Sunday, 6 June 2010
As far as I can recall I have never been to Kensington Palace before even as a child. Consequently on Bank Holiday Monday I decided to make up for that omission. In recent years I had refrained from venturing near the palace as I knew the parkland in which it is sited, Kensington Gardens, was where that incorrigible buck the Cad of Kensington Gardens loved to roam. Lest our paths should happen to cross I made sure I was tightly laced into a steel boned corset beneath my 1940s vintage frock and placed a large straw hat upon my head. Thus armoured I strode purposefully across the park to the entrance to the house.
Like Kew Palace, Kensington Palace was originally a Jacobean mansion which found its way into royal ownership. After being bought by King William and Queen Mary the royal couple commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to remodel and extend the Jacobean mansion. They also asked Wren to undertake a similar venture at Hampton Court. If Wren had had his way, save for the Great Hall, he would have pulled down the Tudor palace of Hampton Court in its entirety. Future generations were to be spared such an outright calamity although regrettably the magnificent state apartments of Henry VIII were sacrificed on the altar of Stuart self-aggrandisement and are now lost forever. Their splendour can now only be gleaned from surviving oil paintings from the period and a few extant gilded ceilings.
One of the most iconic images of the late 20th century depicts the sea of flowers placed before the gilded gates of Kensington Palace following the death of Diana. The palace had been the setting for the equally tragic demise some 300 hundred years earlier of Queen Mary, who died of smallpox at the age of 32. William himself died at Kensington Palace less than a decade later in 1702 as did his successor and Mary’s sister, Queen Anne. Without a living child of her own, Anne’s death in 1714 brought the ruling Stuart dynasty to a close in England after almost 111 years. Their German successors, the Hanoverians, continued to regard Kensington Palace as an official residence of a ruling monarch. This changed with the death of George III. Although it had been her childhood home, Victoria was eager to vacate the palace the moment she became Queen. It held too many memories of a lonely and far from happy childhood.
Kensington Palace is currently undergoing an ambitious programme of refurbishment. In order to continue to attract visitors during the re-building a special interactive exhibition is being staged called the Enchanted Palace. The state rooms have been styled by leading fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood in collaboration with the international theatrical company Wildworks, whose actors and musicians wander around performing. The whole installation has been inspired by the lives of 7 different princesses who had lived in the palace.
Once in Kensington Palace I was provided with a map and a pencil to note down the names of the various princesses I would encounter on my tour. To reach the state rooms you need first to walk up a modest staircase. The map urges you to sneak up the upper part of the staircase, whose way is barred by stout branches of wood. When I checked with a guide it seems visitors are not expected to take this instruction literally. It is but a play on the fact that in the past people of rank and social standing would reach the royal apartments by way of the two formal staircases. The rest would have to make do with the backstairs. Perhaps I should just have slipped up the forbidden steps and waived the apparent letter of consent if I had been hauled unceremoniously down them again. Then again, picking my way daintily between the obstacles lying across them might have proved quite beyond me. As it was other dramatic events were about to occur which deprived me of the opportunity to even try.
The first sequence of the exhibition is set in the former bedchamber of the same Queen Mary who had died at Kensington Palace in 1694. This room was styled by the designer Aminaka Wilmont. On an illuminated table a collection of glass bottles represent the tears of grief shed by Mary and her sister Anne at their joint inability to produce a Stuart heir to inherit their thrones. Pinned along railings were numerous hand written messages of mourning and loss. Suspended between the mattress and the canopy was a mannequin dressed in sequinned jeans. To be honest I was more interested in the four poster-bed, the large period looking-glass on the dressing table and the impressive solid silver chandelier than this particular installation, which to my mind seemed to be akin to a glorified shop window. I do not know if the room is always kept as dark to preserve the detail textiles or to add atmosphere to the installation. Either way I found it rather frustrating not to be able to see the original items more clearly especially the bed. I wondered whether it was the very bed said to have been lain in by Mary of Modena whilst she gave birth to a son and heir to the Catholic King James II of England. Claims were made that the real heir had been stillborn and that a healthy impostor had been smuggled into the chamber in a warming pan to take the place of the dead baby. It suited the Princesses Mary and Anne, daughters from King James’ first marriage, to believe this story as it enabled them to rule in their supposed brother’s stead after their father was forced to abdicate. A century may have passed since the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I but the memory of the Protestant martyrs she had sent to a terrible death at the stake was still strong amongst late 17th century Englishmen. As a result they were not prepared to risk seeing a Catholic dynasty installed on the English throne.
The next room in the sequence was set in the Privy Chamber. The milliner Stephen Jones had been inspired by the busts of famous male philosophers and scientists to showcase a collection of his own distinctly feminine hats. As a connoisseur of extravagant headwear I greatly admired the specimens suspended from the ceiling. But like the hats, the connection between them and the busts was quite out of my reach. On my short-lived second perambulation around the exhibition perhaps in homage to the striking example of millinery atop my own raven clocks, the guide was quick to invite my opinion as to which of the hats on display I would choose for myself.
From thence to the King’s Presence Chamber in which Wildworks had placed a throne. Visitors were invited to sit upon the throne and imagine themselves rulers for the day with the powers to grant their every wish. I had once surreptitiously sat upon the throne in the Whitehall Banqueting Hall as a schoolgirl and briefly imagined myself Queen of England. I did not feel the need to repeat the exercise in front of strangers. My attention was caught by the carved chimneypiece. I assumed it was by the celebrated 17th century English woodcarver whose name entranced me from the very first moment I heard it uttered: Grinling Gibbons. I am at a loss to understand why one of his masterpieces should have a white 20th century plug socket placed at its very centre.
I then progressed to the King’s Grand staircase. A bricked up wall partially concealed behind wooden panelling bore a mirror warning visitors to “Turn away now.” Heeding the instruction as I lacked both the means and desire to smash down the wall, I descended down the staircase to examine more closely a ballgown designed by Vivienne Westwood. The gown is of the wrong period as is supposed to be inspired by Princess Charlotte. The latter was the unfortunate only child of the Prince Regent, later to be George IV and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Her parents’ marriage proved an utter disaster from the start. George viewed Caroline with the kind of revulsion that Henry VIII had felt upon seeing Anne of Cleaves in the flesh. However George was made of sterner stuff than the ageing Tudor monarch and steeled himself to sleep with his wife on two successive nights before quitting her bed forever, his royal duty done, having sired a child. Wisely Anne of Cleves did not commit to paper her initial impressions of Henry VIII. Had she done so they might well have echoed Caroline’s in the late 18th century when she is alleged to have described the future King George IV as being “very fat and he's nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”
In the exhibition at Kensington Palace Charlotte is described as the rebellious princess because of her insistence on marrying Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, despite the fact her father had far grander alliances in mind for her. Alas for Charlotte, after an unhappy childhood caught between warring parents, her escape into a happy marriage ended abruptly when she died in childbirth at the age of 21. The veiled lights lining the staircase might symbolise Charlotte’s early demise. Pinned to the front of the Westwood dress is a large badge bearing the legend: “I am expensive.” Years ago a famous theatrical costumiers held a sale open to the general public. I went along and purchased two Victorian silk dresses, and a brown silk early Georgian bodice and top. May is pictured in an earlier post wearing one of the Victorian gowns.(treat this place like a hotel) I only ever wore the garments around the house. I loved the sound the silk made as I spun around my room. I later kept them all in the loft where they were torn to shreds by sartorially challenged mice. I had a chance of buying the kind of gown Vivienne has on display but as I would have needed to buy hoops and panniers to wear underneath to give the right kind of silhouette, I reluctantly eschewed the opportunity. It also occurred to me at the time that I could never have been able to store the dress and panniers in the tiny bed-sit I was then renting.
The King’s staircase is adorned with murals of various people at the court of George I. One of the most intriguing portraits is that of Wild Peter a feral child from Hanover, brought over to England by royal command. Wild Peter lived to a ripe old age. Coincidentally only a few days prior to seeing Peter’s portrait I watched “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” by the German film-maker Werner Herzog. Kaspar was born a century after Wild Peter in early 19th century Germany. Like Peter, he was deemed a feral child. As his fame grew all kinds of legends arose about his origins including that he was in fact a prince of the House of Baden. Mystery too surrounds his untimely death in his early 20s. Some claim suicide others say Kaspar was murdered.
The Cupola Room houses a huge clock built for an 18th century Queen. The time motif isexplored further by the installation artist although no reference was made to the ultimate Lord of Time going by the title of The Doctor. Other than the clock, what struck me most about the room was the gaudy gilded statues of roman gods set in niches.
“I assume these were added for the installation, “I enquired politely of a guide. I was advised to the contrary, thereby somewhat undermining my view of 18th century England as representing the Age of Elegance.
I shall return to this subject anon as I have yet more rooms to wander around and I need to explain why my second perambulation came to such an abrupt halt.