Until this weekend, I'd never been to Kensington Palace, didn't even know you COULD go inside, I had assumed it was the chill-out pad of minor royals who didn't make it to first grade palace accommodation. Well the place is getting a face lift (work on the house and gardens will be ongoing until Jan 2012) and while it's happening a rather wonderful thing is going on inside.
In a section of the building that is waiting for its refurb, an exhibition called The Enchanted Palace exposes the stories of seven of the princesses who used to live there. The information is displayed in a visually fabulous way, with beautiful installations, a bit of live theatre and some clever new ideas on how history should present itself.
Fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones and Boudicca were allowed to wander through the archives of the Palace to find a story that inspired them. They have set about bringing these stories to life, with decorative use of the Palace's props and antiques and the help of theatre installation experts Wildworks.. The result is engaging, sadly touching and occasionally quite spooky.
My favourite story was by Aminaka Wilmont, who in The Room Of Royal Sorrows had tables full of tear catcher bottles, so named because they were used to catch the tears of weeping princesses as they suffered their (seemingly many) unhappy royal moments. Known as Lachrymosey, the unhappy princess would sob into a crystal bottle to collect her tears, which was then firmly stoppered. When the tears in the bottle dried up, she had to zip it with the wailing and move on. Beats self help books I guess.
There are other gems, such as artist William Tempest's origami installation in the bedroom in which princess Victoria woke up to find she was queen, and Vivienne Westwood's fleeing princess, which is just a dress dashing down the stairs all by itself but it has a ghost like presence that rather chills the spine. It's not all girly stuff, there is a room full of toy soliders which recreates the games William II used to play with his brother, where you are encouraged to tap out comments on two typewriters positioned on a campaign table in the centre of the room (hmmm, do you think they've been reading our posts?
You are issued with a quirkily drawn map to guide you through the excitment and to track all the princesses mentioned in the story (which seemed popular with the wide eyed little girls I saw checking for clues).
Perhaps most interesting is the transformation of the normally rather staid palace guides into 'explainers' who are given a much bigger role in telling the details of all the stories unfurling in the installations. The one I chatted to said they were all thrilled with their new, more involved role of being part on the theatre of the Palace as they were all trained historians with lots of interesting tales to tell about the palace, they'd just never been able to do it in such an interesting way before.
If you are even vaguely interested in interior design, history, display or theatre, or you have girls with a weakness for playing princesses, you need to get along to this exhibition as soon as you can. It's a perfectly formed gem in the centre of the equally wonderful Kensington Palace Gardens. The exhibition will run until the palace reopens in 2012 and the installation 'stories' will change every six months, with new designers coming on board.
The Enchanted Palace, Kensington Palace.
open 10.00am – 6.00pm daily, £12.50
Nearest underground station is Queensway.