Kew is a palace restored
IAN COLLINS Kew Palace is restored to the way it looked on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar – when a happy refuge for troubled George III and his troublesome family. Ian Collins enjoys a tour.
Three days after the queen had her 80th birthday dinner in Kew Palace, and just before the doors opened to the public, I was treated to a guided tour of the revamped Jacobean mansion beside the Thames.
En route I read out to my companions a pronouncement from art critic Brian Sewell that the repainted terracotta façade was “hideous”. “Oh goody,” said my friend. “That means we'll love it.”
As indeed we did. Approached through Kew Gardens, via avenues of spring flowers patrolled by shrieking peacocks and parakeets, the gabled palace is cast in a pinkish glow from an authentic covering of brick dust mixed with limewash.
Windows set in putty-coloured frames complete the picture of a fairytale country retreat or a royal dolls' house.
Given to the nation by Queen Victoria in 1898, having been mothballed for 80 years, the 1630s merchant house which became a favourite royal residence is presented as a perfect time capsule.
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After a 10-year, £6.6m restoration scheme - still ongoing - a combination of minimal renovation and hi-tech explanation makes for a marvellous history lesson. A fair amount of information in each room leaves space for the imagination.
The story being told here is essentially that of George III and Queen Charlotte, and it is broadly a happy saga with a very sad ending.
This was the future monarch's school when the building was one of several royal residences hereabouts. All the others were demolished long ago.
The king inherited the palace from his mother in 1771. By that time he had been married for a decade and his wife was well embarked on her 15 pregnancies to term, an epic feat of endurance which would produce 13 princes and princesses to reach adulthood.
No wonder the royal couple enjoyed the restful atmosphere of the palace beside the river. Here, in glorious countryside, “Farmer George” could conduct his agricultural experiments, and wander in grounds where he could talk to the trees and a company of wild kangaroos.
For the revamping of Kew Palace 20 layers of wall paint were removed to reveal the original gaudy glory of the Georgian décor. Now schemes featuring bright green wallpaper as a backdrop to vivid black, gold and red furnishings astonish and delight us.
The atmosphere seems one of cheerful intimacy, as the royal family played their music, painted their pictures, read their books, wrote their journals and undertook scientific researches under the benign and enlightened eye of the patriarch.
A showcase of relics reveals that the king was himself a talented scientist, artist and designer - having been tutored by Sir William Chambers, architect of Somerset House and of many peculiar buildings in and around Kew (including the pagoda, commissioned by George III as a surprise for his adored mama).
But then there are shadows across the sunny idyll - brilliantly evoked in whispered conversations we overhear on staircases, and not only from the silhouettes of servants who mutter their private complaints over the hard labour that underpinned such royal leisure.
For as we enter the palace, the first object to greet us is an uncanny study of the king's head - a new lifecast in bees wax and oil paints taken from a mould made by Madame Tussaud in 1809 for the monarch's golden jubilee.
Of course, she had learned her craft using the heads that plopped into baskets beneath the guillotines of revolutionary Paris. Having lost America to such insurrection, the Hanoverian ruler must at times have feared going the way of the Bourbons.
But he should have feared his medics more. For, as the film The Madness of King George suggested, it was the treatment for a mystery ailment that sent him off his rocker.
Given the deference of the day, physicians were not allowed to examine the royal personage directly, so they plotted torture from a distance. An initial blood disorder - now believed to be porphyria - was aggravated by medicines containing arsenic.
Then as the king's mental faculties became affected, the loyal royal doctors unleashed a barrage of purgatives, emetics, blistering, bleeding, cupping and applications of leeches.
When the patient objected violently he was constrained in a strait-jacket. A stained waistcoat provides evidence of harrowing treatment.
Amazingly, he recovered from such prolonged assaults on two occasions. But the death of his beloved daughter, Amelia, in 1811, set him into a spiral of depression from which he never recovered. His medics made him truly mad by the end.
Kew's key place in our national history was really secured by the dramatic events of 1818. Queen Charlotte, by now estranged from her barmy husband, took refuge here when falling ill on a journey to London. She never left.
For the queen spent six months dying at Kew - her sufferings, like her eventual death, entirely unknown to her husband. We see the chair in which she spent her last weeks when, unable to lie down, she rested her head on a pillowed table.
Not that she was allowed much peace. For, amid the regency of her much-resented eldest son, the Prince of Wales, she was surrounded by constitutional chaos.
All those children had produced only one legitimate heir between them. (No one counted the dozens of illegitimate offspring.)
The pregnancy of Princess Charlotte had seemed to secure a rather rickety royal succession, but then, to everyone's horror, she died in childbirth along with her baby.
Two rather doddery royal dukes were then ordered to quit their private “establishments” and take suitably ambitious/sacrificial young brides.
So the old queen rose from her dying and here - where our queen has just enjoyed her 80th birthday dinner - she witnessed a double wedding.
Although he himself would die soon afterwards, the Duke of Kent did his bit for England by fathering the future Queen Victoria. But the safe succession of the British monarchy was a very close run thing.
The survival of Kew Palace was also against the odds.
After his mother's death, the Prince Regent ordered its destruction, deeming it “unworthy of Repair”.
A White House royal residence alongside had already been removed to make way for a castellated Gothic palace - a white elephant demolished by the then George IV in 1827 when still incomplete.
Amid all this mayhem of building and demolition, and a resulting cash crisis for the greatest royal spendthrift or splendid patron of the arts in British history, the order to destroy Kew Palace was suspended.
Now we see the house restored to the way it would have looked around 1804, when the wits of George III and the happiness of his family circle, were still intact.
The message from a fleeting visit to lovely Kew Palace is that you must seize and savour the moment.
t Kew Palace (telephone 0870 751 5179 or log on to www.hrp.org.uk) is open 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday until September 30. Adult admission is £5 but, alas, you first have to pay the current £11.50 entry fee to Kew Gardens, so the tariff is really £16.50 plus transport costs. A daily Tube travelcard, taking in the Kew Gardens station, is £5.40. A visit is very highly recommended - but it won't be cheap.