I had quite the revelation when visiting Kensington Palace this morning. I was drawn to KP for the new Victoria Revealed exhibition in which three of the Duchess of Fife tiaras were on show for the first time in decades. Princess Louise, Duchess of Fife, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. It was to this lucky lady that a parure of diamond and emerald tiara, necklace, earrings and brooches designed by Prince Albert for a young Victoria went at some point in the 19th century.
The lucky Duchess also had an en Tremblant diamond drop tiara and a Russian kokoshnik made for her that remain in the Fife family. The room in which the tiaras were on display was empty but for the central display case. For tiaras, this worked. But sadly the rest of the Victoria Revealed rooms were equally empty but for a smattering of Winterhalter portraits and the odd bit of children’s costume made for a young King Edward VII.
The curators did their best with tricks such as piped music, paper models of Court Dress and scribbles of text on mirrors and table tops but none of this masks the fact that the rooms in KP opened to the public are relatively empty and soulless.
The only two artefacts in the Victoria Revealed exhibition that were new to me was a white lace widow’s mob cap worn by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 and a turquoise, diamond and pearl Coburg eagle brooch that Albert designed for Queen Victoria’s bridesmaids. For the latter, a model is exhibited in the British Museum and I see it on a monthly basis.
Kensington Palace is part of Historic Royal Palaces. It is not the Royal Collection though evidently pieces can be borrowed from the royal family’s collections such as the dresses belonging to the late Diana, Princess of Wales that were closed to the public this morning though I have seen the exhibit.
The King’s rooms are high Hanoverian but bare except for modern gaming tables – presumably for the kiddies – and two examples of 18th century court dress. As I wandered these empty rooms I pondered how fabulous it would be if Kensington Palace’s State Rooms were given over entirely to costume and jewellery. The Diana exhibit has done KP a world of good with tourist numbers. Why not make it permanent?
The Queen’s apartments are special because they are relatively untouched since they were inhabited by Queen Mary II and Queen Anne. The ceilings are bare and low, the long gallery has bits and bobs of Queen Mary’s blue and white china collection and we are blessed with a state bed. But how much more fabulous would it be to have the Historic Royal Palaces costume collection on show in the long gallery rather than just floorboards.
Historic Royal Palaces do have to compete with the private collectors at auction for anything relating to the palaces that sell on the open market. The palace even had to buy back the blackamoors that guarded the late Princess Margaret’s apartments back from the sale at Christie’s organised by the princess’s children the 2nd Earl of Snowdon and Lady Sarah Chatto. It is terribly sad that more isn’t gifted to KP to fill up all those empty rooms.
I had the privilege of seeing some of the Historic Royal Palaces collection when it was kept in Princess Margaret’s vacated set of rooms Apartment 1A. 1A is now home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their young family. Prince Harry and his bride-to-be Ms Markle will also set-up home in Kensington Palace; the buildings that used to be called ‘the Aunt Heap’ because all the widowed princesses and duchesses used to be shunted off there to die.
Like St. James’s Palace, Kensington is still inhabited by members of the Royal Family making security an issue. But KP has been opened to the public for decades without too much trouble. As a costume and jewellery gallery it could be filled by the permanent collection of HRP and then host special exhibits such as the one dedicated to Hartnell and Hardy Amies pieces made for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, HM The Queen and Princess Margaret a few years back.
We know from Geoffrey Munn’s historic tiara exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum that sparkly headpieces and gorgeous evening gowns are like catnip to the public. On the occasion I visited KP for the Diana, Princess of Wales exhibit I noticed that the lion’s share of visitors were women and gays. How much more keen would this demographic be to visit KP if the rest of the palace was given over to costume and jewellery?
One of the saddest rooms in the palace was a closet that had been decorated by King George II’s consort Queen Caroline. Apparently Queen Caroline had opened a set of drawers in the palace and discovered drawings by Leonardo, Raphael and Hans Holbein the Younger with which she decorated a private closet.
Said closet now exhibits two Holbein drawings with the rest of the walls painted dung brown with outlines where the pictures would have hung. What is stopping HRP from borrowing HM The Queen’s priceless Holbein drawing portfolios and recreating Queen Caroline’s private closet hung with Holbeins and fellow Old Masters? No amount of curator’s tricks be that projections or facsimile letters flying around the ceilings can compensate for the lack of actual material of Royal provenance being on show. So over to you Historic Royal Palaces…