revolve around the glittering and dramatic court of George II and Queen Caroline, who succeeded to the throne in 1727 and formed the central focus of a glamorous, youthful, glamorous court which led the way when it came to fashion, culture and intellectual progress, all of which will be explored at Kensington Palace over the course of 2014, with special displays in the newly restored King’s State Apartments, which were decorated by William Kent; a family festival on the 28th and 29th of June where visitors can ‘take a journey through the palace gardens and transform… into a Royal Courtier with a host of family friendly activities including dancing, dressing up and sword fighting‘; a special talk by Dr Lucy Worsley and monthly intellectual salons where guests are invited to ‘revive the enlightened spirit championed by Queen Caroline. Dress up in period clothes and find yourself launched into a glittering social scene, for a truly immersive evening… with music, light refreshment, fine company and celebrity guest speakers, debating the burning issues of our own, and Georgian times.’ How fabulous does that sound?
If, like me, you are particularly keen on fashion history, there will be some wonderful Georgian court clothing on display, including the frankly astonishing shimmering silver Rockingham Mantua, which was worn by a high born lady to a court event in the middle of the eighteenth century. It will also be possible to meet Queen Caroline herself being dressed in her morning levee by her lady in waiting, Henrietta Howard, who was also her husband’s mistress despite casting a rather wry eye over the goings on of the Hanoverian royal family. Awkward.
I really relished the opportunity to take a look at the ongoing renovations of the King’s Apartments and was especially struck by the wonderful painted ceiling in the drawing room, which has been lovingly restored to its former glory.
After this, I sneaked off with Tim Powell from the HRP Press Team to take a quick look at the brilliant Fashion Rules exhibition in one of the galleries at Kensington Palace, which showcases some wonderful dresses worn by Princess Margaret, the Queen and the late Princess of Wales. It’s always an immense treat to see some of the fabulous vintage items worn by the royal ladies in the 1950s as they REALLY knew how to dress and although I’m a big fan of Princess Diana, I can’t help but feel that if I had been in her shoes, I would have been waving away most contemporary fashion designers and demanding to be allowed to wear the contents of the Queen and Princess Margaret’s wardrobes from the fifties and sixties instead.
After lunch (I had THREE different types of cake, I know no shame), we headed off by coach to Hampton Court Palace, which is one of my absolute favourite places on the planet. I can’t believe that it took me so long to pay my first visit (way back long ago for the HRP press event for the The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned exhibition in 2012 in fact!) as it now rivals even Versailles as a contender for my possibly fickle affections. I love it so much though – the red brick stones just OOZE history and I can’t think of many residences, even of the royal variety, that have ‘enjoyed’ such a dramatic and vivid history encompassing so many different centuries and periods in history.
During 2014, Hampton Court will be reliving the decadent court of George I, who first arrived in London in 1714 and in suitably flamboyant style, the season will be kicking off on the 18th-21st of April with a re-enactment of George’s arrival at the palace by barge on the Thames. Visitors to the palace on those dates are encouraged to ‘join the crowds as His Majesty arrives to visit his palace by magnificent barge. His red coat soldiers, the magnificent white horse of his native Hanover, military displays and festivities combine to make the arrival truly glorious.‘
After this the programme of events at Hampton Court will include a wonderful weekend of period music and dancing over the May Bank Holiday, a family festival like the one at Kensington Palace on the 26th and 27th of July; a performance of Handel’s Fireworks Music and a Georgian firework display in the gardens on the 14th of September AND yet another sleep over in June. Hurray – you know how much I loved last year’s sleepover and I really hope that I can get a ticket to the next one as well. It was fabulous fun.
As well as all this, the Queen’s State Apartments will play host to a new and exciting instalment which will ‘explore who the Hanoverians were, how they came to rule Britain and how their extraordinary bitter family rows played out in public’. It looks set to be absolutely wonderful and we were lucky indeed to be taken on a special guided tour of the currently empty apartments in the company of Dr Lucy Worsley to get an idea of how they will look when they reopen, full of wonderful things relating to the Georgian court, to the public in April. I last saw the apartments during last year’s superb Secrets of the Bedchamber exhibition, when they were crammed with exhibits and visitors. It was a bit unnerving to walk through them as they are right now – empty and echoing, yet still clearly simmering with the memories of their vibrant past. You could almost feel the eyes of long dead courtiers watching from the corners, their silks whispering against the panelling as we wandered past, gazing up at the beautiful painted ceilings and peering out through the tall windows that look across the damp, rain sodden gardens.
We were really lucky to do our tour with Dr Lucy Worsley and were treated to great retellings of the awkward event that marred an otherwise sumptuous royal christening in the state apartments and also the midnight flit when Prince Fred (probably my favourite Hanoverian) hustled his labouring heavily pregnant wife Princess Augusta out of the palace in the dead of night so that his parents couldn’t be involved in the birth of his first child. The latter story was told while we were standing on the very staircase, usually locked away and hidden from view, that Prince Frederick carried his poor young wife down before shoving her into the carriage that whisked them away to London. Poor Augusta. It can’t have been much fun to find herself caught between her husband and his parents, especially at just sixteen years old.
After our visit to the state apartments, we went down to the Fountain Court to have a look at the new Chocolate Kitchen in the company of curator Polly Putnam, who gave us a talk about the rediscovery of this fascinating little part of the palace’s intimate history. Sadly there weren’t any chocolates on offer at the time of our visit (although if, like us, you’re out of luck on the chocolate front, the palace café is currently serving Georgian style hot chocolates!) but there was still plenty to look at and I found myself completely entranced by the clever little projections of how the kitchen would have looked in its eighteenth century heyday (although much of the original fittings remain miraculously intact) and how the chocolate itself was prepared for the exacting royal palate.
The chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court was favoured by William III, George I and George II and would have provided a very luxurious and sensuous welcome to new visitors to the palace, who would have been greeted by the sweet scent of spiced hot chocolate wafting about the pillars of the Fountain Court. Chocolate, of course, at this time was an immense treat affordable only to a very few and so its rich and distinctive scent would have made a very fitting backdrop to the glittering excesses of court life in the early eighteenth century. As Polly Putnam points out: ‘This is a ‘below stairs’ story like no other. Chocolate was an expensive luxury. Having your own chocolate maker, chocolate kitchen and chocolate room filled with precious porcelain and silver – all this, just for chocolate – was the last word in elegance and decadence. It was really something that only kings and queens could afford, and is a real contrast with all the pies and meat we associate with the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court.‘
After this I said a sad goodbye to Lucy Worsley (and grabbed a few really terrible selfies of us too!) before heading off for a quick visit to the team responsible for the restoration and conservation of the collection of clothes looked after by the Historic Royal Palaces. I had a bit of an insight into the amount of work that goes on with this when I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection’s archives when they were housed behind the scenes at Kensington Palace. They’ve now been moved (to make way for a family of rather well known residents to move in) and are being looked after at Hampton Court, where we were fortunate enough to be given a first glimpse of the precious Rockingham Mantua, which is currently being prepared for display in Kensington Palace this year.
The Rockingham Mantua, a fabulous wide panniered gown of striped silver spangled silk, dates from around the middle of the eighteenth century and was worn by Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham, possibly on the occasion of her husband, Lord Rockingham becoming Prime Minister in 1765. It certainly makes Samantha Cameron’s Boden outfits pale into insignificance, doesn’t it? The mantua is a really astonishing piece of work and as with all superb gowns of this period, one feels a sense of open mouthed wonderment when permitted to gaze upon them as it really does feel like a total miracle that they are still with us. We saw it lying surrounded by a layer of protective tissue paper and I can’t wait to see it mounted later this year.
I didn’t get a chance to see Kew Palace last week BUT rest assured that it too will be sharing in the Georgian frolics over this coming year as it celebrates the younger years of George III with a brand new display, a Georgian sleepover on the 6th of June, lots of live Georgian cookery sessions, an evening tour and, most thrilling of all perhaps, an evening devoted to those two great Georgian favourites: GIN AND CAKE, which will be taking place on the 21st of June. AMAZINGLY, I have yet to visit Kew Palace but I’ll definitely be heading there at some point this year to take a look!
Details from the Rockingham Mantua. Photos: Historic Royal Palaces.
After this it was time to head back to London. As always, I came away feeling incredibly inspired by the hard work and loving attention to detail that the Historic Royal Palaces team put into everything that they do and it’s even more incredible when you know that they are a totally independent charity who receives no funding from the Government or the Crown to pay for the invaluable work that they do. I think this is going to be an extraordinary year for them and can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
ps. As they don’t receive any state funding, the Historic Royal Palaces depend on our support to keep going so don’t forget that they do a really great yearly membership which gets the holder into all of their properties for free throughout the year and has lots of other perks too! It’s definitely worth thinking about investing (it costs from £35 for individual membership) if you’re planning to make the most of this year’s Georgian season.
Blood Sisters, my novel of posh doom and iniquity during the French Revolution is just a fiver (offer is UK only sorry!) right now! Just use the clicky box on my blog sidebar to order your copy!