Nice pad, but I bet Kate changes the wallpaper! As Kensington Palace opens to the public after a 12m makeover we take an exclusive tour of Kate and Will's new home
19:29 GMT, 26 March 2012
Not since the Windsor fire of 1992, has there been a royal makeover on this scale. Indeed, the last time a palace went through a facelift of this magnitude, it was courtesy of a German bomb.
In the case of Kensington Palace, however, this 12million transformation has not been prompted by any misfortune but by years of careful planning. Admittedly, there has been one unexpected, 11th-hour alteration to the designs.
But no one is complaining about the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to set up home here — because their presence in the private wing of the palace is only going to draw even more visitors through the doors on the public side.
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Palace of varieties: Mail writer Robert Hardman stands by the modern luminous lace piece – a light sculpture made of more than two miles of electroluminescent wire
A few days ago, the Queen came to Kensington to re-open what used to be the seat of royal power until the monarchy moved to Buckingham Palace. Before she cut the ribbon, she toured the rooms where Queen Victoria grew up and inspected the new displays which feature everything from Prince Albert’s tongue-scraper to a new range of Diana, Princess of Wales, wallpaper and a very creepy children’s birthday party (of which more later).
‘We’ve set out to awaken a sleeping beauty,’ announced Charles Mackay, the chairman of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which runs the place. He might equally have called it a sleeping giant. Because, after years in the heritage doldrums, KP is finally exploiting its true potential as one of the capital’s major tourist attractions.
The restored formal gardens: After years in the heritage doldrums, KP is finally exploiting its true potential as one of the capital's major tourist attractions
Centrepiece: The statue of Queen Victoria sculpted by her daughter
Princess Louise has been spruced up and is looking as good as new
First opened to tourists in Victorian
times, Kensington Palace has long been a collection of flats for royal
relatives — the Duke of Windsor used to call it ‘the Aunt Heap’ —
alongside public state apartments. Now it has not merely been given a
new lick of paint. Whole sections have been unveiled for the first time.
spectacularly, the grounds have been opened out and, from this morning,
the public can wander into a royal palace without a ticket, to buy a
cup of tea or a postcard. Once inside, they will be steered towards one
of the grandest ticket offices in the land, a covered courtyard decked
out like a multi-storey four-poster bed.
from there, they have the run of four exhibitions spanning four
centuries, even if some of it may leave traditionalists harrumphing.
After all, this is surely the first royal residence in history with
talking Whoopee cushions — when sat upon, they burble historic court
gossip into unsuspecting vistors’ ears.
the profusion of entries from Queen Victoria’s diaries reproduced in
facsimile on the palace walls, Prince Philip remarked: ‘Who’s been doing
all this graffiti’
exterior is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire
refurbishment. To millions, Kensington Palace is the red-brick block
behind the hefty ironwork where all those floral tributes were piled up
in 1997 to honour the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Viewed through
those elegant bars, the palace had the feel of a gilded prison — remote,
aloof and with no obvious way in or out.
Splendour: The King's Grand Staircase, the 12 million refurbishment has been paid for with cash reserves, Lottery funding and support from charitable trusts like the Clore Duffield, Gosling and Rothermere foundations
A staff member in period costume sweeps through the King's State Rooms: First opened to tourists in Victorian times, Kensington Palace has long been a collection of flats for royal relatives – the Duke of Windsor used to call it
'the Aunt Heap'
the iron curtain has gone. Only the original ‘Golden Gates’ remain,
while unobtrusive chest-height railings stretch around a new meadow. All
the hedges and trees which were planted to seal off the outside world
have been stripped away.
The palace now has a completely
uncluttered view of Kensington Gardens, its Round Pond and Hyde Park
beyond. Looking the other way, the public now has a completely
uncluttered view of the grounds landscaped by Charles Bridgeman in the
early 18th century and the palace itself. Sitting there in pride of
place, spruced up and good as new, is the statue of Queen Victoria
sculpted by her daughter, Princess Louise.
today, when the whole thing re-opens, the public can simply walk
straight up to the new front door, a covered portico known as the
Diamond Jubilee Loggia, or approach via a hornbeam-lined zig-zag called
the Wiggly Way. Inside, visitors are greeted by what looks like a
glowing tornado. Made of more than two miles of electroluminescent wire,
it is a light sculpture called Luminous Lace and apparently replicates a
royal lace pattern.
Royal oddity: Prince Albert 's tongue scrapper
Setails: Robert Hardman admires the ceiling in one of the King's State Rooms and, right, Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress
Here is a clue that this is not just another roped-off, ‘do not touch’ stuffy heritage trail.
tend to picture Queen Victoria at her beloved Balmoral or being wheeled
around her Solent retreat at Osborne House, where she died. But it was
Kensington Palace which had arguably the greatest influence on the Queen
Empress since she was born here, raised here, became Queen here and
fell in love here.
‘We want people to come away
realising she was not just a grumpy old lady but a woman of strong
opinions who liked to have fun,’ says curator Deirdre Murphy, leading
the way into the Red Saloon at the start of the Victoria Revealed
Here in a
glass case is the tiny dress which (a tiny) Victoria was wearing in 1837
when she was told that her uncle, William IV, was dead and that she had
100 members of the Privy Council crammed into this room to proclaim her
as Sovereign. The historical records show she was dressed in black,
while Sir David Wilkie’s famous painting of the moment has her in
virginal white. And yet, the actual dress is a shade of bronze.
explains that, over time, the chemical composition of the dye has gone
from black to brown. It also turns out that the Red Saloon was never red
either. It was pink. No wonder foreigners love this quaint British
Exhibition: In what used to be Princess Margaret's garden room there is an exhibition of some of the late Princess Diana's dresses. The
walls are covered in wallpaper featuring cartoonish sketches of the
Princess by the artist Julie Verhoeven
what used to be known as the Teck Saloon has been rebranded the ‘Love
Room’ and tells the tale of the Victoria and Albert romance. Instead of
cramming it with memorabilia, the curators have gone for a ‘less is
more’ approach, steering visitors to Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, a
replica of Prince Albert’s wedding outfit (he married in the uniform of a
Field Marshal) and some jewellery he designed for her.
The floor is printed with
extracts from their love letters (‘Look! More graffiti!’ as their great,
great grandson, Prince Philip, observed).
Another room is devoted to
childhood — that of Victoria and also of her children. A doll-sized
pair of slippers turn out to be her very first pair of shoes.
of her earliest sketchbooks show a passion — and a talent — for
drawing. Deprived of childhood friends by her mother, the Duchess of
Kent, she was devoted to a collection of dolls which she named after
leading Court figures and her theatrical heroes of the day.
young Victoria was an avid, if lonely, theatre-goer. Elsewhere, we find
baby clothes and fancy dress costumes worn by her children. An entry
from her diary reminds us that this mother of nine was not always
maternal: ‘I don’t dislike babies, though I think very young ones rather
The Historic Royal Palaces team believe Kensington Palace has to appeal to all ages and tastes if it is to boost its annual visitor numbers from the usual 300,000 to upwards of 400,000
displays show Victoria and Albert in their prime. Visitors are
encouraged to open drawers full of replica memorabilia and documents.
Suddenly, all is gloom as I enter a room shrouded in black.
public display for the first time is the book that Victoria was reading
to her husband at the moment he died. Her copy of Peveril Of The Peak
by Sir Walter Scott has for ever after been open on page 80. She even
had her handkerchiefs embroidered with black tears.
intriguing, perhaps, is the display of curios from across Victoria’s
life — her ‘Transylvanian suite’ of jewellery, her multi-coloured bonnet
(very racy in those days), a brooch made from a milk tooth and Prince
Albert’s ‘dressing case’, a little wooden chest of bottles, brushes and a
silver spatula for scraping the royal tongue.
today’s Queen came to see all this, she was particularly captivated by a
screen showing footage of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession
through London in 1897. Her own, of course, is just weeks away.
Downstairs, there is a smaller exhibition dedicated to the most celebrated resident of modern times.
has always been a challenge for royal curators to set the right tone
when remembering Diana, Princess of Wales. Market research shows that
around a quarter of visitors to Kensington Palace are drawn by its
associations with her. Too much Diana and the staff are accused of
exploitation, too little and they are charged with neglect.
Souvenirs: Visitors can buy an official royal teddy bear or one of a selection of Diana books at the gift shop
The result is an exhibition of some of the late Princess’s dresses in what used to be Princess Margaret’s garden room.
most striking, perhaps, is the Emanuel black silk taffeta gown which
the Princess wore to her first official engagement with the Prince of
Wales in 1981. It came famously close to what we would, today, call a
curators had to go to a Chilean textile museum to borrow this exhibit.
None of these dresses, in fact, remains in royal hands. They are all on
Equally striking is the passageway leading to this display. The
walls are covered in wallpaper featuring cartoonish sketches of the
Princess by the artist Julie Verhoeven.
original idea had been to maintain a permanent tribute to Diana in here
but that plan has had to change because her elder son will now be
converting Princess Margaret’s old home back in to a royal residence.
Moving in: Soon Kensington Palace will be home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
present, it is still office and event space. Soon, it will be home to
the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. And it would be rather strange to
expect Prince William to share the marital home with a public exhibition
devoted to his late mother.
might be equally disconcerting for his young wife to have a corridor
plastered with wallpaper images of her late mother-in-law. So, Diana
will soon become part of a new royal exhibition in another part of the
building and the Cambridges will be free to redecorate.
the new Kensington Palace has no shortage of the weird and downright
macabre. The state apartments, home to the late Stuarts and early
Georgians, have been reinterpreted by a team of theatrical designers. So
a flock of replica birds hang down from the ceiling of the Queen’s
Gallery, where Mary II kept her songbirds. Sit down on ‘whispering
cushions’ and recorded voices start hissing Court gossip in your ear.
An aerial view of the Kensington Palace which used to be the Royal seat of power until the monarchy moved to Buckingham Palace
The hornbeam-lined Wiggle Walk which visitors can take to the entrance of the palace
One room is devoted to the tragic story of Queen Anne’s 18 pregnancies. Only one child, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, survived beyond the age of four. Shortly after turning 11, he himself died of ‘overheating’, supposedly brought on by too much dancing at his own birthday party. This sorry tale is represented by 18 empty chairs laid out for a children’s birthday party in honour of all these unfortunate siblings. The management call it a ‘poignant re-interpretation’. Others might find it mawkish and faintly peculiar.
But the Historic Royal Palaces team believe Kensington Palace has to appeal to all ages and tastes if it is to boost its annual visitor numbers from the usual 300,000 to upwards of 400,000. ‘Some parts will appeal to more traditional visitors but we also need to target a younger audience,’ explains the senior curator and historian, Lucy Worsley.
Unlike HRP’s larger attractions, notably the Tower of London and Hampton Court, this royal palace cannot rely on a solid turnover of coach-party traffic. And it receives no Government subsidy. The 12 million refurbishment has been paid for with cash reserves, Lottery funding and support from charitable trusts like the Clore Duffield, Gosling and Rothermere foundations.
As of today, however, it is down to the paying public to keep it all going, through sales of tickets, royal mugs, Penny Black cushions, tea and cakes. But I have no doubt it is going to be a hit. The ‘Aunt Heap’ is back. And the last time it looked this good was when the Georgians ruled the roost.