Tuesday, July 19, 2011
A Most Unusual Palace
I had been meaning to visit Kew Palace for ages, ever since I saw a TV programme about its restoration, so a sunny June day was perfect to show it off in the setting of Kew Gardens which surround it.
The brick house - it is far too domestic and small-scale to be thought of as a palace - was built in 1631 by a Flemish merchant at a time when many wealthy men had a Thames-side home to escape from the dirt and noise of London. It was built on the foundations of an Elizabethan mansion, possibly once owned by Robert Dudley.
Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of George II, built his own country retreat, the White House, almost opposite this old redbrick house - a good distance from the rest of the family who used Richmond Lodge as their retreat: he did not get on well with his siblings, it seems!
Frederick died in 1751, apparently as a result of an infection following a blow from a cricket ball - Wisden's Almanac cannot record many cricketing deaths, I imagine, and certainly no other royals! His son, shy George, succeeded his grandfather in 1760 and he and his wife Charlotte set about producing a large family - nine sons and six daughters. They used Richmond Lodge, but as the sons grew up the elder two, George (later Prince Regent and George IV) and Frederick (The Grand Old Duke of York of the nursery rhyme), went to live in the red brick house which became known as Kew Palace.
When the unfortunate king first fell victim, in 1788, to the "king's malady" - the little-understood porphyria - he was forced to stay at the White House then and again in 1801. It held such unpleasant memories for him that he had it demolished in 1802 once he recovered.
The ground and first floors have been beautifully restored. The king's library, the dining room where he was tricked by his doctors into confinement in 1801 by the tale that he was to meet the queen at Kew, the queen's boudoir with its fashionable decor, the drawing room and the bedrooms of the queen and Princess Elizabeth are all perfectly in period but the third floor was abandoned in 1818 after the queen died at Kew and has been left conserved rather than restored so that the structure of the building can be seen. In many ways it is even more atmospheric and haunting for being so stark and it was here that the Princesses Augusta and Amelia spent their quiet and rather lonely years at Kew, both of them yearning to get married and escape.
Meanwhile their eldest brother George was launched on a career of excess and indiscretion that included a totally unacceptable and illegal marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert.
When George III died in 1820, and the Regent was finally monarch, Kew was far too humble and quiet to suit his tastes. The royal family never used it again and it fell into decline until restoration began in 1996.
Now it is a charming little palace, filled with ghosts and an air of quiet melancholy. Hanging in my writing studio I have a reproduction toile de jouy fabric, designed in the late 18thc, that shows George III and his family enjoying the rustic pleasures of life in the grounds at Kew: it is good to think that sometimes, despite everything, they were happy there.