Winter can be a great time to visit London, yes the weather can be very unpredictable but it’s less crowded and quite often there are some good offers on entrance fees, many half price. This is one of the reasons I’m at Kensington Palace today.
Kensington Palace was originally known as Nottingham House until joint monarchs William III and Queen Mary II purchased it from William’s trusted Secretary of State for £20,000. Sir Christopher Wren was then set to work transforming the house into a suitable royal residence. A chapel, accommodation for courtiers, kitchens, stables and a barracks were all added as well as a series of grand rooms or State Apartments where the King and Queen could hold audiences and ceremonies of state.
After William’s death the new King George I had plans to rebuild the palace on a much larger scale, apart from new state apartments the plans were never realised. The greatest period at Kensington was during the reign of George II and his consort Queen Caroline. All the rooms were fully used by the King and Queen for court ceremonies and entertainment, however after Queen Caroline’s death the King locked up half the palace eventually dying in his private apartments in 1760. George III had little interest in Kensington but his two sons Prince Augustus, Duke of Sussex and Edward, Duke of Kent did. Edward was the father of the future Queen Victoria who was born in the palace in 1819. Victoria moved out and into Buckingham Palace and Kensington was partially given over to the London Museum. In the 1960’s Princess Margaret came to live at Kensington, while other members of the royal family arrived during the 1970’s and 80’s. It was home to the Prince and Princess of Wales and after her divorce Princess Diana lived here with her sons William and Harry until her death in 1997. In 2011 a newly married Prince William returned to live at Kensington with his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
The King’s State Apartments are where I start my visit entering by The King’s Staircase. This was the way all guest visiting the king would have entered the palace. The staircase paintings were completed in around 1726 by William Kent and replaced plainer wooden panelling installed by Wren.
The painted architecture on the staircase was inspired by work that Kent had seen in the palaces of Rome, where he trained.
The first room I enter is the Presence Chamber, the room would have been sparsley furnished and the king would have sat on his throne while important guests would be ushered into the royal presence to bow and kiss the king’s hand.
The grotesque-style ceiling by William Kent was inspired by the decorations found in Roman houses that had recently been excavated on the Palatine Hill in Rome.
The limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons surrounding the fireplace are a decorative highlight, the cherubs with closed eyes and the roses were originally painted lead white.
The Privy Chamber was one of Queen Caroline’s favourite entertaining spaces, it has a beautiful ceiling painted by William Kent in 1723.
The Cupola Room was the first royal commission of William Kent, the ceiling is of a baroque Roman palace but with the Star of the Order of the Garter at its centrepiece.
At the centre of the room is a combined clock and music box that played Handel, it was bought by George II’s daughter in law, Princess Augusta. It was in this room where the young Princess Victoria was baptised.
The King’s Drawing Room would have been packed with courtiers in search of power and patronage. The ceiling shows the powerful god Jupiter, who accidentally killed his lover Semele. The message is clear – watch out!
The King’s Gallery was built for William III and was finished in about 1700, originally it was hung with green velvet and was where William would meet and plan his military campaigns. It was also here after a riding accident at Hampton Court, that the king caught the chill that led to his death in 1702.
The gallery was transformed for George I by William Kent in 1725, red damask replaced the green velvet and a white and gilded marble chimneypiece was installed along with other improvements.
The Queen’s State Apartments are much plainer and lower key than the king’s. I start on the oak panelled Queen’s Staircase and it’s a sharp contrast to the grand marble King’s Staircase. The staircase is the first known example of an open string stair where the banisters rise directly from the treads.
The Queen’s Gallery was where Mary displayed her collection of treasures from India, China and Japan. Her collection of oriental porcelain was crowded onto every surface, over 150 pieces in the room. The gallery was used for recreation and it was often filled with her ladies in waiting.
The Queen’s Closet was a room to withdraw into away from the social world of the gallery. It was here that a terrible argument took place between Queen Anne and her childhood friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.
The beautiful panelling in the Queen’s Eating Room survives from the 17th century and shows how cosy and domestic the queen’s rooms once were. William and Mary would share simple, private suppers here and Mary would also use this room to take tea.
The Queen’s Drawing Room is the one that has lost most of its original character, on the 14th October 1940 it was badly damaged by an incendiary bomb. The panelling was destroyed and that is why the walls are now wallpapered.
The Queen’s Bedroom was used by Mary when she first moved into the palace, however in 1691, Mary requested that her rooms be extended, the additional work created a new private bedchamber in a room beyond this one. No longer required as a bedchamber this room became another cosy sociable space.
The final part of Kensington Palace that was open when I was there is Victoria Revealed about the life of Queen Victoria at Kensington. You enter this part at the Stone Staircase, it was on this staircase where she met her cousin, Prince Albert for the first time in 1836.
At the top of the stairs is the Red Saloon. It was here that Victoria held her first Privy Council on the morning she became queen in 1837.
Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace on 10th February 1840. She recorded the day in her journal; “Oh! this was the happiest day of my life!”
Prince Albert frequently deputised for the queen when she was pregnant and attempted to streamline inefficiencies in the Royal Household. His greatest work was the Great Exhibition in 1851, the festival was held between May and October in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Victoria was immensely proud of Albert’s involvement in the exhibition.
Prince Albert died on 14th December 1861 after a bout of typhoid fever, he was 42 years old. Victoria was devasted replacing her colourful dresses with an entirely black wardrobe. She refused to appear in public her seclusion continuing into the 1870’s.
After many years of self imposed isolation her golden and diamond jubilees returned her to public life. Many statues of Victoria were commissioned for the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887 including one for Kensington Gardens by her daughter Princess Louise. The Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was an even more spectacular success with a procession in an open topped landau through London. There were huge crowds singing “God save the Queen” which moved her to tears.
The gardens at Kensington Palace are best viewed in the warmer summer months, I’ve included some photo’s from a visit I made last summer.