31.03.2015
14:06

Kensington Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)

Address:

Kensington Gardens, W8 4PX

Phone:

0844 482 7777

Website:

www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace

Opening times:

March–Oct daily 10:00–18:00; Nov–Feb daily 10:00–17:00

How to get there:

Tube: High Street Kensington

Entry fee:

Admission charge

Additional information:

Partial disabled access. Refreshments in Orangery. Shop

Although no longer an official residence of the monarch, Kensington Palace is a building of great architectural and historical significance. Formerly Nottingham House, a Jacobean mansion owned by Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham, it was purchased by the Crown in 1689 for £20,000 and underwent a rapid architectural transformation under the supervision of Sir Christopher Wren, with Nicholas Hawksmoor as Clerk of the Works. William III and Mary II’s new home was to be a winter retreat from the damp of Whitehall, a more suitable environment for the king, who suffered from asthma. It was always regarded as a private residence rather than a palace, and referred to as Kensington House. Between 1689 and 1691 Kensington was enlarged to encompass suites of apartments for the king and queen, the latter lavishly furnished with displays of oriental porcelain; a suitably grand King’s Staircase, the main approach to William’s apartments; a chapel; a Council Chamber (it was here that government business was conducted in winter); and also accommodation for senior courtiers and household officers (despite Kensington’s domestic character, when William and Mary were in residence, around 600 courtiers were too). Mary died at Kensington, of smallpox, in 1694, and it was to Kensington that William was carried following his riding accident at Hampton Court, which proved mortal. His successor, Queen Anne, spent much time at Kensington, apparently hating the ‘stinking & close’ air around St James’s Palace which, following the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698, had become the seat of government and administration. It was to Kensington that Anne retired during her extensive periods of painful illness; it was here that she nursed her husband, Prince George of Denmark, whose death in 1708 ‘flung her into an unspeakable grief’; and it was also here that Anne herself died in 1714. Following the accession of George I, in 1718, an extensive new building programme saw the remodelling of the King’s apartments and their redecoration by William Kent. The apartments remain today as important early Hanoverian survivals.

Although Kensington had been one of the principal residences of the early Hanoverians, after the death of George II in 1760 it ceased to be a seat of the reigning monarch. Family members continued to use the palace, however. The lower floors were remodelled for Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820), the fourth son of George III, and it was here that his daughter, the future Queen Victoria, was born. In 1832 Sir Jeffry Wyatville converted rooms adjoining the King’s Gallery for her use, where she received the news of her accession. Throughout the 19th century Kensington continued to house members of the royal family (including Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, and the Duke and Duchess of Teck), but the architecturally important State Apartments were used as storerooms. In 1898–99 they were restored and opened to the public, and in 1911–14 were occupied by the London Museum (which returned to Kensington, to the lower floors, in 1950–76) and the court dress collection. Most recently Kensington was famous as the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, who occupied apartments here from 1981 until her death in 1997, when the palace witnessed extraordinary scenes, the grounds in front of the main gates completely hidden under a sea of flowers and cellophane.

 

Visiting the Palace

The palace is approached from either Kensington Road or Bayswater Road. From Kensington Road the short walk through Kensington Gardens takes you first to the main south front of the palace, added by William III in 1695: a handsome design in red brick, the four central Portland vases on the roofline were carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber. The rather diminutive bronze statue of William III, by Heinrich Baucke, was presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. The visitor entrance is via a path which leads first to the east front, part of George I’s building campaign of 1718–21, past the tranquil sunken garden of 1908–09, behind its enclosing hedge, to the west block. The visitor route is somewhat confusing, making it difficult to retain a complete sense of a Baroque palace, with its suites of King’s and Queen’s Apartments with their orderly progression of state rooms. Visitors see first the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection (which it is possible to omit), are then directed up a back staircase to the 18th-century dress collection which leads out, finally, to the palace proper, at the top of George I’s King’s Staircase.

 

Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection

This is on the ground floor, to the left of the entrance hall, in rooms occupied by the London Museum until 1976. They now display the history of royal, court and ceremonial dress from the 18th century to the present day. A series of tableaux, with waxwork figures, tells the story of the wearing and making of court finery, including dresses worn by members of the royal family, ceremonial dress worn by officers and courtiers, and by debutantes for their presentation at court. Edwardian ladies with elaborate ostrich headdresses are shown preparing for an evening Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, assisted by their maids; an interior of a gentlemen’s tailor displays official court uniforms; intricate lace and embroidery is on show in a seamstress’s shop; the 20th-century rise of the couturier is illustrated through a selection of outfits worn by the present Queen over the decades, designed by Sir Norman Hartnell and Sir Hardy Amies; and Coronation robes—for instance Queen Mary’s, wife of King George V, worn in 1911—are on show. A special display is devoted to the outfits worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, including elegant day and evening wear by Catherine Walker.

 

The King’s Apartments

Narrow stairs, formerly the private back stairs leading to the King’s Apartments, take visitors up to what was once William III’s private bedchamber but which now displays 18th-century court dress, including an astonishingly wide side-hooped silk brocade mantua, its breadth showing off the fine embroidery. The main sequence of rooms which make up the King’s Apartments begins with the King’s Staircase, today seen from the landing only. The site of William III’s earlier staircase (the fine wrought iron balustrade by Jean Tijou dates from 1696), the current painted decoration was carried out by William Kent in 1725–27 for George I. The figures crowding against the trompe l’oeil balustrade, as if welcoming the king as he mounts the stairs, represent figures from the king’s court, including his Polish page, his two Turkish Grooms of the Chamber, Mustapha and Mehmet, and ‘Peter the Wild Boy’, found living in the woods near Hanover and brought to England as a curiosity to be tamed. Kent himself appears on the ceiling. Kent’s decoration can be seen throughout the rooms remodelled for George I, all of it undertaken between 1722 and 1727, some of it mural painting in its true sense, on plaster, but some, such as the staircase, painted on canvas. The Presence Chamber, used for formal receptions, has Italian ‘grotesque’ decoration on the ceiling, with Apollo in his chariot in the centre. The carved Grinling Gibbons overmantel was moved from William III’s King’s Gallery; its cupids, one cheerful, the other mournful, are apparently reflective of the death of Mary II in 1694. George I’s architectural remodelling of Kensington, begun in 1718, involved the creation of new rooms, in the new Palladian taste, on the site of the surviving core of old Nottingham House. Little remains of their original furnishings but the Privy Chamber, used for more intimate and select audiences, retains its Kent ceiling, which shows Mars and Minerva resting on clouds, with symbols of the arts and sciences. The 1623–24 Mortlake tapestries were made for Charles I when Prince of Wales, and the statue of a Moor, by John van Nost the Elder, was probably made for William III and has been at Kensington since 1710.

The Cupola Room was one of the most important of the new rooms for George I. Lavishly decorated, it was the principal state apartment and a showcase for Kent, whose work at Kensington began here. Ionic pilasters with gilded fluting alternate with marble niches containing gilded lead statues of Roman deities. The bas-relief above the fireplace, by Rysbrack, depicts a Roman marriage. The blue and gold feigned coffering on the ceiling, giving an illusion of height, with the Garter Star in the centre, in fact follows an earlier design by the great Baroque artist Sir James Thornhill. As the king’s official history painter, Thornhill should have been awarded the Kensington commission, but Whig political faction, along with the promotion of the new Palladianism, saw Kent triumph despite his indifferent talent (instead of stark Roman grandeur, the early 18th-century art commentator George Vertue found the Cupola Room ‘a terrible glaring show’, and the ceilings in the other rooms ‘poor stuff’). The clock in the centre of the room, by Charles Clay and John Pyke (completed 1743), was acquired by Augusta, Princess of Wales. Surmounted by Atlas and Hercules, with painted sides by Jacopo Amigoni, it originally played tunes by Corelli, Handel and Geminiani. The King’s Drawing Room was where the weekly court Drawing Rooms took place. Richly decorated with fine pictures from the Royal Collection hung against crimson damask, it originally had furniture designed by Kent, who also designed the fireplace and painted the ceiling (with Jupiter and Semele at its centre).

In an odd interruption of chronology, visitors see next the rooms occupied by the young Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent in the early 19th century. Princess Victoria’s Bedroom was where she was woken on 20th June 1837 with news of her accession to the throne. The rooms were redecorated in the 1930s by Queen Mary to evoke their appearance when occupied by the princess. The King’s Gallery is a magnificent return to the early 18th century. Ninety-six feet long, it occupies the site of William III’s gallery and retains its 1690s carved cornice as well as the important wind-dial above the fireplace, made by Robert Morden for William in 1694. Points of the compass circle the map of the seas around Great Britain and a pointer, attached to the wind-vane on the roof, indicates the direction of the prevailing wind. Although not a great artist, Kent was a talented designer, and the entire decorative scheme, of white and gold woodwork and crimson wall hangings and curtains, is his. The doorcases were redesigned by him, as was the fireplace and overmantel. The rich ceiling, by Kent and his assistant Francisco de Valentia, has scenes from the story of Ulysses, surrounded by feigned decorative plasterwork against a gold mosaic. The picture hang was also devised by Kent, who designed many of the frames. During the reigns of George I and II some of the most important works from the Royal Collection were hung at Kensington. Included here are important Tintorettos and originally, at either end, were the king’s two most important van Dycks, Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their Two Eldest Children, and Charles I with M de St-Antoine (the latter is a version; both originals are now at Buckingham Palace).

 

The Queen’s Apartments

Visitors should now double back to the beginning of the sequence of the Queen’s Apartments, built for Queen Mary II in the early 1690s and the part of the palace which best retains its late 17th-century atmosphere. Originally the suite comprised nine rooms, accessed by their own grand staircase. Queen Mary’s Drawing Room, completed in 1692, was badly damaged by bombing in 1940 but part of the finely carved cornice survives. Queen Mary’s Bedchamber, an intimate room, has its original elm floorboards. From inventories it is known that Mary’s bed was hung with velvet lined with gold satin, with green and silver passementerie. The current hangings seem to have come from a bed belonging to James II or his queen Mary of Modena, whose cyphers they bear. Queen Mary’s Drawing Room is furnished with a 17th-century table and high-backed chairs, and hung with cabinet-sized pictures from the Royal Collection, including fruit and flower pieces by the Hungarian-born Jacob Bogdani, one of Queen Anne’s favourite artists. The portrait above the fireplace, by John Riley and John Baptist Closterman, is of Katherine Elliot, nurse of James II and later Dresser and Woman of the Bedchamber to Mary of Modena. The Closet, hung with Indian damask with a blue and gold embroidered couch with a tented canopy in the time of Queen Mary, contains portraits of Queen Anne in profile by Kneller, and George of Denmark by Michael Dahl, the latter being the Queen’s favourite image of her husband. She demanded to have it with her at St James’s Palace after his death in 1708. It was in this room that Anne and her once-favourite, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, had their last, bitter quarrel in 1710.

Queen Mary’s Gallery was the richest and most grandly furnished of the Queen’s rooms. Her taste for oriental porcelain, which was displayed throughout her apartments, was given free rein here. It was massed in symmetrical, towering displays on lacquer cabinets placed between the windows, as well as above the doors and chimneypieces. The latter displays were set against looking glasses with elaborate carved surrounds, supplied by the royal cabinet maker Gerrit Jensen and by Grinling Gibbons. Displays of this nature were fashionable at the courts of Europe, and Mary was one of the chief promoters of the vogue in England. The richness of the room, with its expensive curtains (scarlet taffeta in winter and white flowered damask in summer), and embroidered wall hangings, its porcelain and lacquerwork, would have been most apparent by candlelight. The Queen’s Staircase, a plain and handsome space, was designed by Wren and retains some of its original sash windows.

 

The Gardens

The late 17th-century gardens at Kensington were once very elaborate, but have long since disappeared. On an axis with the south front was a 12-acre garden with a parterre and wilderness and a central walk, laid out by George London in 1689–91. Queen Anne, who loved gardening, engaged Henry Wise to develop a larger wilderness to the north, with intersecting walks, terraces and topiary. Her most lasting achievement in the garden was the Orangery, designed by Hawksmoor and altered by Sir John Vanbrugh, which housed plants in the winter and was used for entertainments in the summer. It is now an elegant and airy tearoom with, at either end, two magnificent carved vases by Cibber and Edward Pierce, originally from the gardens at Hampton Court but now placed here, safe from further weathering. In 1728 Queen Caroline, queen of George II, had an octagonal basin constructed to the west of the palace, on land claimed from Hyde Park. It remains today as the Round Pond, and beyond it the Serpentine was formed.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

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2 Willow Road (National Trust)
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Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
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Tate Modern
Tate Britain
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Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
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Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
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Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
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National Portrait Gallery
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Museum of London
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Lord’s Tour and MCC Museum
London Transport Museum
London Fire Brigade Museum
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