It was a bright but very cold afternoon when we visited Kensington palace yesterday. The wind was strong, stirring the gardens’ round pond into stormy wavelets. The swans and ducks, however, remained unperturbed and detected us as a soft target when we brought out some biscuits.
The palace was originally a private house which King William and Queen Mary bought when they replaced James II as monarchs of the United Kingdom after the glorious revolution of 1688. William was asthmatic, could not abide living in the royal palace at Whitehall and was attracted to the healthy air of the (then) village of Kensington.
With the help of Sir Christopher Wren the original mansion was extended and turned into its present appearance. Unlike so many Italian /and French royal residences Kensington palace retains an essentially domestic feel without any overblown pomposity or glamorous decorations about it. Even William Kent’s charming trompe d’oeuil grand
staircase doesn’t have an orgy of gods and goddesses flying over it but, instead, contemporary representations of society including a portrait of the painter’s favourite mistress!
The palace remained the main royal residency until King George II moved the court to Buckingham Palace. It was then somewhat neglected, damaged during World War II, became the temporary home of the museum of London, and most recently had twelve million pounds spent on a revamping opened in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012.
I detected many sad moments in the palace’s history: the death of William’s beloved Mary from smallpox at the age of only 32 in 1694 (for whose funeral Purcell wrote his elegaic masterpiece).
Here’s something I wrote about the sad demise – Purcell was to die the following year aged just 36.
WILLIAM’ S CLOSET
Unsmiling, crusty, you hardly spoke
and when you did the accent was too thick;
unpopular saviour, the people loved
your Queen and when she died something did pass
for always in the palace gardens,
the swan-crowned river and the kingdom’s fields,
for you were always mentioned together
and how could only half a person reign?
Yet in the midnight of your inner room
upon the heavenly ceiling there she lies:
a Venus to your Mars, disarms you quite
and with her lips and breasts, opens a smile
on the wall of your face while ducks and drakes
touch beaks upon the flowering pergola
Then there were the constant miscarriages and infant mortalities of successor Queen Anne (all ninenteen of them), George II’s grief at the death of his beloved Caroline in 1737 ( “remarry” were her deathbed words to him. “Never”, he replied, “I’ll keep mistresses instead.”); the lonely childhood of Alexandrina Victoria, later to become Britain’s (to date) longest serving monarch, brought up under her mother’s and courtier Conroy’s repressive “Kensington system” whereby she had not a minute to call her own and was kept separate from other children; the equally lonely life of the late Princess of Wales surrounded by the “men in grey” and a real sense of imprisonment like a bird in a guided cage…
Let us hope that the spell will now be broken, despite the ghost stories one of the keepers told us, and we look forwards to the promised new royal arrival this spring with anticipation.
What of the twelve million pound palace refurbishment/revamping (executed with private funds)? Strong disagreements are bound to ensue, especially between visitors who remember the former palace arrangement and as as occurred between me and my wife, who found the new results “clinical”. Praise for the restoration of the formal gardens, the revaluation of queen Victoria’s statue sculpted by that most artistic of her daughters, princess Louise, which is now surrounded by a little moat. Praise for some of the hands-on “experiences”, including the gaming room with eighteenth century card and board tables (surely something Bagni di Lucca could fruitfully emulate). Certainly a lot of the former fustiness has been swept away. But doesn’t a certain degree of fustiness bring its own peculiar charm to many museums?
Some doubts remain, therefor, about other features. The royal hand-writings on the wall were sometimes difficult to read; other features, like the spread-out sofa from which one could read sovereign promises on the ceiling, were bordering dangerously on the gimmicky; the metal portico affixed to the east facade clearly arose the wrath of the local civic society.
Most concerningly of all, however, is that if a museum is converted into a state of the art “experience” then technological innovation and stylistic perception change so rapidly today that what may seem cool now can become quite dated in just a short space of time.
This point was brought out in the very intriguing royal fashion exhibition where some classic examples of the Queen’s couturiers, from Norman Hartnell to Hardy Amies, were on display. These beautifully crafted dresses, dating back to the fifties, looked so much more wearable today than several of the weird “glamour” and “exotique” creations other royal members (sadly no longer with us) sported during their world tours.
I thought of the story of another royal palace, the Queen’s house in Greenwich, closed for many years in the nineties when yet another revamping took place and where the King’s and Queen’s apartments were recreated with no expenses spared: all gone now, stripped back to what is truly essential in representing the spirit of the place. Will the same thing ever happen to Kensington palace I wonder?