The Telegraph has a new history page (v.g.) and it kicks off with Kensington Palace…

Telegraph History Page 1Telegraph Weekend, Saturday March 3, 2012. Kensington’s extreme makeover, by Lucy Worsley.

Welcome to the Telegraph’s new History Page, in which writers and scholars will be explaining how they work to make the past come alive.  This week, curator and historian Lucy Worsley offers an exclusive preview of a revamped royal palace…

In the cold November of 2005, twenty colleagues and I locked ourselves for a week into Princess Margaret’s bedroom.

At that time, Historic Royal Palaces was using the princess’s former apartment at Kensington Palace as offices.  We were busy with the flipcharts and marker pens, puzzling over what we saw as the problem of Kensington, one of the five historic buildings that our charity opens to 3.3 million visitors a year.

We felt not enough people were aware that you could get into Kensington Palace’s state apartments, one of London’s best-kept secrets.  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!’

Even those hardy visitors who made it inside had to trek through about thirty rooms in no apparent order.  They emerged exhausted, disorientated and suffering from chronological indigestion.  One key room in the palace is the saloon in which the teenage Queen Victoria made her very first appearance at her Privy Council on the morning of her accession.  When its double doors flew open on 20th June 1837, a virginal, vulnerable figure was revealed to the 100 assembled Privy Councillors.  She was visibly nervous, but instantly won them all over with her youthful dignity.  However, the room, then used as our ticket office, was full of umbrella stands and people asking you to turn off your mobile phone.  The whole visitor route had to change.

During the months that followed, we decided to offer a choice of four self-contained routes or stories.  Each would reveal members of the Royal family to be real human beings, with strengths and weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  But the four routes would also illuminate four centuries of constitutional monarchy.

Kensington Palace owes its very existence to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. After William III and his wife Mary II successfully seized the throne from the Catholic James II, it was William’s asthma that forced them out to the country village of Kensington in search of a home with clean air.  He’d struggled to inhale in the damp, riverside palace of Whitehall.  As William was often away fighting to secure the throne, it was Mary who became the main client of Christopher Wren, employed to convert an old mansion at Kensington into the royal palace.

The arrival of the Hanoverians in 1714 brought change: George I rebuilt the central state apartments, as Wren’s work (done a little too fast) had started to fall down.  And he employed the ebullient, if unknown, young William Kent to decorate the new rooms, work which marks the beginning of the distinctive visual look of the Georgian age. Intriguingly, he decorated one grand staircase with portraits of forty-five servants then working in the royal household, including the king’s Turkish valets Mustapha and Mohammed.  The enigmatic ‘Peter the Wild Boy’, a feral child brought to court as a human pet, is another fascinating below-stairs figure included here.  It’s rumoured that Kent slipped in the face of his own mistress too.

After its hey-day under Kings George I and II, when it really was the summer social centre of London, the palace became neglected.  George III and his successors chose to base the court at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, so Kensington gradually became a run-down, ramshackle, retirement home for minor members of the royal family.  That’s why the impoverished Duke of Kent, father of the future Queen Victoria, ended up living here.

Yet on her accession, Victoria made a bee-line for Buckingham Palace; only in the 20th century did the beautiful and stylish princesses Margaret and Diana bring the glamour back to Kensington.

That was our raw material: magnificent historic interiors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a less impressive array of Regency and twentieth-century alterations, and a cast of characters ranging from unhappy princesses to cruel kings to palace favourites such as the Rat-Catcher, the servant responsible for rodent-control, who wore a rat embroidered on his livery.

And then the focus groups began.  We had to test our ideas on real people: we’re aiming for 100,000 new visitors annually.  It was a revelatory process.  As I sat behind the glass panel, the liberal in me was surprised to discover that people visiting a palace wanted only to think pleasant, sunny topics: they didn’t want to discover how many seamstresses had lost their eyesight embroidering our magnificent court dresses, or how many hours of conservation go into individual artefacts. ‘You’re not a museum’, people told us, ‘a historic house should entertain’.  What they wanted was a range of likeable and quirky characters, with love and tears mixed in.  We could certainly oblige.

My fellow liberals will be glad to hear that despite this the finished palace won’t be all sweetness and light.  There are dark stories here, including the tragic death of the thirty-two-year-old Mary II, from smallpox, in 1694, with her husband William by her side, an event followed by an outpouring of grief to rival that following Princess Diana’s death in 1997.  This is covered in the first and earliest of the new visitor routes.  The second, set at the bitchy and flirtatious Hanoverian court of the eighteenth century, includes the humiliation borne by the clever Queen Caroline with stoical good humour as her own personal assistant formed the third part of a long-standing love triangle with her husband George II.

Then we have the melancholy childhood of Princess Victoria, who, after her father’s early death, was kept in a state of semi-isolation at Kensington by her over-controlling mother.  Victoria, subject of the third of the four routes, was born at Kensington Palace, grew up here, first set eyes on Albert here, and – aged only eighteen and three weeks – became queen here.  On that day her waist was only eighteen inches in diameter, and the dress that she wore for her first Privy Council meeting will form part of the new displays.  However, as everyone knows, this was to change: a much-later a pair of her under-drawers in our collection measures in excess of 50 inches around the waistband. Victoria’s simple white wedding dress will be included in the new displays, along with her celebrated ‘sexy’ portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.  Commissioned by Victoria herself for Albert’s private viewing, she’s depicted with her hair down and winding round her bare shoulders.  Another surprising sight will be Albert’s dressing table set, complete with tongue-scraper.  The twentieth century, completing our chronological journey, will be represented with dresses belonging to Diana, Princess of Wales, including the daring, low-cut, strapless black taffeta gown in which she made her first public appearance as Official Royal Girlfriend.

Once the idea for the new Kensington Palace had taken shape, all the frills and furbelows of our project had to be scrunched down into a package costing £12 million.  Now came the sometimes-painful process of turning it into reality. The architects John Simpson and Partners and the landscape designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan were selected for the physical changes, as they shared an elegant, timeless, neo-Georgian vision.  A magnificent new garden to the east will draw visitors into what used to be the old curators’ office, now a welcome area, where the menu of four routes will be laid out.  The ‘White Court’ has been roofed to create circulation space, and the magnificent Clore Education Centre to its south comprises of £1 million worth of new classrooms.

The work has thrown up the occasional surprise: behind a pillar we found a pencilled message from 1902 recording a workman’s view that his foreman, one Peter Jackson, was a ‘champion f—er’.

At this stage in the project – three weeks before opening – it’s hard.  Some things clearly won’t be completed in time, people are tired and tempers are short.  But there’s also an exciting sense that we’re nearly there.  The new guidebook has gone to the printers; the staff have tried on their new, Jaeger-designed uniforms; the party is planned.  In fact, I’m going to have to leave you right here.  I’ve got work to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.