Upstairs downstairs at Kensington Palace
A £12m makeover reveals the building's colourful past
KP, as Princess Diana used to call Kensington Palace, has had a bit of a brush-up for the Diamond Jubilee: £12m worth, in fact. It all started seven years ago when the Palace’s chief curator, Lucy Worsley, before she became a television star, turned Princess Margaret’s pink bedroom in Apartment 1A into the temporary office for the curatorial staff.
The aim of their first staff meeting was to think of ways to attract more tourists to the Royal Palace. It has always been open to the public, but as Worsley herself acknowledged, ‘To the crowds enjoying themselves in Kensington Gardens, the security cameras, privacy planting and lack of an obvious way into the building gave the message “Keep out”.’
For many years, the public perception of Kensington Palace has been that its purpose in life is often to provide flats for hard-up royal relations. The 12 apartments at the back of the building have been occupied over the years by Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, Princess Diana, and Prince Edward, son of George III and father of Queen Victoria. Victoria described her childhood at Kensington Palace as ‘rather melancholy’. Her mother was extremely protective and Victoria was isolated from other children. She had no full siblings to play with, although she did have an older half-sister and halfbrother from her mother’s first marriage.
Victoria was made to adhere to an elaborate set of rules and protocols devised by her mother. She couldn’t wait to leave Kensington and moved to Buckingham Palace as soon as she acceded to the throne. The palace saw a glimmer of glamour in the 1960s, when Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon hired his uncle, stage designer Oliver Messel, to paint the walls of Apartment 1A in pink and turquoise, and add orange drapery, which became the backdrop for wonderful parties – there’s even a photograph, taken by her husband, of Princess Margaret in the bath wearing her fabulous wedding tiara.
Originally built as Nottingham House, KP became a Palace in 1689 when it was acquired by William of Orange, an asthmatic who needed clean country air away from smoky Whitehall and the Court of St James’s. He laid out a road from the Palace to Hyde Park Corner, part of which survives today as Rotten Row. The Palace was improved and extended by Christopher Wren, with pavilions attached to each corner of the central block to make it more of a Royal residence for William and his wife Mary. From 1718, George I had the central state apartments rebuilt, employing artist William Kent to decorate the new rooms when the structural work was completed.
So what is there to see at the Palace now? Well, don’t expect orid decoration and triumphal portraits of royalty. What is on show, however, is Kent’s illustrated account of Palace life, both upstairs and downstairs. Monochrome relief paintings cover the wall of the staircase to the King’s State Apartments and depict 45 servants, including the king’s Turkish valets Mustapha and Mohammed, and Peter the Wild Boy – a feral child brought to court as a human pet.
Some of the displays created by Worsley and her team are a touch macabre. One room has 18 empty children’s chairs, representing the number of Queen Anne’s babies who died. One of the curators, Alexandra Kim, says, ‘We wanted to get away from the idea of Kensington Palace as a dry and dusty place. We thought a good way to do that would be to connect with people’s emotions. Sad things have happened at Kensington Palace. When William of Orange’s wife Mary died of smallpox in 1694, there was an outpouring of grief similar to people’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana.’
Princess Diana’s dresses are on show, but sadly her apartment is not open; it is now home to The Prince’s Drawing School.
Highlights of the new museum include the rooms devoted to Queen Victoria. We see the rather depressing chamber where the 18-year-old Queen made her first appearance at her Privy Council. On display, too, are some of her clothes: the 18in-waist dress she wore to that meeting, and her 50in-waist undergarments from much later in life. Particularly lovely is an intimate portrait of her by Franz Xavier Winterhalter. It was commissioned by Victoria herself for Albert’s private viewing, and depicts her with her hair down and winding round her bare shoulders.
There will also be an exhibition showing how the public celebrated her Jubilee in 1897, before it was possible to watch the proceedings on television. On display will be original souvenirs and photographs.
In the garden, those famous gates where mourners left heaps of bouquets in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, are still closed, but you can walk through side gates and into the Palace gardens for free. On the east side, the garden, recently redesigned by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, is only divided from the park by low railings. Visitors to the Palace can sit and contemplate their surroundings on beautiful, green-painted benches hand-made at Houghton Hall in Norfolk.
Meanwhile, back at Apartment 1A, the curators and their teams have moved out, prior to the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who will be leaving the small Nottingham Cottage in the grounds of Kensington Palace (Prince Harry is moving in).
Princess Margaret’s 1960s former home is looking a bit tired and everyone is wondering who the interior designer will be for the 20-room apartment over four floors. A favourite for the job is Annabel Elliot, the Duchess of Cornwall’s sister, who carried out the refurbishment on Clarence House. Her style is very different from Oliver Messel’s: her use of colour is softer, but it will most certainly be the perfect backdrop for exciting and happy new beginnings at Apartment 1A.
Lucy Worsley’s book, Courtiers: The Secret History Of Kensington Palace, published by Faber and Faber, priced £8.99, is out now. For information about tickets and opening times at Kensington Palace: 0844-482 7777, www.hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace
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