Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.

The Home of Young Royals

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Kensington Palace, set in Kensington Gardens in London, has been a royal residence since the 17th-century. It is currently the home of several members of the British royal family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the recently married Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Parts of the palace, namely the State Rooms, are open to the public under the care of the independent charity Historic Royal Palaces. These rooms also contain many paintings and objects belonging to the royal collection.

Throughout its 300 year history, Kensington Palace has been a number of things, including army barracks, a museum, a home and, most importantly, a setting for the royal court. Kensington was originally a small, remote village with acres of open fields on which sat a simple squire’s mansion known as Nottingham House. In 1689, a year after James II (1633-1701) had been deposed, the new joint monarchs William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-94) purchased the house, thus putting Kensington clearly on the map.

The house was fairly small in comparison to the size of the palace today. Shortly after purchasing the building for £20,000, the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, famously remembered for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, was hired to transform the house into a suitable royal residence. Although the Palace has since been extended further, this initial extension added several rooms, for instance, a chapel, kitchens, stables and, most importantly, the State Apartments.

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Staircase leading to the King’s State Apartments

The State Apartments are part of the palace open to visitors and are included in the initial entrance fee. The King’s rooms are located at the top of a painted staircase. When William and Mary moved in at the beginning of the 1690s, this staircase was furnished with plain wooden panels, however, this was replaced with the staircase still in place today during the Georgian-era.

William III had little interest in the palace after his wife died in 1694, although he did entertain the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) here in 1698. Queen Anne (1665-1714) was disinclined to make any changes to the building when she moved in, however, she did concentrate on the garden, adding an Orangery in 1705. Having no direct heir, Anne passed her throne to Georg Ludwig Elector of Hanover (1660-1727) who was distantly related to James I (1566-1625). George I was later succeeded by his son, George II (1683-1760), and it was during both their reigns that many changes and embellishments occurred at Kensington Palace.

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Georgian designer. Yorkshire-born William Kent

As visitors will see as they ascend the stairs to the King’s State Rooms, the walls are painted with imaginary architecture featuring balconies from which Georgian ladies and gentlemen look down at the passers-by. Yeomen of the Guard in their red uniforms stand among these figures and it is thought some of the characters were based on real members of the royal court. Identified people include the king’s page Ulric, Turkish servants and a feral boy named Peter who had been found living in the woods in Germany.

Interestingly, the artist commissioned to paint the King’s rooms was not Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734), the leading painter at the time, but the lesser known William Kent (1685-1748). The rather arrogant but talented artist included a portrait of himself on the ceiling wearing his artist’s cap and holding a palette.

The first room in the tour of the King’s State Apartments is the Presence Chamber. Sparsely furnished, this is where the reigning king received his important guests whilst seated on a throne under a crimson silk damask canopy. Although the original is either lost or too worn for display, a replica is in place in the Presence Chamber today.

Once again, William Kent produced the ceiling paintings and was inspired by the recently excavated houses on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the centre circle, the Roman god Apollo is riding his chariot through the sky on a dark cloud. Surrounding the fireplace is a handful of Grinling Gibbons or sleeping cherubs surrounded by roses, which were once painted lead white, however, are now plain limewood.

Those lucky enough to be allowed further into the King’s State Rooms would next enter into the Privy Chamber, which was once Queen Caroline (1683-1737), the wife of George II’s favourite place to entertain guests and family.

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Privy Chamber

Again, Kent is responsible for the painted ceiling, which features Mars, the Roman god of war and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. These mythological figures are said to represent the king and queen. George II was the last British king to lead his troops into battle and Caroline had particular interests in art and science.

The walls of the Privy Chamber are hung with tapestries that come from the Mortlake Tapestry set representing the months of the year, once owned by Charles I (1600-49). These particular draperies show four different months: February, July, August and November.

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The Cupola Room

Following on from the Privy Chamber is the Cupola Room, which was the first room decorated by William Kent and definitely shows off his skill. Through his excellent use of Trompe-l’œil, an art technique which creates the optical illusion that the depicted objects are three-dimensional, Kent recreated a baroque Roman palace with the Star of the Order of the Garter in the centre of the ceiling. This impressed George I and earned Kent the honour of decorating the other rooms.

Today, the decor of the Cupola Room is overshadowed by an intriguing object in the centre of the room. After walking around it several times, visitors will realise that it is, in fact, a clock, albeit with the tiniest clock face. It is also a music box that once played music by Handel (1685-1759) as well as a work of art. The four panels on the upper portion of the object contain paintings depicting four ancient monarchies. Known as the ‘Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World’, this clock-cum-music-box was purchased by Princess Augusta (1719-72), the daughter-in-law of George II.

The Cupola Room was usually used for parties and dancing, although in 1819 it was the location for the baptism of the future Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, it was the Prince Regent (later George IV (1762-1830)) who decided on her name: Alexandrina Victoria, named after the Russian Tsar and Victoria’s mother respectively.

Next door to the Cupola Room is the King’s Drawing Room, which was also used for parties. The ceiling, once again painted by William Kent, shows the Roman god Jupiter accidentally killing his lover Semele. On the walls hang several paintings, one of which was a particular favourite of George II. Venus and Cupid by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) still hangs in the room today, however, during 1735 when the king was in Hanover, Queen Caroline had it removed in preference of her collection of Van Dyck (1599-1641) portraits. On his return, the enraged king insisted on the reinstatement of his beloved painting.

Whilst the dancing was going on next door, the queen would often retreat to the Drawing Room with a handful of guests to play cards. Visitors to the palace are provided with the opportunity to play three types of games the Royals may once have played. The first is a board game titled Game of Court in which players navigate around the board to be the first to greet the king. Each player starts with twelve coins, although in the Georgian-era they would have played with their own money, and throws two dice to determine how far they travel along the board. Some squares contain instructions that may involve paying money, missing a turn or being rewarded. For example, if you land on 42, you “Lose 200 Guineas playing Cards. Pay a coin and roll a double to move.” On the other hand, landing on 18 “You speak the language of the court, French, superbly. Move forward the same number of squares again.” The player to reach the finish square first wins all the coins that have been put into the pot throughout the game.

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The second green baize card table contains a set of playing cards, which can be used to play a multiple of games. What is interesting about these particular cards is their design. The suit and number appear in the top left-hand corner but the rest of the card contains a verse and music notes. Take, for example, the seven of spades:
Come sweet lass,
Let’s banish sorrow
Till To’morrow;
Come sweet lass,
Let’s take a chirping glass.
Wine can clear
The vapours of despair;
And make us light as air;
Then drink and banish care.

On the third table is a dice game of chance named Hazard. Again, each player begins with twelve coins and the first player throws two dice. The number rolled, so long as it is either the number 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9, decides the game’s “lose” number. The second roll of the dice determines the “win” number, so long as it is the number 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (but not the same as the “lose” number). Once these numbers have been established, the game can begin. Each player takes turns rolling the dice, putting in one coin in the pot every time it is their turn. If the “lose” number is thrown, that player is now out. When a player throws the “win” number, the game is over and that player wins all the coins that have been put in the pot.

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In the Drawing Room, Cupola Room and one of the adjoining rooms are a few examples of Georgian fashion. Visitors may be shocked by the width of the skirts ladies were expected to wear. Called a mantua, ladies were required to wear a coat-like dress with a train spread out over an enormous petticoat supported by a hoop. Unless they were attending parties at the palace, the wearers had to enter the room sideways because most doorways could not accommodate the width of the skirt. It was also very difficult to walk in and the hooped skirt forced ladies to take tiny steps, making it appear as though they were rolling along on wheels.

The dresses tended to be very frilly, the sleeves having at least three rows of ruffles. When attending the palace, ladies wore their best jewellery and feathers in their hair. They were also expected to carry a fan to be used as a form of sign language. By waving a fan in a particular way, one could signal the message “I am married” or “go away” as well as more encouraging words.

Men, whilst not burdened with a mantua, had other fashion rules to abide. All gentlemen had to wear a wig, regardless of the quality of their own hair. Their suit was embroidered with intricate designs and worn with silk stockings and pumps with glittery buckles. It was also customary to have a sword tied to your waist. While these costumes may sound extravagant today, the Georgian belief was you can never be overdressed.

A small room leading off from the Drawing Room is delegated Queen Caroline’s Closet. At one point in history, William III used this as a bedchamber and George I used it as a storage room for his books. Caroline, on the other hand, used it as a display room for hundreds of small paintings, miniatures and embroidery. The star exhibit was a precious portfolio the queen had discovered hidden in a cabinet. It contained many drawings by the famous Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his Tudor subjects. These were not finished artworks but studies of sitters for paintings. A couple of examples are on display today.

The final room in the tour of the King’s State Rooms is the King’s Gallery, which was built for William III. Although the walls are now red, it was originally hung with green velvet and the king would meet here with his spies to plan his military campaigns. In the centre of the room hangs a wind-dial made by Robert Morden (1650-1703), which was attached to a weather vane on the roof of the palace. This allowed William to see what direction the wind was blowing and judge whether there was a risk of invasion. While resting in this room after breaking his collar bone in a riding accident, it is believed William III caught a chill, which led to pneumonia and ultimately his death.

The green walls were replaced with red damask for George I and William Kent painted scenes from the life of the Roman hero Ulysses on the ceiling. Many of the picture frames and statues in the room were also designed by Kent. At the eastern end of the room hung Van Dyck’s painting of Charles I, which, in more recent years, has been replaced with a copy.

Other paintings in the room are a mix of religious and classical stories. A painting by Jacopo Bassano (1510-92) depicts the great flood recorded in the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6-9. The painting shows people’s futile attempts to save children and animals from the deepening water. The Flood came into the possession of the Royal Collection when it was purchased by Charles I from the Gonzaga collection in Mantua.

There are also biblical scenes from the New Testament, for example, Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Bonifazio de’ Pitati (1487-1553). This was also acquired by Charles I and shows the scene described in John 4:5-26 where Christ rests at Jacob’s well on his way to Galilee. Here he meets and speaks with a Samaritan woman, something that was not allowed at the time, using the water in the well as a metaphor for salvation.

In 1835, the King’s Gallery was converted into three rooms for Princess Victoria while she was growing up. Whilst Victoria loved these rooms, the original gallery was restored a century later.

Adjacent to the King’s State Rooms are the Queen’s State Apartments. These are accessed by an elegant oak-panelled stairway, which is deliberately plainer than the King’s staircase, although still rather grand. Little has changed here since Christopher Wren built them in 1690, however, it is believed to be the first staircase of its kind.

The first room in the tour of the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Gallery, which was designed as an airy space for Mary II to enjoy simple pastimes, such as, reading, needlework and, when raining, walking. Both Mary and her cousin William, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, had been living in Europe before they married and came to England to be crowned as joint rulers. Mary brought with her several treasures she had collected while in the Netherlands, including objects that had been brought overseas by the Dutch East India Company from places such as China, India and Japan. Mary used these items to furnish her new apartments.

Examples of Mary’s vast collection still furnish the gallery today. Originally, over 150 pieces were in this room alone, with oriental porcelain and Delft crammed onto every surface. As visitors will see, she even placed items above the doorways.

On the walls hang a number of paintings, including one of her husband William before he was made King of England. Posed wearing full armour, the Dutch artist Willem Wissing (1656-87) painted the Prince of Orange as an archetypal commander, perhaps foreseeing his future as king.

Another painting in the room is of Mary’s mother Anne Hyde (1637-71), the Duchess of York. Anne was the wife of James II and the mother of two future queens of England: Mary and Anne. This portrait may have been painted by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) who Anne sat for on a number of occasions.

In the corner sits a coloured bust of a Moor, an enslaved man, who has been identified as William III’s favourite personal servant. Although Moors were often kept in slavery, the British royals and upper classes were particularly passionate about their exotic artworks and marbles, such as this example carved by John Nost (d.1729).

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day – Peeter Neeffs

The Queen’s Closet also contains a number of artworks and collectable objects, for example, a couple of paintings showing the interior of Antwerp Cathedral in Belgium by Peeter Neeffs the Elder (1578-1656), although these particular pieces were acquired much later by George III.

Mary II used this room when she wished to withdraw from the social world. Years later when her sister was queen, it was in this room that Queen Anne had a huge argument with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (1660-1744), Duchess of Marlborough, and ended up stripping Sarah of her high-rank and dismissing her from court.

The Queen’s Closet leads into the Dining Room where William and Mary once shared simple private suppers of fish and beer. Mary could also dine alone here but it was too small for more than a couple of guests.

Again, there are a few pieces of art in this room, including a painting of a much-loved housekeeper above the fireplace. This was Katherine Elliot who had been the nurse for James II when he was a child. She later became both the court Dresser and Woman of the Bedchamber for James’ wives and inevitably had some interaction with his children.

“The Queen brought about the custom … of filling houses with China-ware which increased to a strange degree afterwards piling their China upon the tops of Cabinets, Scutores, and every Chymney-Piece to the tops of the Ceilings.”
– Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

As the author Daniel Defoe rightly commented, Mary II owned a lot of porcelain, which adorns most rooms in the Queen’s apartments. During her lifetime, however, the majority of these ceramics could be found in the Queen’s Drawing Room. Originally panelled, this room was damaged by an incendiary bomb during World War Two, which is why the rooms are now wallpapered.

Although rather sparse in comparison to how it would have looked 300 years ago, the drawing room has a few items of interest, particularly a barometer set in a carved oak and walnut case. Made by Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), the most famous clockmaker in England at the time, the barometer indicates the weather on a silvered and matted gold dial. To the casual observer, the numbers on the dial mean nothing, however, each number is designated a type of weather ranging from Stormy (30) to Settled Fair (270).

The final room in the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Bedroom, although it later became a cosy sociable place where Mary could show off more of her porcelain. The bed which can be found in the bedroom today is thought to be the one in which James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II was born, at St James’ Palace, in 1688. How this bed came to be at Kensington Palace is not mentioned.

After visiting both the King and Queen’s rooms, there are still two parts of the palace to explore. One part contains temporary exhibitions where famous paintings, objects and items of clothing, for example, Princess Diana’s (1961-97) wedding dress can be found. Currently, the temporary exhibition is about the life of Queen Victoria, in honour of her two hundredth birthday. Whilst this is a temporary exhibition, the history of Victoria’s life is a permanent feature at the Palace and can be found in the rooms on the first floor.

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on the 24th May 1819 at 4.15 am. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had only recently arrived at the Palace and their daughter was born in a dining room that had hastily been turned into a bedroom ready for their arrival so that there would be easy access to hot water from the kitchen nearby.

When Alexandrina Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne. Prince Edward (1767-1820), the Duke of Kent was the fourth son of George III and his wife, Victoire (1786-1861) was the widow of Emich Carl (1763-1814), the Prince of Leiningen. Although Victoire had two older children from her previous marriage – Prince Charles (1804-1856) and Princess Feodora (1807-72) – they did not have any claim to the British throne.

The Duke of Kent died after a short illness before Victoria’s first birthday, thus putting his daughter fourth in line to the throne. Victoire, despite speaking mainly German, decided to stay at Kensington Palace and provide her daughter with a royal upbringing.

As a young child, Victoria was happy and lively, playing with hundreds of toys, for example, her beloved dolls house, and being spoilt by everyone around her. She had a vivid imagination and was always making costumes for her dolls, dressing herself up, or inventing stories. As she grew older, she began producing drawings, many of which can be seen at Kensington Palace. Victoria was always dressed as a princess and was given a ring made of gold, emerald and ruby at a tender age.

She was, however, prone to tantrums, which led to her mother’s advisor Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) inventing a set of rules known as the “Kensington System”. These rules required Victoria to behave like a queen in every aspect of her life from diet and exercise to social engagements and religious observance. She was also taught a variety of subjects including the usual drawing and music as well as more masculine lessons, such as arithmetic, history and Latin. Whilst Conroy claimed to have Victoria’s education at heart, some people thought he was trying to control the princess. She was never allowed to be on her own or walk down the stairs without assistance. Nor did she have many friends her own age. Naturally, one of the first things Victoria did as queen was to get rid of the detested Conroy.

It was at Kensington Palace where Princess Victoria met her future husband. For her 17th birthday, her mother invited Victoria’s uncle and cousins to Kensington Palace. It had long been hoped that Victoria would marry her cousin Albert (1819-61), although, the present King William IV (1765-1837) had other ideas. Fortunately, Victoria and Albert fell in love during this visit and the princess wrote in her diary that Albert was “extremely handsome” and that she admired his good-naturedness and intelligence. After becoming queen, Victoria was able to take the initiative and propose to Albert with whom she lived happily until he died from typhoid in 1861.

Royal Collection

The First Council of Queen Victoria by Sir David Wilkie

“I must say, it was quite like a dream.”
– Victoria’s journal, 21st June 1837

On the 20th June 1837 at 6am, less than a month after Victoria had turned 18, she was woken up by her mother with the news that “my poor Uncle, the King, was no more … and consequently that I am Queen.” Her first Council meeting took place on the same morning in the Red Saloon, which is the final room in the tour of the Victoria Rooms. Unfortunately, Victoria had to leave her childhood home and move to Buckingham Palace, never to live at Kensington again.

Since Queen Victoria left Kensington Palace, many royals have moved in and out and a number of children have grown up in the same rooms as their ancestors. Many elderly descendants of Queen Victoria were granted apartments at the Palace, including two of her daughters: Louise (1848-1939) and Beatrice (1857-1944). Louise moved in while her mother was still alive and Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “happy to think one of my daughters shd. live in a part of it.”

Many of Victoria’s grandchildren lived at Kensington at some point, including her last surviving grandchild Princess Alice (1883-1981). Another granddaughter, Victoria Mountbatten (1863-1950), Marchioness of Milford Haven moved in after the death of her husband and often had her grandson Philip come to stay. This is the very same Philip who went on to marry the future Queen Elizabeth in November 1947.

In 1960, the newly married Princess Margaret (1930-2002) and Lord Snowdon (1930-2017) made Kensington Palace their home. Here they raised their children David and Sarah. In 1982, the residents of Kensington Palace welcomed the new Prince and Princess of Wales (Charles and Diana). Both of their sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, grew up here and Diana remained at the palace after her divorce from Prince Charles in 1992, who moved to Clarence House. Both young princes returned to the palace in adulthood and Prince William remains living there with his family today.

Before leaving Kensington Palace, visitors have the opportunity to purchase souvenirs in the gift shop or have a bite to eat in the cafe. There is also a beautiful garden to explore that has been developed over the past three hundred years and includes a sunken garden, orangery and a statue of Queen Victoria. These gardens are available to all visitors and can be explored without having purchased a ticket to enter the palace.

Kensington Palace is a wonderful place to visit and has been the home of many royal children over the past three centuries as well as the home of kings and queens. It is steeped in history but, as a working palace, it has also been brought into the contemporary era. The entry fee is quite expensive but it is a price worth paying. Cheaper tickets can be purchased online for £17.50 (adults) and £8.70 (children), however, they are more expensive if bought directly from the palace.