Editor’s Note: Laura Porter from About London got a press preview of the newly renovated Kensington Palace and was kind enough to write up an article for us all about it.
The Queen lives at Buckingham Palace so why do we have another palace in London? We actually have a fine selection of royal buildings across the country and Kensington Palace has been the home to many royals including Diana, Princess of Wales. William and Kate are moving into apartments here in 2013 and there are many other ‘minor royals’ who call this home.
There was a long time in the building’s history when it was left empty and fell into disrepair. Historic Royal Palaces are now custodians for Kensington Palace and other great royal buildings such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace and they are a charity so receive no government funding but see one of their key roles as Guardianship – giving these palaces a future as long and valuable as their past. To ensure Kensington Palace has this bright future they have just completed a £12 million renovation project that has transformed this tired building into a welcoming attraction.
Before the days of easy transportation, Kensington was considered a village with clean air and therefore appealing for a country home, yet still near to London. King William III and Queen Mary II went house hunting in Kensington Village and found Nottingham House in 1689. They bought the house and appointed Sir Christopher Wren to make the appropriate changes to create a grand palace while also a home. As the king’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren had been tasked with rebuilding much of London after the Great Fire of London in 1666 including St Paul’s Cathedral, many churches in the City and The Monument as a reminder of the devastation.
Sadly Mary died young and never saw the work finished but William completed the renovations. As monarch, he was able to have the entrance of the building facing his royal park (something the previous owners were not allowed to do) and claim Kensington Gardens as part of the palace grounds.
Many other royals lived at the palace over the years but one with a large claim to its history is Queen Victoria who was born at the palace in 1819 and spent all of her childhood here. It was also where she first met the great love of her life, Albert, and where she was when she found out she was to be Queen. She didn’t have the happiest of childhoods as her mother was quite controlling and they moved around within the palace as her mother petitioned for larger rooms, knowing her daughter’s grand status was coming. Yet, Victoria claimed she slept in the same room as her mother right up to becoming Queen in 1837 when she moved to Buckingham Palace. This was when the building lay empty but in 1889, on her 80th birthday, Victoria opened the palace to the public. Kensington Gardens now connects to the sprawling mass of Hyde Park and both are free for everyone to visit and enjoy.
The Museum of London called Kensington Palace home in 1911-1914 and again in 1950-1976 before it moved to its current location.
Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister lived in Apartment 1a at the palace until she died in 2002. Charles and Diana moved in together in 1981 and Diana stayed till her death in 1997.
The Palace Today
The transformation has been worth waiting for as the entrance has moved back to reconnect the palace to Kensington Gardens (right behind the Queen Victoria statue, off the Broad Walk) and the ground floor makes you want to come inside. Enter under the commemorative Queen’s Diamond Jubilee canopy and explore the two gift shops and new palace cafe before you’ve even bought a ticket. The stunning luminous lace light sculpture, in an otherwise dark central room, heralds the start of your journey.
Historic Royal Palaces want visitors to discover the 300 years of history and not just the twentieth century so have devised four routes to explore the palace. Visitors can make their own choice which direction to go first and don’t have to visit all the rooms as each leads back to a central ‘hub’.
1. Victoria Revealed
2. Queen’s State Apartments
3. King’s State Apartments
4. Diana (temporary exhibition space in Apartment 1a)
This new permanent exhibition takes up most of the first floor of the public side of the building in the rooms she would have lived in (but do remember she moved around within the palace). You reach the rooms via the Stone Stairs and this is where she first saw Albert: she was standing at the top and he was below so do stop and consider the moment as the couple were truly in love. While so many royal marriages were for family ties and class standards, Victoria and Albert fell deeply in love and wrote many romantic letters to each other. This exhibition hopes to show another side to Victoria and that she was not just the old lady who always wore black after her husband’s death. She loved music, painting and sketching, bright clothes and was a beautiful young lady.
The exhibition starts in the Red Saloon which was where she held her first Privy Council when declared Queen. The room has an audio to give you an idea of the intimidating atmosphere and projected silhouettes around the room show how crowded it was that day.
As both Victoria and Albert were prolific writers the Falling in Love room is covered with quotes from their letters to each other: on the walls, the mirrors, the furniture and even the carpet.
There’s no room with a bed to show her bedroom or a room with a dining service laid out to show a dining room as she moved around so much within the palace no-one is totally sure which room she used for each purpose so the rooms have themes such as Childhood & Family Life, Duty & Work and Mourning.
As children now have free admission at the palace, there are plenty of ideas included to keep them entertained such as traditional paper spinners, a wonderful toy box in the Childhood room (can’t wait for those toy drums to be in use!) and puzzles in the red Despatch Boxes in the Duty room.
I think these new rooms and this exhibition is a wonderful insight into a fascinating woman and quite an emotional journey as you find out more about her so I would recommend taking a break for a cuppa before heading onto the next area or you may start to feel jaded.
Queen’s State Apartments
During the renovations, while a lot of the palace was closed, an art and theatre project was used to create the Enchanted Palace. This caused strong feelings on both sides; a real ‘Marmite’ dilemma as you either loved it or hated it. Sadly, I wasn’t a fan and a similar approach has been used in the Queen’s Apartments. The rooms are dark with contemporary art installations and costumed actors to help you interpret the significance. While the art ideas are extremely well thought out you won’t know what they represent without speaking to the actors or other palace staff which feels disappointing.
King’s State Apartments
There aren’t many rooms in the Queen’s Apartments so before frustration kicks in go over to the Kings State Apartments and enter a much lighter and grander area. You can reach the King’s area through the Queen’s rooms but the King’s Staircase shouldn’t be missed as the William Kent paintings are truly stunning.
The costumed actors are still in the area but you don’t need them to enjoy the opulence of these rooms and the King’s Gallery is awe inspiring. While the largest room in the State Apartments was dark, with toy soldiers across the floor and the paintings covered during Enchanted Palace days it is now an amazing room flooded with natural light and we can once again enjoy the well chosen artworks. This gallery was designed by William Kent to display the “cream of the Royal Collection” and every painting in the palace is an original.
It’s obviously only right that the first temporary exhibition at the palace should be dedicated to the “People’s Princess”. It’s a small, one room display of a selection of her dresses and some are on show in the UK for the first time. This exhibition runs until 1 September 2012.
It took over 1,000 people 21 months and £12 million to make the palace what it is today. (The hand-painted wording on the walls everywhere would have kept many specialists in work for a lot of time!) The palace now does have a future and is worth returning to. I wonder if the overt efforts to be family-friendly will alienate a more mature audience but they have tried to create an attraction that will appeal to everyone which is never an easy task. Certainly, the two gift shops is a great idea as the family gift shop with its pocket money toys and dressing up costumes on sale leaves the main gift shop with its more delicate crockery and exclusive jewellery for a different shopper. The new palace cafe will appeal to families – especially as there’s outdoor seating available – and the palace is very close to the Diana Memorial Playground. Those looking for a peaceful meal can still enjoy the splendour of The Orangery. I think they’ve done an amazing job and I’ll definitely be coming back again and again. If you feel like me, you may want to consider Historic Royal Palaces annual membership as it covers entrance fees to all of their properties as well as many other member benefits.
Time: Summer (April to October) 10:00-18:00. Winter (November to February) 10:00-17:00.
Phone: +44 (0)20 3166 6000.
Costs: Adults £14.50 Children (under 16) Free.
Nearest Train Station: High Street Kensington / Queensway
Worth a Visit?: Yes.
Check out the photo gallery below of the new works: