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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
“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.