Historical 2016

The 18th-Century Court at Kensington Palace

On 23 February Deirdre Murphy, Senior Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, gave the Friends a very interesting illustrated talk on the history of the design and occupants of Kensington Palace in the 1700s. Deirdre is currently working with others on a history of the palace which will be published by Yale University Press in about two years’ time.

The palace began as a square little house in the countryside owned by the Earl of Nottingham. In 1689 it was purchased by William and Mary who employed Sir Christopher Wren to make some additions. In amongst these is the so-called Apartment 1A where Princess Margaret eventually lived, now occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Gradually, more and more parts were added. As it was not intended as a main royal palace with all the functions that that would hold, the building increased organically and rather haphazardly, with no real front door, and staircases going in all directions.

Ken Palce staircaseIn 1727 George II came to the throne and was the last reigning monarch to live full time at the palace. During this time Kensington Gardens became the place to be seen, and in one’s best clothes. Research has shown that in the 1720s many changes were made to the building to allow for grand events to take place. In the King’s state rooms were some glorious William Kent interiors, already commissioned by George I and completed at the time of his death, and which the late Victorians replaced: among other things they stripped paint off the walls and replaced floorboards with inferior ones. Some of this has been reversed by restoration. We were shown an illustration of visitors climbing the King’s staircase, looked down upon by courtiers of George I’s court; also of courtiers standing around in the state rooms. As they were not allowed to sit down in the presence of the King there was very little furniture here and, regarding the other palace furniture of the time, very little has been traced so far. Bills found in the National Archives have given clues as to how the rooms were made to look in the 1720s. Sometimes clues about early decor were found in the rooms themselves: it was known that the panelling in one room had been painted white, but what kind of white was only discovered when a Grinling Gibbons overmantle in the room was removed behind which tiny paint flakes were discovered. Other colours, for which there was little evidence, had to be endlessly discussed by the restorers. No work seemed to have been done to the attic space, let alone cleaning: literally a ton of dust has been removed from there. Concealed objects have sometimes been found: the sleeve of an 18th-century child’s shirt was hidden behind a cornice. It might have been used by William Kent’s workmen and deliberately concealed for good luck.

King George II and Queen Caroline entertained a great deal: Handel often visited, and famous singers performed. Many glittering drawing-room events took place. At these, courtiers were expected to wear new clothes every time. Naturally they (including men) complained about the expense this entailed, and would often swap clothes and jewellery with their friends. Most ladies’ dresses were of silk, and many decorated with gold and silver embroidery. Ladies might ask their weavers not to use the same patterns on any other dress so that their own would be unique. Such garments might have cost the equivalent of £100,000 today. In those days one’s clothes were one’s ticket to an event; there was no formal invitation system: one was allowed entry if lavishly attired. (Deidre said that nowadays there were other criteria too: at certain hotels and clubs in Mayfair it would be the kind of car you arrived in that would be your passport, especially if it had diamond hubcaps, as she had once witnessed.)

Quite a lot is known about the day-to-day activities of the household because of the very critical and indiscreet memoirs of Lord Harvey, Vice Chamberlain of the Royal Household and a close confidant of Queen Caroline. He once described how, when the King was annoyed, he threw his hat on the floor and kicked it around the room. Courtiers had to behave by strict rules of etiquette; there were even booklets setting these out, and ladies learnt to use the way they held their fans as a silent language to hopeful suitors. At levees, when the courtiers were allowed to watch the King dress in the morning, the men would hang about trying to get his attention in order, perhaps, to show off a new book or invention, and the ladies would hope to receive a compliment from the Queen on their dress. These attempts often ended in failure and frustration when other courtiers such as Lord Harvey hogged all the attention.

As then, the palace is now a series of apartments. Until she fell out of favour, Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress, had her own, especially as she was one of Queen Caroline’s ladies and a friend. Courtiers had to rent accommodation in places like Kensington Church Street. Now, apart from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Prince Harry, Princess Michael of Kent and various staff members live in the palace. The configuration of these apartments has been frequently changed according to requirements, but there have been times when people have had to walk through part of someone else’s flat to access their own.

William III, George I and George II tended to stay at the palace continuously while Parliament was not sitting, from May to the autumn. During Parliament they stayed nearer to Whitehall. But George II loved Hanover so much that he would sometimes spend months there, but returning in time for his birthday ball, a big social occasion for dancing, gambling and card playing. During those periods of absence the Queen was officially made regent. But in 1736 he did not return for the ball. He had become enamoured of the Countess Amalie von Wallmoden, whom the Queen finally allowed him to bring to England. She was also given her own flat which she lived in long after the Queen’s death in 1837.

The King was heartbroken by the Queen’s death, before which she had suffered dreadfully at the hands of physicians. The King continued to live at the palace when Parliament was not sitting, but no longer entertained on a large scale. He died in the palace in 1760 where his autopsy also took place. Deidre had been fascinated to discover that his entrails were then transported from Kensington in a cortege that included the Lord Chamberlain and several courtiers in two mourning coaches followed by footmen with torches. The box with the entrails was carried in the third coach and was deposited in the royal vault in Westminster Abbey. The next day the King’s other remains were taken in grand procession to the House of Lords to lie in state.

George III preferred to live at Kew, and George IV at Buckingham Palace. The latter, and William IV, thought Kensington Palace should nevertheless be kept ready for use, and when it was clear that Victoria was heir to the throne, her mother, the Duchess of Kent, asked for permission to use the state apartments. William IV gave it on condition that she make no changes to the building. When she subsequently had the King’s Gallery divided into three he was furious, and publicly scolded her at a banquet at Windsor. Some but not all of William Kent’s ceilings were lost.

Joy Puritz

Photo of The King's Staircase courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

[Summer 2016]