The Kensington Palace Project

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With the death and funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997, Kensington Palace became known throughout the world. But its reputation as an architectural gem, a repository of great works of art, a favoured home of kings and queens and the scene of numerous major events in English history remains to be discovered by many. In an exclusive interview, Edward Impey, a former curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and author of a new official history of the Palace, tells the fascinating story from its origins to the present day. Its beginnings as a royal house were in 1689 when William and Mary sought a healthier alternative to the smoky and damp atmosphere of Whitehall Palace and chose what was a modest 17th century villa of the Earl of Nottingham in the small village of Kensington. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned with enlarging it. George II was the last monarch to live there but, in 1819 with the birth of the future Queen Victoria there, its future was secured. Victoria was brought up there and received the news of her succession in the Palace. Her affection for her “old home” never left her.

Edward Impey is a man with an important job – safeguarding the nation’s heritage. Formerly a Research Fellow at Oriel College, Cambridge, from 1997 to November of 2002, he was Curator of Historic Royal Palaces with the responsibly for the management and upkeep of five major heritage sites: the Tower of London, Hampton Court, Kew Palace, the Banqueting House of Whitehall and Kensington Palace. At the end of 2002 he became a director of English Heritage, the non-governmental public body that is essentially the government’s chief advisory body on heritage, on “all matters pertaining to the historic environment” as the official jargon has it. English Heritage is a huge organisation which employs one thousand five hundred people throughout the country and is responsible for around four hundred properties, some very small, others enormous and as complex to maintain as Hampton Court or the Tower of London. But that is only a small part of what English Heritage does. The broader part is to do with the administration of legislation to do with planning and heritage law. He talked to Royalty about Kensington Palace and its role in British history.

Q: How did the Kensington Palace project come about?

A: While I was Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, I had already done a book with a colleague on the Tower of London. This was always meant to be the first of a series of books on Historic Royal Palaces’ sites which were weightier than the Guidebook, authoritative but ‘accessible’, beautifully produced, and sensibly priced. Merrell Publishers did an excellent job on the Tower book, so we approached them to do this one. I hope that the Palaces will produce others – certainly one on Hampton Court, another of England’s great treasures.

Q: So they are designed to be enjoyed in themselves but also to serve a useful function?

A: Exactly. Kensington Palace attracts a lot of people, around three hundred thousand a year, but that’s not as many as it deserves. For example, the Tower has over two million visitors a year. Part of this book’s purpose is to raise the public’s awareness of Kensington Palace and its unique place in history.

Q: That certainly comes across. The palace has had a rather turbulent and precarious history?

A: One thing worth noting about Kensington is that there is a lot of history to the site before the palace gets built. Then, for seventy years it was one of the most important places in the country, for when the monarch was there it was the centre of government. But since George II’s death in 1760 it has not been lived in by a reigning sovereign, and has had a few dodgy moments. On several occasions it was nearly pulled down. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, at various times, the monarch – or more usually ambitious ministers and architects – considered putting up a new palace on the same site or building a new one nearby. Secondly, during the latter half of the nineteenth century the palace fell into disrepair, and in the 1870s some long-disused parts of the State Apartments were so bad that no one thought they could be saved. Like most of London, the palace was damaged in the Second World War and in a bad way after it, and it took great efforts and great skill to save it, and all on a shoestring. As it happened most of the damage was not to the State Apartments but to the ‘private’ half of the palace – the part lived in, and I’m glad to say, still lived in, by members of the royal family. Although the nineteenth century saw periods of semi-abandonment, the Palace also achieved a new prominence. Three of George III’s children lived there, including Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent. Apart from being born at Kensington, it was also where Queen Victoria heard of her accession on June 20, 1837, and held her first Privy Council meeting in the Red Saloon later in the same day.

Q: To talk a little more generally, Kensington has made a very rich contribution to the nation’s culture as well?

A: Absolutely. It’s an amazing place where all sorts of extraordinary things have happened. Many great British architects and artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century worked on the palace, including Christopher Wren, William Kent and Nicholas Hawksmoor, to name just a few. Its character, its personality if you like, is also very special. It’s not like Hampton Court, which is wonderful but rather overpowering. Kensington has more the feel of a reasonably grand country house. And, like most country houses, it’s an interesting mix of architectural styles. It’s very approachable and friendly in a way the large palaces are not, and were never intended to be. In that sense it has remained true to itself. When William III bought the house, the idea was that it would be converted into a semi-private house. It was where he and Queen Mary stayed during parliamentary sittings so that they could be near Westminster but at a reasonable distance from the ghastly smokiness and pollution of Whitehall that the King hated. Kensington has always been slightly obscure, but deliberately so. That is part of its special character. However, before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I think relatively few people had heard of Kensington, which is something of a shame as it has many different facets and really is a great national treasure in its own right. (Extract Royalty Magazine Vol. 18/09)