Kensington Palace: a building that has been saved from the brink of ruin more than once

Some historic houses are preserved: they become museums. Some are restored: building materials have a lifespan and need replacing; others are renovated: 21st century interiors housed within an historic skin.

I will revisit Kensington Palace after the current renovations are completed (2012). Right now the Palace is a building site, but not for the first time.

A history of building works at Kensington Palace?

While the history is a book in itself, I’ve taken a whistlestop tour to bring me up to the current day.

Originally Nottingham House, Kensington Palace was created from a Stuart mansion built about 1605 and purchased by William III of Orange and Mary II in 1689 for £20,000 from William’s Secretary of State, Daniel Finch, Earl of Nottingham. It would become their town house, away from the damp and drafts they suffered at Whitehall Palace.

Kensington Palace remained the primary London residence of the Royal Family until 1760, since when it has provided apartments for minor royals. Next year, when the buildings works are complete, William & Kate, Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, will move in.

Wren extended the original core house, adding three-storey pavilions on each corner; re-orientating the building – designing a new entrance and service courtyard (the Great Court) on its west side; and building a narrow block on the south side of the Great Court containing a corridor (the Stone Gallery) which led from the main entrance to the south-west pavilion.  The house’s form is therefore lacking in uniformity.  The public enter through a side entrance.

The royals moved in during December 1689.  A little historical context – 1666 saw the Great Fire, Wren et all were rebuilding the city and William and Mary were at the same time extending Hampton Court.   Yet, while William was away fighting James II in Ireland, Mary’s lust for building didn’t wane and during 1690 she gave instructions to extend Kensington Palace’s apartments by building the Queen’s Gallery. With its own staircase, the Queen’s Gallery also provided a separate block adjoining for her Maids of Honour.

Then, in November 1691, fire destroyed part of the southern range of the Great Court and subsequently Mary remodelled the royal apartments: the King’s Staircase was rebuilt in marble and a Guard Chamber was constructed.  Shortly thereafter, in 1695, the South Front was built, probably by Hawksmoor.  Of what remains today, the long (picture) gallery at first-floor level – the King’s Gallery – is a notable room.

Mary died on 28 December 1694 at Kensington Palace.  She was 32.  Then William died at the palace on 8 March 1702.  Neither had really had the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the labour.  Queen Anne also died at Kensington Palace, in 1714.  She had improved the formal gardens and added the Orangery.

Bring on the Georgians.

George I discovered the building to be in a very poor state of repair & he commissioned several designs for alterations, including a rebuild on the scale of Blenheim Palace designed circa 1714  by Sir John Vanbrugh.  In fact, only three new state rooms with elaborate ceiling decoration were added: the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room (painted by William Kent) and the Withdrawing Room.  Kent’s influence continued at the Palace, with him redecorating many of the royal apartments.

However, the lengthy building works mean it was really only George II (1727-60) who was able to utilise the Palace and his only addition was a stable block built in 1740 for his younger son, William, the Duke of Cumberland.

Following the death of Queen Caroline, in 1737, much of the palace lay unused and fell into disrepair.  George III (1760-1820) did not live at Kensington Palace. However, his fourth son, Edward, Duke of Kent, lived in the south-east corner, below the state apartments.  He needed to convert the lower floors and redecorate and using Wyatt.

When the Duke of Kent fled to Brussels to escape his debts the palace once again fell into disrepair.  However, he did return and Queen Victoria was born and christened at Kensington Palace; she spent her childhood and learned of her accession there.  Her mother had extended the living quarters into the second floor, the same level as the State Apartments.  William IV disapproved of this use of the State Apartments.

When Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837 she moved to Buckingham House. Subsequently, throughout the 19th century, the State Apartments acted as little more than storage space for Royal effects. By 1900 building was seriously dilapidated, riddled with dry rot and suffering from decaying brickwork   However, Victoria rescued it, restored it and in 1899 opened it to the public.

120 years later, once again the palace needs updating.

However, someone at Historic Royal Palaces has decided they can continue making money by keeping a few rooms open, turning off most of the lights, draping dodgy looking high school props everywhere, dotting some twisted bird cages about (to symbolise Queen Victoria’s emancipation from her mother’s clutches on her accession to the throne) and adding a theme: discover the princesses who lived in the palace.  Right they were too – people are still paying £12.50 to visit when really the palace should have been shut up for the duration.  We were there for free – using the Art Fund cards that the Guardian gave away in April/May 2011.

The theme has much potential.  However, someone has painted the entrance hall bright purple.  A guide tried to show me 40ft tapestries with a small torch.  Do ask the “human explainers” if you have any questions were told.  Having once worked at Buckingham Palace, I raised any eyebrow…

What did we enjoy:

  • looking behind a false door at the top of the King’s Staircase to see the original brick construction;
  • running riot in the ballroom and doing the waltz on the dance floor;
  • typing on a typewriter in the Great Hall and leaving an ‘in-house review’ or what we thought of the exhibition!  Naughty I know but too tempting;
  • messing with toy soldiers on the floor;
  • the formal gardens outside – the part-restored garden is looking good through the windows of the palace; and
  • looking at two of Princess Margaret’s dresses (just a shame more dresses weren’t on display).

If you fancy being silly in a Royal Palace and acting with little regard for the historical value of the building then do visit the palace now.  Otherwise, stay far away until it reopens, exhibitions and new gardens & all.

When visited: 2011

Stars out of 5 (house): ***

Stars out of 5 (garden):****

Website: www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace

Theme tune: Grand Designs theme tune

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