Kew Palace (Richmond): The Old Dutch House in Kew Gardens

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To visit Kew Palace, until 2013 one had to first pay to visit Kew Gardens.  On previous visits to Kew Gardens I had objected to this system: I am very frugal.

However, with my Art Fund card I could get half-price entry to Kew Gardens and free entry to Kew Palace.

It was a beautiful day and I hadn’t been to Kew Gardens for about 4 years so off I went.  Me, my camera, my bike, my Art Fund card and I.

Reason to visit: to see the 18th century kitchen block

First some context.

Richmond and the surrounding area had, like Greenwich to the east (see my diary entries on The Ranger’s House, Eltham Palace and The Queen’s House), long had royal connections.

Both Richmond and Greenwich are far enough away from the City of London to provide clean fresh air, but close enough to be reachable.  Of course, before the late 18th century, it was much faster to travel by river than by the shambolic rut-filled roads of the day.

The famous deer park was frequented by royals from Edward II to Elizabeth I and James I established Richmond Park and renamed Elizabeth I’s “Newe Park” the “Old Deer Park”.

Henry VII built a vast palace where his Court was based during the summer months – Richmond Palace – but this was sold for £13,000 and demolished following Charles I’s execution, its bricks being reused elsewhere.

The presence of the Royal Court had encouraged many nobels to build their own houses down river.  A house on the banks of the River Thames, like Ham House further up river, was a status symbol for courtiers and merchants.

Kew Palace was built by Samuel Fortrey, a Flemish merchant, in 1631 as a riverside villa on the site of an earlier Elizabethan house (there had been many Tudor houses along the river but by the late 1600s they had fallen into disrepair and the land on which modern-day Kew Gardens now sits essentially formed two single plots, one owned by Sir Robert Dudley).

The Flemish influence can be seen in the Dutch gables of the house.  I saw lots of similar examples in Norfolk.

The house is quite modest – roughly four rooms to each floor – one in each corner, with a corridor running from the front door to the rear and a staircase to the right of the corridor (when facing the river).

By the 1690s the house was rented out.  Richard Levett had bought the house from Fortrey’s grandson.  Soon someone royal had their eye on it.

At the other end of Kew Gardens was Richmond Lodge.  This had survived the Commonwealth and William III restored it to a royal house.  (William is of course he of Orange, grandson of Charles II (via his mother), builder of the rear wing at Hampton Court Palace, husband of Mary (daughter of James II (thus along with her husband-cousin William, also Charles II’s granddaughter)), and ouster of the Great Pretender and James II from the royal throne of England during the Glorious Revolution).

To partner Richmond Lodge, formal gardens were created, plus an “avenue” to the river, the embryo of Kew Gardens (which at the time was a farm).

Opposite the little red brick Dutch house was another house, occupied at some point by the Capel family.  George I used Richmond Lodge but by the 18th century the Prince of Wales, the future George II was living in the house opposite Kew Palace.  It was known as The White House but has since been destroyed.

George II had three daughters with his Queen, Caroline.  This was the first time for a very long time that the monarch had a large surviving family.

Caroline worked with Sir William Chambers and William Kent to lay out Kew Gardens.  William Kent had drawn up plans for a grand Palladian palace at Kew but this was never built.

George II and his Queen, Caroline of Ansbach thought the little Dutch House might provide a home for their three unmarried adult daughters, Anne, Caroline and Amelia.  They rented the house from 1734 or thereabouts.  Currently a couple of bedrooms have been stripped back so you can see the original construction.  This was part of the 2006 restoration of the house by Historic Royal Palaces.

George III bought Kew Palace from the Levetts in 1781.

Queen Charlotte died here in 1818.  George III was sent here out of public view during his bouts of “madness”.

Faced with the rule that English princes could only marry with the King’s approval (and he to a protestant princess) the King’s sons had been living in sin with their mistresses.  Faced, however, with his death, both Dukes of Clarence and Kent (William IV) married together to German princesses in their mother’s presence at Kew Palace, lest they might produce a legitimate heir.

That legitimate heir was Queen Victoria and she eventually opened the palace to the public (much as she did Kensington Palace).  However, whatever happened in those intervening years – decay, neglect, or whatever it may have been, it’s hard to know now as the house has been given a facelift and given an 18th century appearance, including a dining room, sitting room, the chair in which Queen Charlotte died, a waxwork head, a video showing the vast royal family that first occupied the house, and the recreated box parterre garden.

Across the way, behind a bush, past the small sign that reads ‘Kitchen this way’, the kitchen block has been restored – untouched since 1818 when the Queen died.  Food was carried across to the house.  Well, that’s one way to prevent a house fire.

Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Houses said this house shouldn’t be opened and should be turned into a private home.  He, however, visited before the refurbishment.  In contrast, I think there is so much royal history associated with this house that it can serve as a perfect conduit to tell the story of family life in the households of George II and George III.  I really enjoyed it.  And I learned a lot despite the interiors being pretty standard (although that in itself is interesting, because if they really were plain during the royal use, the Hanovarians weren’t too dissimilar to Elizabeth II, who also prefers to have simple things around her when not at State banquets).

Here are my pictures.

This is a very bad picture due to the glare, but it gives an idea of what the White House (since demolished) looked like.


I liked the design on the door to the oven.

When visited: August 2012

House * out of 5: ***


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