You might have guessed from the header of my blog that Kew is my favourite palace. It might not be the biggest or the fanciest (the big fancy stuff was knocked down by George IV) but it has the best atmosphere. It’s strange because, given the history, the remaining palace shouldn’t have the feel of gentle contentment that it carries. It oversaw some strict training regimes for young princes, the illness of George III and the tearful death of Queen Charlotte. Yet even in the very room Charlotte passed away, all I feel is peace. It is fitting, then, that this year’s displays show the young family at their most happy and intimate.
If you watched BBC’s Fit to Rule series, you may have caught a glimpse of the lovely baby items recently acquired by Historic Royal Palaces. With a royal infant just arrived, these are particularly apt! The many, many tokens of George III and Charlotte’s fifteen offspring were often passed to the nurses – keepsakes, if you will, of their foster children. It is touching to report that the items just purchased at auction have remained in the nurse’s family for years, passed down from generation to generation. Having said that, I’m glad they finally sold so I could see the wonderful little relics!
The first thing to catch my attention was the bonnet of the baby Prince Edward – Queen Victoria’s father. This is truly exquisite, so tiny and delicately made. It’s hard to comprehend the soft-skulled infant whose miniscule head fitted inside that grew up to acquire a reputation for harshness amounting to cruelty among the troops he managed! Alongside the bonnet is a case containing some of the hair that once was tucked under it, along with hair from other members of the family. There’s something about seeing locks of hair from long dead people that gives me the shivers, in a good way. You read about them, you see portraits and you imagine them but then you suddenly have an actual part of them before your eyes. I try to imagine how it curled round an ear, or bounced delicately about their shoulders. Similarly, I was fascinated by a pair mittens belonging to the young Princess Royal. Having spent so long with Royal in research and writing, it was breathtaking to have something tangible of hers that she wore there in front of me. There were also sweet leather gloves belonging to the future William IV – those chubby, childish hands were to see action in the navy before finally holding a scepter. But perhaps the most poignant item was the measuring tape with the little princes’ heights marked on it as they grew. Such treasures really highlight that these royals were, after all, a human family, who relished seeing their little ones grow like any other parents. The curator of Kew, Polly Putnam, informed the group of us that came in for tea and a tour after hours that the previous owner of the measuring tape had it tacked up beside one for her own children and compared their growth to that of the Georgian princes. What a wonderful thought!
There are, of course, sad connections with some of the items. A beautiful silver sipping cup (imagine a modern-day Tommy-Tippy in silver with fine engraving) was made for the young royals, but may have also been used to feed George III when illness rendered him incapable. The delightful gold breakfast set, newly on display, was purchased as a get well present from the princesses to George. However, even in these more sombre items, you get a feel for the family life behind them. The golden breakfast set includes an ingenious little egg cooker, complete with timer, which would exactly appeal to George’s taste for gadgets and new inventions. You can see him fiddling with it and the family laughing as he tried to use it.
One of the things I love most about the Historic Royal Palaces is the way the walls whisper. Some new “whispers” have been added to Kew, amongst them many dialogues between George III and his children. These were lovely to sit and listen to. I was pleased to hear they covered the “nursery revolt” staged by Princes George and Frederick in an attempt to oust their tutor – an important reminder that little Kew Palace – or the Dutch House, as it was then – was originally used as a schooling place for future monarchs. The whispers of Queen Charlotte and Elizabeth arguing over newspapers have disappeared from the Queen’s Boudoir, but who knows, they may return in future!
Another set of fabulous items on display consisted of jewellery either belonging to or commemorating the family. My favourite were a set of elaborate buttons, once belonging to George III and later made into a necklace, bracelet and earring set by Queen Adelaide. Two royal connections in one! Despite all the books I’ve read about George III, I never knew that he had a passion for button-making as a young man. You never stop learning! The rest of the jewellery was gorgeous – so sparkly! I loved the brooch with a profile of Queen Charlotte picked out in diamonds. I came across more hair samples, too – this time in a bracelet belonging to Charlotte. She had a little see-through section for each link, housing locks from her, George and every one of their children. Charlotte often complained about being separated from her children and I like to think she wore this bracelet when she missed them.
Perhaps the most exciting new acquisition at Kew is a flamboyant red suit, probably belonging to the young King George. I say probably . . . Polly Putnam explained it was picked up from a costume collection that had always referred to it as “George III’s suit”. Polly has been researching tirelessly to see if the claim is accurate. It seems highly likely – the velvet is the finest possible for that era. The suit is lined with silk, unlike its contemporaries, and has leather pockets. The height and measurements are a good fit with the young George and it is well known that he liked to wear red suits for his birthday. Although the colour has faded, the restoration team at Historic Royal Palaces have done a wonderful job with the material. You can picture the young King, dapper, slim and handsome, striding around the drawing-room at St. James’s Palace, hands folded behind his back, nodding and talking to his courtiers. Definitely worth going for a look! I was thrilled to hear Polly say she wants to focus on the young George and his father, Prince Frederick, next year. Frederick spent time at Kew Palace and was famously painted in front of it with his three eldest sisters. His engraving is also on some of the locks. “Poor Fred”, as he was dubbed by the Georgians, is a sadly neglected figure in history. It will be wonderful to bring the spotlight onto him, and no doubt it will provide me with further inspiration for my book about his wife, Augusta!
Aside from the displays in the actual palace, I must mention the kitchens. Although they opened last year, I haven’t had the chance to get down to Kew and see them until now. It’s always wonderful to glimpse any remnant of the sprawling complex that was once The White House and its attendant buildings. The kitchens add another layer of intrigue, hidden away through a twisting path behind a little kitchen garden – a real taste of the “downstairs”, servant aspect of the palace. Historic Royal Palaces have kept the kitchens in line with palace – restoring some rooms, while leaving others relatively untouched to show the original architecture. It’s an effective combination.
The kitchens are focused around a particular date – 6 February 1789 – when George III was sufficiently recovered to eat with a knife and fork once more. You can see the preparation rooms for the ingredients before progressing to the Great Kitchen, where projecting figures on the walls give you taste for the hustle and stress that was going on behind the scenes! Upstairs, you will find the clerk’s office complete with ledgers, keys and prices for all the food purchased. In fact, you will find out so much about the meal the family ate on 6 February 1789, that when you go back to the palace you may well recognise it . . . In a particularly nice touch, they have replicated the dishes and laid them on the table in the King’s Dining Room.
I must just mention one more thing about the kitchens – George III’s bath tub. He chose to take his baths near the Great Kitchen, rather in the comfort of his own palace, so the servants wouldn’t be put to the trouble of bringing the hot water too far. “Oh yes,” I found myself saying about this man I have never met, “that’s just like him”. Funny, how well you feel you get to know a person from studying their reign.