Being Georgian at Kew Palace


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This has been an amazing year for the Historic Royal Palaces thanks to the amazing events they have had going on to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession to the British throne upon the death of Queen Anne in 1714. I’ve been really privileged to visit the palaces during this time and even take some behind the scenes peeks at the installations as well as enjoy a Georgian themed sleepover at Hampton Court Palace. It’s been brilliant.

However, up until last weekend, I had somehow managed to miss seeing Kew Palace, which was such an important and integral part of the Georgian family history from around 1735, when it became a residence of Prince Frederick, his wife Augusta and their family, which included the future George III. The latter’s fondness for what was then known as the Dutch House (due to its distinctive Dutch gables), would remain throughout his life and result in his own family being installed there, most famously during his own bouts of mental illness, when Queen Charlotte would retire to Kew with her family in order to escape the prying eyes and malicious whispers of the court.

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The Queen’s Drawing Room, Kew Palace. The double wedding of the Dukes of Kent and Clarence took place in this room in July 1818.

As with the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Kew is a small scale palace intended for an informal, comfortable lifestyle away from the tiresome etiquette, crowds and strictures of the court and so is much less grand and sprawling than the likes of Hampton Court Palace or even Kensington Palace. However, it is rather less opulent in design – whereas the Petit Trianon is bijou in its prettiness, set like a shimmering jewel in the palace gardens, Kew is altogether sturdier and has the look and feel of an ordinary, rather humdrum mansion with its red brick and neat design. It has its own charm though and would probably be much more comfortable to live in than its French counterpart.

Thanks to the Royal Palaces press team’s generous offer of tickets, we were finally able to pay a visit to Kew in order to enjoy some of the Glorious Georges Family Festival that was held on the palace grounds over the weekend. As the ticket also included entrance to the legendary Kew Gardens, we also enjoyed discovering them as well and altogether had a most brilliant day.

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The Dining Room, Kew Palace. Photo: Melanie Clegg.

As is our wont, we were at Kew bright and early on the Saturday morning just as the gates opened for entry to the gardens. I’ve been suffering from terrible insomnia lately as part of general issues that I won’t bore you all with, so wasn’t at my best but Kew is, it transpires, the perfect place to visit when you’re feeling a bit tired and down as it has a very gentle pace and there’s loads of interesting things to look at and do as well as plenty of wide open spaces to roam around and just breathe and enjoy nature.

We started our day with a visit to the palace itself, which was just as charming as I had expected, with really quite simple (comparatively speaking – I have, after all, been to both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle in recent months) furnishings but a rather superb array of paintings hanging on the walls as well as displays of personal items that once belonged to George III and his family. There’s none of the magnificence of the other palaces here – just a lingering impression of a cosy, affectionate, comfortable family life. However, although George and his wife Charlotte may have revelled in this departure from the stifling grandeur and scrutiny of court, their offspring were rather less enamoured, with their disconsolate unmarried daughters referring to Kew as the ‘nunnery’ in reference to their confined and tedious lives, which were spent waiting on their increasingly demanding mother as any hopes that they might all be in turn allowed to marry like their sisters ebbed away. It was different, of course, for their brothers but isn’t that always the way?

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Queen Charlotte’s Bedchamber, Kew Palace. Photos: Melanie Clegg.

While the ground floor at Kew has displays relating to the childhood of George III as well as the royal family’s dining room, which is laid out with some exceedingly unappetising looking Georgian food, the first floor is rather more elegant and features Queen Charlotte’s apartments as well as the rooms inhabited by her third daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who was one of the three daughters to eventually marry albeit rather late in life, in April 1818 when she was forty eight years old. Until then though, Elizabeth was her mother’s favourite daughter and was therefore kept close to her side, which accounts for her rooms being on the same floor.

Queen Charlotte’s bedroom is especially moving as she died there on the 17th of November 1818 and the chair that she passed away in is still on display, looking very plain and black and austere against the simple prettiness of the rest of the room’s furnishings. There are some lovely paintings on display in these rooms – my particular favourite is the one of Charlotte as a young princess of seventeen, just before her marriage to George III. It really is a charming piece of work.

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Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) when Princess Sophie Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Ziesenis, c1761. Photos: Melanie Clegg.

Upstairs is a real surprise though – it’s the top floor of the palace and hasn’t been touched for almost two centuries so the rooms have a rather bleak and shabby look thanks to the almost total lack of furnishings or decoration. They were formally the apartments of Charlotte’s two spinster daughters, Princesses Augusta and Amelia and the general barrenness of the rooms certainly evokes something of the sadness that the unfortunate princesses must have felt, cooped up at Kew and feeling that life was passing them by.

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Princess Elizabeth’s bed/Queen Charlotte’s boudoir/portrait of Prince Frederick, father of George III/Prince Frederick and his sisters playing music in the grounds of Kew/map jigsaw used to teach geography to the royal children/Princess Augusta, mother of George III/suit worn by George III. Photos: Melanie Clegg.

After we left the palace, we took a turn around the Georgian Festival outside, which had such fun attractions as a ‘powder room’ with loads of Georgian clothes and wigs to try on; a ‘dining room’ where we could learn about Georgian foods and also learn how to do intricate napkin folding, which was a favourite pastime in the eighteenth century; the study, which was devoted to Georgian inventions and also their interests in science and botany; the music room, where visitors could experience the Hanoverian family’s passion for music and also take part in a workshop which ended with the performance of Bach in front of actors dressed as the royal family and then finally a pop up parliament, where visitors could learn more about Georgian debating style and the intense rivalry between the Whigs and the Tories.

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Naturally, I immediately homed in on the costumes as I absolutely love a bit of dressing up! A very pretty mantua was found for me and once I’d coupled it with a big white wig, I could hardly be persuaded to give it up. Okay, the overall effect was more like Madonna at the MTV Awards than Marie Antoinette, but I’ll take that. I was also treated to hands on lesson about Georgian cosmetics, which was really interesting. It’s amazing how subtle some of the colours they used for their cheeks and lips actually were, although if you’re getting ready for a soiree lit by candlelight, then you’d be understandably keen to really pile it on for a more full on effect.

We had a lot of fun strolling about the festival and the boys definitely enjoyed their lesson in making napkin crowns, while I was very much entertained by the play that was performed with a mixed cast of costumed performers and children in front of the royal party. We also really liked making silhouettes of different members of the court – in fact mine currently has pride of place in my dining room! There was a lovely atmosphere and it was all very well organised with lots to do and look at and the addition of costumed courtiers wafting about the place plus the amazing Georgian music just added to the magical atmosphere and sense that we had somehow stepped back in time.

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After this we decided to take a look around Kew Gardens and find somewhere suitably picturesque to have the picnic we had brought with us as after all, what could be more Georgian as a delightful meal taken en plein air? To be honest, before actually visiting, I had assumed that the gardens were pretty small with maybe a couple of large greenhouse type things and some trees to look at – I had absolutely no idea that they are ABSOLUTELY VAST and also very lovely. Our first stop was the wonderful looking gin bar (I know!) which offered all sorts of tantalising sounding drinks, although I was in charge of the boys and also completely shattered so decided not to partake, alas.

Next on our list was the huge Princess of Wales Conservatory, which strongly reminded me of the Eden Project in that it was a series of themed rooms and extremely humid in places. After this we walked to the iconic palm house, which was just amazing then to the rose garden and then on through the gardens to the ‘Rhizotron’, which offered a treetop walkway with stunning views, although I stayed at ground level like the grinch that I am due to being terrified of heights.

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After this we enjoyed a restful walk around the Japanese gardens, which have at their heart a reconstructed Japanese temple gateway from Kyoto and lovely views across to the pagoda, which reminded me of the Duc de Choiseul’s one at Chantaloup. We sat for ages beside the Japanese garden with its carefully raked sand, just admiring the tranquility and beautiful view. I’m not actually massively keen on gardens and nature and all that (I know and I’m sorry but it’s MUDDY and there’s often WASPS) but I had to keep stopping just to ‘stand and breathe and just take it all in’ when we were at Kew as it was just so beautiful and restful and oh, exactly what my soul, such as it is, needed after a week of rubbish sleep and evil brain squirrels.

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Inside Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. Photos: Melanie Clegg.

We then took a walk up to look at Queen Charlotte’s cottage, which was built in 1771 and used by the royal family for charming tea parties and picnics in the woods. It’s strongly reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s Hameau at the Petit Trianon, being built on modest lines and with a picturesquely rustic vibe going on, while the inside is decorated in a simple but elegant style – the highlights being the rather beautiful print room on the ground floor, where the walls are covered in prints by William Hogarth and the picnic room upstairs, which is completely decorated with pretty nasturtiums and convolvulus painted by Princess Elizabeth, who was the artistic one of the family it would seem. It really makes for a lovely little hideaway and gives an interesting snapshot into the private life of George III’s family.

We spent the entire day at Kew and had the most wonderful time. Even though we saw all the ‘main’ sights and did loads, there’s still lots that we didn’t manage to fit in so we’ll definitely be making a return visit in the not too distant future as at last it looks like we’ve found that rare beast – a family excursion that has something that appeals to all of us. I’m sure that I’m preaching to the choir where my London chums are concerned, but Kew Gardens are definitely in my top ten list of Favourite London Places now and you should all pay them a visit!

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Many thanks as usual to the Historic Royal Palaces press team for our tickets. The Historic Royal Palaces is a charity devoted to looking after some of the most amazing historical buildings in the country and do an amazing job. Membership costs from £36 for individuals and gives free unlimited access to all their buildings for a whole year plus other exciting benefits as well like exclusive cool events and use of the super comfy member’s room at Hampton Court.

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