A project to liberate long-concealed areas of Kensington Palace has successfully transformed its outside spaces. However, the interior renovations are underwhelming
Every year more than seven million people stroll the Broad Walk in Kensington Gardens, the north-south avenue that separates the private royal world of Kensington Palace from the public park that sprawls to the east. Until recently, few ever strayed beyond this western limit, the presence of a 2.4m- high spiky fence and thick shrubbery signalling the royal realm as clearly off-limits.
And yet it was not. Since the 1920s, a large part of Kensington Palace has been open to the public — for those determined enough to find the entrance.
“I remember coming across an American family who were in tears because they couldn’t find the way in,” says Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, the landscape architect who has worked to reinstate the palace with a new public setting as part of a £12 million renovation, completed last month. “A lot of people didn’t even know it was there.”
Over the years, the palace had retreated further and further behind layers of fences and foliage, with trees planted for privacy along the eastern front, and visitors forced to navigate around to a low-key entrance from the north.
“Our primary aim has been to make the palace part of the landscape again, as was always intended,” says Longstaffe-Gowan, describing how the history of the building’s successive improvements and additions had always been based on opening up views, not retreating behind protective suburban screens.
For the past 300 years, the gardens around Kensington Palace have provided a playground for consecutive royals to demonstrate their particular horticultural ambitions, all of them overwriting the plans of their predecessors. This competitive history began in 1689 when William and Mary acquired the building to escape the “grime” of Whitehall, retreating to a humble mansion in Kensington, a village that “esteem’d a very good Air”.
The Queen enlarged the gardens, with box hedges in the Dutch style to make the King feel at home, as well as adding embroidered parterres, a mount, bowling green, banqueting house, wilderness gardens and a menagerie filled with curious wild fowl, tortoises, snails and “tygers”.
From 1702, Mary’s sister, Queen Anne, was keen to make her mark, annexing a further 12ha from Hyde Park and expelling the stiffness of her predecessors’ efforts. She hated the scent of the box (and her late brother-in-law) and so replaced their Dutch scheme with a romantic English model, creating a new wilderness, mount and sunken garden, as well as an orangery to the north and new paddocks for her own “zoological garden”.
The aim was to reinstate the ‘noble simplicity’ of Bridgeman’s designs’
But the most imaginative and enduring contributions, according to Longstaffe-Gowan, were made by Queen Caroline, consort of George II, in the 1730s. An ardent supporter of the fashion for a more “natural style” of gardening, she employed Charles Bridgeman to undertake a comprehensive remodelling, excavating a large pond from which radial avenues extended across the park, framing “well judg’d Vistos” across broad lawns, with serpentine walks snaking through the trees. It is with the Bridgeman mindset of “unaffected Englishness” that the recent transformation has been undertaken.
“Our approach has been to reinstate the noble simplicity of his designs, to once again make the palace the principal object in the park,” says Longstaffe-Gowan.
The scheme involved ripping out 64 mature trees — much to the horror of the local tree officer — and removing 7,000 tonnes of soil, as well as banishing great swathes of clutter that had accrued between the gardens and the park, including gaudy, gilded railings from the 1980s, “worthy of a sheikh’s palace”.
A wide, terraced lawn now steps gently down from the Broad Walk to the new palace entrance, framed with sharp, galvanised steel edging and paced by marching yew sentinels, giving the eastern front a proper approach for the first time. Now seen on axis, the gleaming statue of Queen Victoria, formerly choked by fences, also has a new home, surrounded by an octagonal pond that echoes the geometry of Bridgeman’s pool to the east.
To the north-east of the palace, the change in level is now mediated by a theatrical “wiggly walk”, a creative response to the need for DDA-compliant 100m-long ramp access. Inspired by the picturesque winding routes found in Bridgeman’s plan, the path twists and turns between what will soon be thick hornbeam hedgerows, creating a playful tableau of heads bobbing up and down as they process down the slope.
To the south, in the former area of Princess Margaret’s own garden — a twee concoction of ornamental shrubs and a newt pond — the original sloping landform has been revealed and a wild meadow planted, which will be grazed with sheep come the autumn, apparently a common sight here until the 1960s.
For a slim budget of £1.24 million, more than half of which was spent on earth removal, Longstaffe-Gowan and his partner James Fox have achieved a remarkable transformation, creating an open, inviting setting for the palace — already reflected in visitor figures, which have more than doubled, with 65,000 in April alone, exceeding those of Hampton Court.
The exterior works set the scene for a substantial remodelling of the palace itself by John Simpson Architects. Central to the ambition of enticing more visitors, the building’s east-west orientation has been reinstated, with a new entrance to the eastern front.
A green-painted cast-iron pergola now welcomes visitors, complete with Regency-style golden swags and ropes in a similarly fruity vein to the practice’s work on the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
It is a toned-down version of the original design, which Daniel Moylan, then council member for planning, slammed as “decoratively over-elaborate and almost embarrassingly ‘twee’,” adding that “one could easily imagine it being replicated one day in a garden furniture catalogue”.
The central bay of the ground floor elevation has been stripped of its white stucco, added by Nash, to restore the original balance of the facade — and “stop it looking like a liquorice allsort,” as Simpson jokes — while the rest has been painted to match the brickwork.
Within, this lower-ground level has been carved out and new steel posts installed, clad with doric plaster sheaths to replicate existing columns, while niches have been opened up into doorways to form an inviting triple enfilade entrance sequence.
Along the whole of the south front, former staff offices are now a suite of ample education spaces, while, to the north, an entirely new shop and café building has been inserted, finished with a vaulted ceiling and immaculately pointed brick arches to the exterior, overseen by Emma Simpson, with bricks made from sand extracted on site.
Unusually for one of the Historic Royal Palace attractions, the entirety of this ground floor is accessible without buying a ticket, allowing visitors to enjoy the building and its gardens (and spend money) without entering the state apartments.
The ticket buying itself is done in a theatrical space to the south of the entrance, a former courtyard now topped with a glazed roof and a lurid satin canopy with 60cm-long tassels, “like something left over from a royal pageant,” says Simpson.
The ticket desk is framed by an equally camp stage set, dressed with swags, drapes and gilded twiddles, hinting at what lies in store upstairs.
The next space serves as the orientation hub from which the various state apartments are accessed via restored staircases and corridors, simplifying the circulation from the former warren of passages. The centre of the room is bestowed with a bulbous burgundy banquette, an alluring studded-leather object on which children clamber and pensioners recline when we visit.
The apartments themselves have been disappointingly fitted out with dumbed down set dressing by Dutch practice Opera Amsterdam and “adventure makers” Coney.
Quotes from Queen Victoria’s diary are plastered across tables and printed on carpets, which alternate arbitrarily from deep red to mossy green to blue to black, somehow following the stages of the Queen’s psyche — with scant attempts to recreate period interiors. Individual rooms are filled with a clutter of strange display systems, a riot of ungainly booths, stands and projections, with soundscapes, magic mirrors and “whisper machines”. The passage leading to the display of Diana’s dresses is lined with a garish wallpaper by artist Julie Verhoeven, “inspired by some of the Princess’s key fashion moments”, while an inexplicable glowing tree fills the entrance rotunda.
It is all remarkably tacky, but somehow highly suitable for the British royal family, a populist monarchy that has no pretence of being remotely highbrow or of having any discernible sense of taste.
Throughout, the restoration treads a fine line between sensitively in keeping and verging on kitsch. Many of the more sympathetic moves in fact employ the pastiche fakery of much of the work at Poundbury — such as a grand stone stair, which turns out to be made of painted MDF. Similarly, a new elevator has been deftly inserted where a back staircase formerly stood, but it is lined with etched mirror and surmounted with a Grecian urn in the manner of a five-star Sheraton — although apparently foreign tourists have asked if it is a 17th century original.
(The same question has not been asked about the miniature colonnade of Doric columns that provide modesty screens between the urinals).
In many ways it is a shame that what we see today is not the result of the direct patronage of the current monarchy, a further layer to the heady palimpsest of successive interior and horticultural tastes. When Princess Margaret died in 2002, the palace was intended to be phased out as a home for royal relatives within a generation, ending the building’s role as what King Edward VIII once referred to as the great “aunt heap”.
But now both William and Kate, as well as Harry, are scheduled to move in soon — and we can look forward to seeing how they will make their mark on this rambling pile.
Architect John Simpson & Partners, Landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan Landscape Design, Main contractor Mansell Construction, Structural engineer Hockley & Dawson, Services engineer Ramboll (formerly Gifford)