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The Enchanted Palace
A beguiling interweaving of art, architecture, fashion, fairytale and fact, The Enchanted Palace is as unique and intriguing an exhibition as any lover of any or all of the aforementioned could hope for. Engaging with the secrets of seven once real life princesses with connections to Kensington Palace, visitors are lead on a hunt following paths of clues dropped, some as delicately as a whisper, others more pronounced, as they try to unravel what significance they had to the life story of each princess.
For many London dwellers, Kensington Palace is forever lodged in memory as the former home of the late Queen of Hearts – Princess Diana. The show of love displayed after her passing, when a vast carpet of flowers spanned the grounds rivaled any we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. Here, we revisit Diana as real life fairy princess, and six other princesses, who spanned the ages, many if not all of whom experienced some kind of tragedy: Mary (1662 – 1694), wife of King William I aka William of Orange, later Queen Mary II, Anne (1665 – 1714), Queen, married to Prince George of Denmark, Caroline (1683 – 1737), wife of George II – last reigning monarch to reside at Kensington Palace, Charlotte (1796 – 1817), only daughter of George, Prince of Wales, aka Prince Regent/George IV, Victoria (1819 – 1901) Britain’s longest reigning monarch from 1837 to 1901, Princess Margaret (1930 – 2002), late sister of our current Queen, and of course, Diana, Princess of Wales (1962 – 97).
Though historically based, this is not a static exhibition, as it is ever evolving depending on the artists and designers involved at any given time. International, Cornwall based arts group Wildworks, who designed the exhibition’s staging, with Kensington Palace, have done wonders with the seemingly impossible task of imbuing it with fact interwoven with a sense of oft eerie fantasy, shot through with touches of whimsy whenever one of their costumed ‘Detectors’ traverses its landscape, generating a Terry Gilliam like sense of nomadic Time Bandits stealing through the now. The Detectors, dressed in what look like long monk’s robes with goggles on their heads, also simulate echoes of a long functioning household, as they seemingly, call out to members of staff below stairs as they descend. From its stunning sound design, through to paper rose - trimmed railings, clue laden fireplaces, intermittent bare trees with branches reaching heavenward, ghostly, illuminated toys and dancing silhouettes of couples through the ages on the high ceiling of The Gallery of Dancing Shadows to period music, the chambers of The Enchanted Palace have been imbued with a sense of the bewitching cross between the nature of life in the Palace, where time stands still, juxtaposed with the cyclical passage of time outside its walls.
Rooms in the exhibition are themed, beginning with one which surely must be haunted given all that has taken place there (you’ll have to go to find out what it is) – The Room of Royal Sorrows, which features a dresser topped with a multitude of glass vials, that, legend has it, were once used to collect tears, with lids for those of sorrow left off in hope of evaporation and those of joy, capped, labeled and lovingly stored. Each room has links to one or more of the seven princesses, and the large, high ceilinged Room of Palace Time aka Cupola Room, where Queen Victoria was baptized, boasts four slowly turning mannequin sculptures designed by Boudicca hanging from its golden chandeliers donned in clock works alluding to various eras, i.e. one sports a ‘ruff’ made from a large spring, another, a rippling ‘skirt’, mimicking celluloid film. Given that the room’s centre-point is an ornate 17th century clock, the mechanical figures, though competing rather than concurring with their detailed surroundings, seem apt.
As though a symbol of the combined style and elegance of all of the princesses embodied in one work, Bruce Oldfield’s classic white off the shoulder gown stands poised, seemingly, forever, before a dressing table mirror, empty, but by no means devoid of presence in The Room of Royal Sorrows. Similarly captured is a whispy pink gown of gossamer chiffon and netting, by Vivienne Westwood, with Oldfield’s, (a guide confirmed), designed for the Palace’s 1992, Court Couture exhibition. Charlotte, though never a Palace resident, now flies bird like in spirit down a staircase in The Room of Flight in a frantic bid for freedom, recalling her refusal to marry a man she did not love, in favour of handsome Prince Leopold.
Vivian Westwood gown at The Enchanted Palace
This latest incarnation of The Enchanted Palace also features ethereal light works called Echoes by artist Chris Levine, flashing now you see it, now you don’t princesses, marking this experience as one encompassing old and new - artifacts in the company of contemporary art. These modern implications mix most openly in The Room of the World, the World in a Room, which draws its theme from Princess Caroline’s penchant for collecting in the context of its large, multi-drawer curio cabinet featuring the found object art of North Cornwall based artist/writer/painter Jane Darke, who together with her late husband, playwright Nick Darke, gathered a multitude of curiosities on the shoreline near their home. It’s a singularly engrossing display, encompassing a myriad of artifacts of lives from around the world: seeds, toys, lobster tags from New England, carried across the Atlantic. As we’d once enjoyed a documentary about Nick Darke and his collection - Wrecking (Cornish for beach-combing) we were very pleased to see some of it displayed here, along with a circular projection of a rolling sea by Chris Levine.
Echo by artist Chris Levine at The Enchanted Palace
The Room of a Sleeping Princess is the childhood bedroom where 18 year old Victoria learned that she was then Queen. The sound of distant voices of children at play coupled with opaque projections of girls in a dense wood on the ceiling, a bird cage escaped from on the mantelpiece, and flowers and vines climbing over everything from The Princess and the Pea multi-mattressed bed, to the storybooks (Alice in Wonderland among them) strewn across the floor, all lend an ‘outdoor’ feel, courtesy of Wildworks’ Myriddin Wannell. Such surreal elements, in conjunction with atmospheric lighting enhance the feeling of privileged entrapment that the seven Princesses must have felt at times, throughout the exhibition.
One of the most commendable things about this sensory interactive environment is the way in which it is designed to appeal to both children and adults. This is perhaps, best illustrated within the context of The Seat of Power, a room featuring a colourful user friendly throne that you can sit on, knitted crown jewels and crown (which would even keep your head warm in winter!) under glass and huge knitted coat of arms over its’ stately fireplace, artfully created by community charity Stitches in Time.
Knitted Crown Jewels -at The-Enchanted-Palace
The grim light of reality revealed that the palace once housed a feral boy, and the exhibition displays signs of his existence in the form of animal bones, skins and a clue laden painting depicting the Palace and grounds where the wild boy, dubbed Peter, actually stayed for a time as a living Court curiosity of sorts.
In the final analysis, I found myself most haunted by two of the Palace’s environments – The Rooms of Lost Childhood, with their spectral doll house and glass housed, dress wearing branches, imaginatively designed by Wildworks’ Sue Hill, and the fairytale aesthesis of The Room of Dancing Princesses, focusing on the two 20th Century Princesses, Margaret and Diana, displaying one beautiful gown of each, and a lone diamond tierra amid a blue-lit, bare-branched ‘wood’ rife with the lonely howls of hungry wolves.
Occasionally, one tends to get a tad confused, given the rambling nature of the exhibition and its oft low lighting, but any momentary lapses are enjoyably remedied by a word with one of the knowing guides in each room who amicably shed light on its contents, as well as royal etiquette and lesser known facts.
If it seems I wandered in the course of my journey through The Enchanted Palace, it’s because I had a tendency to lose myself within its highly evocative realm. When passing through its’ dreamlike corridors, the words of Angela Carter, that late, great re-interpreter of fairytales, played through my mind, ‘My intention was not to do 'versions'…but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.’
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