I was very excited about visiting Kensington Palace and looking forward to seeing how its extensive renovations had gone. The Palace is a lovely but modest-looking place in Hyde Park, almost unassuming compared to many of London's royal residences. Inside it is split into three main trails for visitors to follow, and a small display of dresses worn by Princess Diana.
We plumped for the "Victoria Revealed" trail first. It was here at the Palace that Victoria was told she had become Queen. Shortly afterwards she held her first Cabinet Meeting; it is in this room that the tour begins. It is an impressive room, dominated by an enormous table decorated with quotes from Victoria herself and her ministers. There is a beautiful Victorian dress on display here too, of the type worn by the young Queen. The following two rooms are filled with interesting personal artefacts, including some orange blossom jewellery Albert gave to Victoria and a dress worn by one of the couple's children. In the nursery there is a clever interactive sketchbook showing some of Victoria's sketches; she had a good eye for capturing the essence of her subjects. The second half of the trail did not engage me as much, apart from the mourning exhibits, which are very powerful. The nature of the trail is part-storytelling, part-history of the rooms, and part-exhibition of objects, a combination which sometimes just did not quite fit together.
Next, we travelled back in time to the King's State Apartments, used by George I and George II in the eighteenth century. They are accessed via The King's Staircase, a delightfully opulent and unexpected treat. This tour is cleverly laid out so that you begin in the Presence Chamber and work your way ever closer to the heart of influence and power. The Presence Chamber has a lovely Grinley Gibbons carving over the fireplace, and there are some superb ceilings to admire. The Council Chamber, where the King's ear was truly to be had, has some amazing court costumes on display. There is a cumbersome but beautiful mantua, with seriously wide skirts, and a sack-back white cotton dress with delicate gold embroidery. In what was Queen Caroline's closet, George III's coronation robes are on display. They are rather substantial, so much so that it required six boys just to carry the train! I enjoyed the King's apartments, but I do think the information about the rooms and what's in them could be more easily displayed. Information sheets made to look like contemporary documents hang on a stand in each room, but it is not immediately obvious what they are. There is no consistent way of giving this background information throughout the palace, so it is possible to miss it on occasion.
The Queen's State Apartments were created for Mary II, wife of William of Orange and daughter of James II. I found these rooms a little baffling, unfortunately. At the foot of the Queen's staircase a display represents William and Mary's voyage from the Netherlands to take the throne in the 'bloodless' revolution of 1688, but upstairs I did not get a sense of Mary at all. There are several modern installations that actually obscured the story being told. The tragic loss of Queen Anne's only child is addressed, for example. However, the display of plates holding twists of gold set on chairs, representing each of Anne's unsuccessful pregnancies, didn't really say anything about the Queen's dining room or the impact of her having no direct heir. In the Queen's bedroom is what should be the star exhibit, the bed in which Mary of Modena reputedly gave birth to the prince destined to break parliament's oath of allegiance to his father. Getting a good look at it is impossible, obscured as it is by a beautiful but ill-placed tree-house installation. I admit to feeling incredibly frustrated by these rooms, which often do not seem to fulfil their potential.
As I left the palace, I realised that I still had no clear idea of when the palace was built, how much it has been modified over the years, or exactly who had lived there. Perhaps I missed it, but I certainly didn't see a display giving that kind of background history. I have mixed feelings about my visit; there are lots of good points and interesting bits, but there is perhaps not quite enough clear storytelling or scene-setting to make the whole thing come together. However, I am positive many will disagree and would still certainly encourage a visit.