When Kensington Palace was built in the seventeenth century as a country residence for the joint monarchs Mary II and William III, it was never considered to be as opulent as the courts of France or Spain, but was more homey than either and showcased Mary’s love of symmetry. Following recent refurbishment work, visitors are invited to follow four themed trails around the palace: exhibitions celebrating two of Kensington Palace’s most famous residents, Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales, and Coney’s two immersive installations that allow visitors to explore the grand state apartments through the eyes of the comparatively lesser-known late Stuart and early Hanover monarchs, using historical objects and much gossip to illuminate the past in a quirky and dreamlike way.
Upon ascending the staircase to the Queen’s apartments, change is in the air as visitors are greeted by the sight of packing cases and paper cut-outs of soldiers as the unpopular old king and Catholic sympathiser James II sails off into exile, deposed by his eldest daughter and her husband. The delicate designs by Joanna Scotcher mix whimsicality with a sense tragedy, featuring birds floating from he ceiling, illuminated silhouettes and tactile chests-of-drawers filled with extra curiosities. In the corners in the main salon filled with Mary’s favourite blue-and-white porcelain, James’s outraged supporters hiss venomously about this ultimate undutiful daughter who will surely get her comeuppance.
Most poignant is the story of the childless William and Mary’s nephew and heir Prince William, the last hope of the Stuart dynasty, being one of Mary’s sister Princess (later Queen) Anne’s eighteen children to survive babyhood, but who died days after his eleventh birthday. The eighteen little chairs representing “Queen Anne’s eighteen little hopes” bring this sad reality to life in a quietly devastating way. After Anne’s death, the throne went to George of Hanover (George I), who was forty-fifth in line genealogically, but the nearest suitable candidate as everyone else was a Catholic or otherwise ineligible. The full list, in the dimly lit room where Mary died, is accompanied by wine crates containing paper dolls, one Gothic motif that feels a little too stylised.
The Hanovers’ saga is continued in the glitzier King’s Apartments, based around collecting a winning hand of beautifully illustrated cards featuring various courtly characters (Poet Laureate, lady’s maid etc.). The card game, which culminates in an audience with the King, doesn’t seem all that straightforward and it didn’t seem to be in action on the weekday afternoon of my visit as there weren’t any courtiers around to barter with and guide me through the game. However, even without the interactive elements, it’s quite easy to imagine oneself in the midst of courtly intrigue, especially with the portraits of the Hanover circle keeping an eye over the grand staircase.
There is very little signage in the exhibitions; written information can be gleaned from the gossip magazines and newspapers by the window seats. These journals are witty and exhaustive, but even the most dedicated visitor would struggle to absorb all the detail. It would be useful to have a condensed outline of the narrative (royal family ties are complex things) clearly signposted for all to see, particularly for parents with inquisitive children.
Also on display are a selection of Lady Diana’s evening gowns (accompanied by funky bespoke Diana wallpaper) and Victoria Revealed features many lovely personal items, including Victoria’s wedding dress (much prettier than Diana’s), her dollhouse and her dolls dressed in outfits that she sewed herself. The wonderfully knowledgeable staff are full of anecdotes that I could listen to all day – apparently there’s a direct descendant of the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) living in the Ukraine, who could stake his claim as the true King of England if he so wished.