Kensington Palace used to hide behind hedges and trees, tucking itself away as if embarrassed to be hogging so much valuable central-London parkland. But not any more. As of today (March 26,2012) the palace reopens to the public after a £12 million renovation, proudly announcing itself with a grand new entrance. There’s no missing this royal home now, its 17th-century, red-brick frontage is clearly visible across sharply cut lawns and wide expanses of welcoming pathway.
And it’s all change inside too. The palace is now divided into four separate “routes”, each one focused on a different part of the building’s royal history.
Take the King’s route and you’ll find yourself climbing the magnificent Kings staircase to enter the state apartments. Many of the rooms seen here were used for entertaining, and performance company Coney – who have been integral to the palace’s redevelopment – have designed a game for visitors to see if they can make their way through court and reach the King. This taps into the social climbing scene of Georgian London and is designed to help visitors to understand the stories the Palace has been the backdrop to over the years – although it is rendered somewhat unnecessary by the sheer grandeur of the rooms themselves, which had me goggle-eyed as I craned by neck to view the intricate ceilings.
The Queen’s route features even more of Coney’s interactive, installation-style interpretation and at times this feels a little laboured. Again the rooms themselves have much of interest to offer, and the interactive approach can become a little tiresome. There are whispering columns all over the place and visitors simply seeking a seat can find themselves jumping up again in surprise as disembodied voices take their ear.
Some of the additions are poignant though, with the dining room a particularly emotive spot. Here Coney have introduced 18 little wooden chairs, each one representing one of Queen Anne’s lost children. It is difficult to see this forest of tiny seats and not feel the impact of this one family’s neverending loss and it is this personal approach to the royal family that is sure to have visitors enthralled.
Each of the four routes leads back to the Hub, where you’ll find a luminous lace sculpture by Loop.pH, which for me was reminiscent of the redesigned Kings Cross. This does not detract from its beauty though and it’s easy to see how this web of light has improved this incredibly dark central space.
From here the Victoria route leads into the Victoria Revealed exhibition which continues the palace’s new personal theme by attempting to uncover the life of Victoria and show her as being more than the large, scowling woman so many people think of her as. Each room has a theme and the one dedicated to her relationship with Albert is particularly moving, with quotes from love letters they wrote emblazoned on everything from the walls to the carpet. Her stunning ivory wedding dress is on display here too – the first time it has been for over a decade.
Further rooms show her childhood toys, her attitude to her work and the impact of her grief when her mother and Albert died in quick succession. Artefacts on display include a teething ring from the royal nursery, sketches Victoria and Albert made of each other during their first year of marriage and Victoria’s set of watercolours, all of which add up to create a picture of the monarch’s daily life.
Perhaps the most striking room however remains the Red Saloon, where the 18-year-old Queen held her very first Privy Council. The room has been painstakingly and beautifully restored and evocative details such as moving shadows on the walls and yet more quotes scrawled on the (reproduction) table bring the gravity of this location home.
The final route is, inevitably, Diana, and leads into a display of five of her dresses, three of which have never been displayed in the UK before. It is a small collection but anyone interested in fashion will appreciate the importance and elegance of these dresses, and fans of the Princess are sure to flock here for a close-up look at some of her most well-known outfits. The fact that this area is self-contained also means that there’s no need to wait until the end of the tour if this is really what you’ve come to see.
And that is the beauty of the Palace’s new design. Not only is the whole place more immediately welcoming thanks to its new entrance, it is also much more visitor friendly as you explore. Whoever you are interested in and whichever period in history you most want to explore there is something for you here. Just be careful where you sit!
Adult tickets cost £14.50 or £13.50 when booked in advance online. Children under 16 can visit for free. The gift shop and café can be visited without paying the entrance fee.