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Victoria Revealed provided many of the crowning moments of our return visit to recently refurbished Kensington Palace, portions of which were closed for two years while 12 million pound restoration works took place. Palace gardens, also refurbished, boast, in a pivotal position at the Palace’s front walkway, a regal white statue of Queen Victoria, seated, with scepter and crown, designed by her daughter, Princess Louise, originally erected there in 1893. Damaged by shrapnel in 1945, during WWII, this elegantly graceful tribute has also had a rejuvenating facelift. The exhibition in honour of Britain’s longest reigning monarch is rich in rose strewn, Victorian lace atmosphere, and features real life love tokens exchanged between Victoria and her Prince Consort, Albert, gowns worn by the young Queen, including her beautiful lace trimmed, cream wedding dress, and quotes from her diary from the moment she realized, at the tender age of eighteen, upon the death of her uncle, George IV, she’d suddenly become Queen of England. The artifacts and images displayed serve as a potent reminder that even Queen Victoria, whom we’re accustomed to seeing as an aged window with black gown, bound up white hair and perpetually unsmiling demeanor, was once a young, vivacious, happy, highly sensual young woman, adored by her husband Albert, at the same time as she was admired by her countrymen for her common sense and uncompromising sense of decorum. One could even say that Victoria and Albert were the celebrity couple of their day, long before anything of the kind was ever in fashion.
Kensington Palace is, of course, also forever etched in the memory of many as the former home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales and for the re-opening of her former London home, the exhibition, Diana: glimpses of a modern princess, a small, select group of gowns and cocktail dresses she was famously photographed in are displayed here on forms in glass cases, along with photos of Diana in each, from the early days of her engagement to Prince Charles and, after their divorce, in moments when she literally seemed to glow with her own inner fire. On show here, is the classic ivory silk formal gown with modern day, Greek goddess twists, created by the Princess’s favourite designer, Catherine Walker, alongside a floor-length, puffed skirt, black silk taffeta strapless ball gown, designed by the House of Emanuel, who later created her wedding gown. So very ‘80’s, 19 year old Lady Diana Spencer, sported, on that occasion, a teased, heightened version of her soon to be much copied blonde bob. It is touching to see the happy face of the then very young, shy Princess looking admiringly at her husband Charles on the occasion of their first official engagement on March 9, 1981, but one also gets a sense of her triumph when basking in the spotlight on her own in the aftermath of their relationship in later photos, in one of which she wears a sparkly black and white off the shoulder, tuxedo collared dress by Beville Sasson. A corridor leading to and from this very special display is covered from floor to ceiling with wallpapered scenes from Diana’s life as a Royal Princess, from glamorous to motherly, as designed by interior stylist Finola Inger, which began their life as colourful sketches rendered by fashion illustrator Julie Verhoeven, who in turn, took her inspiration from some of the most instantly recognizable photographs of the Princess. Favourite photos of Princess Diana and her two boys, William and Harry, sit along a mantelpiece in the room housing her glamorous gowns and dresses, now empty forevermore, adding a homey, but bittersweet touch. At the exit of this display, one returns to where one began – before a stunning enlargement of one of fashion photographer Mario Testino’s iconic close up and personal photos of Diana in white, looking radiantly playful, her blonde hair slicked back, smile beaming, all the more poignant in light of the eternal, encapsulated youthfulness she passed into just five months later. Diana described the day of this photo shoot as ‘one of the happiest of my life.’ Testino, a trusted friend, also photographed Diana’s oldest son, Prince William and then bride to be, Kate Middleton on the occasion of their engagement last year.
The tasteful grandeur of the State Rooms of Kensington Palace, itself a Royal residence since 1689, when William III and Mary II acquired it, as an alternative home near London, to the Palace of Whitehall, with various additions and changes enacted over the years by master architects such as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanburgh and John Nash would be enticing enough to warrant a visit. However, in the presence of so much history, it would be easy to feel torn as to which direction to go in first, were it not for the many themed displays, with welcoming, guides on hand along the way to help enlighten visitors as they travel through the annals of history. James II, who fled England, dressed as a ‘common’ man, jointly reigning monarchs William III of Orange and Mary II, Queen Anne, George I, George II, last reigning monarch to reside at the Palace – details of the intriguing lives of these Royals, and more await you, as well as the aforementioned special exhibitions, both of which are engrossing, and judging by appreciative crowds, very popular, for a host of different reasons. Installations featuring larger than life paper cutouts of scenes relating to various Royal adventures intermittently enliven displays throughout, as do other, more sculptural installations, specially created and strategically placed animations and alluring, oft secretive sound pieces, in one instance, activated by pressing small cloth bags. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, aka Prince William and his young wife, Catherine will be moving into the revamped apartments formerly belonging to the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret next year.
This transformed, even more magnificent update of Kensington Palace features a crimson and gold draped ‘grand hall’, where you can purchase tickets for your eventful day, manned by obliging staff members donned in new, black and red, appropriately tailored uniforms. There is also a new ‘wiggly’ walkway to traverse at the east front, which has been transformed into one more impressive than ever, featuring the aforementioned white statue of Queen Victoria at its’ pool like centre. Trim topiary trees line the lawns leading to the entrance, now adorned with a scrolled green iron-work vestibule of sorts, in honour of the upcoming Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Just inside the Palace, a huge light sculpture spans a pillar and ceiling above, glowing like warm, ethereal lace.
As most of us remember the days when Princess Diana’s sunny smile graced the news, here, we’ve a chance to relive some of her crowning moments. For fans of the film Young Victoria, enthusiasts of Victoriana, as well as of Queen Victoria herself, Victoria Revealed is sure to delight. Standing in the very room, with its imposingly long table and high backed chairs, where 18 year old Victoria held her first meeting with the Privy Council on the very day she learned she was Queen, meeting with ninety odd politically astute males, yet holding her own against all odds should be something of a thrill for feminists the world over. A case houses the black dress she wore on that auspicious occasion, now faded with time, as one imagines the packed chamber, diminutive young Victoria’s entrance into it, and her joy in being composed, sensible and wise beyond her years, despite the fact that she was not raised at court, but in Kensington Palace, where she had been born and slept in her mother’s bedroom until that day.
The most historically compelling room in the exhibition for many, in terms of what one has heard becoming more of a reality, is that displaying Victoria’s wedding gown, a facsimile of Albert’s nuptial garments, on a form of his size and surprisingly small stature, a lovely set of floral jewelery he had specially designed for his wife, firstly, on the occasion of their engagement, with additional pieces given over time, to be worn on their subsequent wedding anniversaries, and other personal mementoes and documents relating to their courtship, viewed while a recording of a song he had written especially for his young bride charmingly plays in the background. Adjoining this romantic chamber is another housing portraits of their nine children, with toys and other items of the happy household of Victoria and Albert.
Another room, also originally part of the Royal Apartments, features photos and artifacts from the Great Exhibition of 1851, instigated by Prince Albert, which showcased industrial wonders from around the world - a reminder of his abiding interest in science and inventions. Exhibition proceeds enabled the start of the V and A as well as the Science and Natural History Museums. It is estimated some six million people visited the exhibition, then nearly half the population of Britain. The imaginative displays commemorating this momentous event offer photos and paintings of the occasion, giving a real sense of its scope and grandeur. Conversely, a dark curtained room next door with segments from Victoria’s written account of Albert’s final moments and her feelings of loss after his death inscribed on a mirror as its poignant centre, enables deep feelings of empathy and compassion for the heart-broken Queen.
Victoria’s long life, from unhappy childhood, through blissful married life, and premature, lonely widowhood, during which she all but vanished from public life for some years, was finally vindicated by the occasion of her Golden Jubilee, here captured on fascinating film footage showing the Queen herself as well as the pomp surrounding the historic event. Queen Victoria has held the record as the longest reigning monarch, at sixty three years plus, though that record could well be challenged by Elizabeth II in future. A telegraph Queen Victoria sent to her subjects on her Diamond Jubilee, one of the first ever, amazed. Festivities marking the historic occasion took place on 20, 21 and 22 of June, 1897, culminating in her heralded six mile carriage ride through the streets of London on the 22nd. The ritual and pageantry surrounding Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was the first event of its kind to be captured on film for posterity.
Victoria Revealed was the last exhibition of many I viewed at the Palace this time around, and I must admit that as it, seemingly, granted an audience with Queen Victoria herself, my visit ended on a decidedly regal high note.