You often hear me whine about palaces and country houses that big up their Tudor and Victorian links, while virtually ignoring Georgian and other less “mainstream” periods. Not so with Historic Royal Palaces. I have to hand it to them, they do an excellent job of balancing the different eras of history associated with their buildings. Even Hampton Court, while clearly and quite rightly dedicated to Henry VIII, is rich in information about William and Mary, who started to renovate it, and the Georgians who held court there.
Kensington Palace is bursting at the seams with history, and in less capable hands, could easily have turned into a Victoria or a Diana fest. But while these wonderful Princesses are remembered and paid homage to, HRP are careful not to let them steal the show.
On Friday night, I attended a late night opening at Kensington for an evening dedicated to Georgian splendour. Tickets were a steal at £10 each and the entertainment lasted from 6 until 10. I was truly excited to find an event revolving around the Georgians; usually the best I can get is a Regency ball. Having said that, HRP are absolute stars and do Georgian dinners and talks at Kew Palace throughout the year; I REALLY want to attend the one on George III’s father, Prince Frederick, but with tickets at £100 a head it’s not likely to happen.
My plan was to amaze and astound you with photography of the great palace, but alas the combination of low lighting and a photographer with incredibly shaky hands (me, must have been the excitement) threw a spanner in the works. I’ll provide you with what useable photos I have, though, and talk you through my evening.
It would have been easy to merely run from talk to talk, so frequent were the pop up history sessions and workshops. Almost the moment we walked in the door (a little late, us office works can’t usually get anywhere before 7), we were viewing the “Trunk of Terror”, comically displayed by two charlatan “adventurers”. The worrying thing is such figures would be rife on the streets of Georgian London, with their “real” dragons, mummies and pickled embryos. My gentleman attendant, Kevin, proved himself extremely courageous and braved the mummy’s curse by touching it.
Next we were treated to a bit of gossip in the Queen’s apartments as a lady in a rather ravishing dress talked us through some of the Court’s secrets. I have to admit, as I’ve been focused on the later Hanoverians for my current projects, my knowledge of the early Georgians is sketchier than I would like. I was therefore thrilled to find out the woman at George II’s court who I’d instinctively felt I could write a book about, Henrietta Howard, was everything and more that I want in a “character”. I left almost desperate to put pen to paper and write her book. But of course she wasn’t the only interesting woman; Queen Caroline herself deserves a narrative, as does her predecessor, the lovely Sophia who was locked up in a remote castle for adultery. You really couldn’t make up better storylines than the ones the Georgians actually lived through.
From here we went onto another talk – this one rather juicier. On the magnificent King’s Staircase, an “explainer” told us all about sex and the muckier aspects of life at a Georgian court. I knew the men often urinated beside the fireplaces, but I hadn’t heard of the bourdaloue – a rather wonderful little pot shaped like a gravy boat that could go up ladies’ skirts for a discreet wee. Such contraptions were essential in a place where you couldn’t go anywhere without the Queen’s consent; we heard some mortifying stories of poor ladies who just couldn’t hold on and left truly gigantic puddles on the floor. Wetting yourself in front of royalty; that has to be an all time low.
Of course the King’s staircase itself is a wonder just to look at, even if you aren’t listening to stories of Georgian wee at the same time. Kent painted it with the main characters from the court, some of which are still to be identified. The people who once traipsed or sallied up and down the stairs watch over you as you follow in their footsteps – how amazing is that?
Counting our blessings with modern lavatories, we went down the staircase straight into a dancing lesson. Having danced Tudor style for a few years, I managed to pick up the long set dance quite quickly and had the added advantage of a musician I was used to – my friend Lizzie Gutteridge on the fiddle, and I didn’t even realise she’d be there! My lord husband coped very well, I thought, and doffed his hat beautifully. Although it was tiring, I was quite relieved at the pace after my experience with quadrilles; those Regency girls must have had stamina!
After all that dancing it was time for a drink. Georgian inspired food and drink had been advertised but the only liquid I could see that seemed to fit the period was arrack punch. I took a glass in the gardens. It was lovely, but boy was it strong! The gardens were just gorgeous, I wish we’d had time to explore them properly. Oh well, I suppose we’ll just have to go back….Shame!
There were plenty of other talks to listen to, but we chose to explore the King’s apartments for ourselves. This, dear readers, is where my photography skills truly failed. But I’m almost glad they did because it means you have to go and see it yourself! I loved the warren of rooms that wound deeper and deeper as you tried to approach the King in his innermost sanctum. My favourite for sheer beauty was the Cupola room; the very place where Prinny made poor Queen Victoria’s Christening an awkward business.
On display were some beautiful gowns and suits, complete with lappets (the essential headwear). I even saw King George III’s coronation robes. You know, the one from that famous portrait? Many squeals from me, and groans from the long-suffering Kevin. Also of overwhelming interest to me was Prince Frederick’s chair, well-worn by time, holding court in the presence chamber.
As much as I enjoyed running around squeaking at Georgian things, I also took pleasure in the displays about William, Mary and Queen Anne. Perhaps the most poignant thing in the palace was Anne’s “Eighteen Little Hopes” – deserted chairs for her dead children. I’ve always fancied writing about Anne, but I think it’s one you have to build up to; there’s just so much tragedy to handle in the tale of the last Protestant Stuart. It was, of course, her failure to provide a surviving heir that opened up the throne for the House of Hanover.
But of all these wonders, I have to say, the thing that delighted me most was the amount of people who turned up. Nothing makes me happier than seeing people learning about Georgian history – and later Stuart history, for that matter – two periods often neglected. What’s more, they seemed to love it! I strongly believe people are interested in the eras, they just haven’t had as much exposure to them at school, or hit HBO shows like The Tudors, to point them in the right direction. While we still have Historic Royal Palaces, I can rest assured there are others out there defending “forgotten” history.
Click here to book your tickets for the next night of Georgian decadence!