Sunday, November 18, 2012

I Love a Good Palace

I had every intention of spending my Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  It's huge-- one of those museums that you can't even realistically do in a day-- and supposedly amazing so it seemed worth a day trip to London.  And, it is.  But, it's also amazingly overwhelming.  And, on the day I went, very crowded.  This may have been because of the special exhibitions that are on-- one of Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 and one of Hollywood Costumes.  (There is a third exhibition of photography called Light From the Middle East, but it didn't seem to be creating the same draw or buzz.)

If you enter the Victoria and Albert through the tunnel that leads to it from the South Kensington tube station, you enter into the Sculpture Hall-- with a ton of sculptures.  This was my favorite


but that might also be due to the accompanying plaque describing the sculpted man, Joshua Ward.


We should have more monuments to "celebrated quacks." In fact, we should celebrate more quacks.  (This is actually a good argument for there to be lots of statues of Sarah Palin.)

To the right of the statue gallery is the fashion exhibit which I think I walked backwards (I followed people in...so I wasn't the only one.) since I saw it from most recent to oldest in the collection.  What you do get, no matter which way you walk it, is that people used to be a lot smaller-- especially in height-- if the clothing is any indication.  Some of it really was spectacular, like this Court Mantua from about 1755


 and this "Hat Henry" from about 1909.


I also learned that dolls were quite creepy in the 1700s.  This is an English doll.


The dolls got a little less creepy in the 1800s-- the larger item in the picture is a Princess line evening gown from 1878 (see what I mean about how small people had to have been), but in front of it is a Vivienne "fashion" doll from 1865.  Dolls were less creepy as the years went on, but Vivienne is still strange, even if she's fashionable.


There was also a 1920s tennis dress on display, with wooden racquet.


In this section is also the entrance to the Ballgown exhibit-- for which tickets were required, so I went off in search of where I could get one.  This is where my plan for the day started to go awry.

It made sense that tickets were needed to control entry times and crowd. What I didn't realize was how much they would cost-- the Victoria and Albert Museum is free (though, donations are asked for at every turn) but these special exhibitions are not. In fact, they are quite pricey-- the Hollywood Costumes exhibit is around 16 pounds and the ballgown exhibit is only slightly cheaper. Since the Ballgowns are located in the center of the fashion exhibit I had just toured (the fashions form a sort of outer circle around the Ballgowns), I knew it wasn't very big. I don't think it could have taken more than 30 minutes to see-- and that's if you were touring slowly and reading all the informational signs.  It seemed like a lot to spend, which was disappointing because I, like everyone else (seemingly everyone in all of England-- the museum was insanely crowded), had come, at least in part, for the exhibitions (though, everyone else probably researched this better than I did.  I should have explored past the front webpage announcing them.). But, I decided if I was going to spend money for an exhibition, it should be one in a palace (and perhaps a less crowded venue).  I do love a palace-- and England is a good place to be if you are a palace-lover.  So, after lunch in the Victoria and Albert Museum Cafe (also incredibly packed with people), I headed out to Kensington Palace (so, no, I didn't get past the first floor of the V&A.  There is quite a bit I didn't see-- and probably won't.).

Kensington Palace is located in Kensington Park which is attached to Hyde Park (I don't actually know where one ends and the other begins).  Together, the two parks form a very large space, most of which I wound up walking.  But, I started with Kensington Palace, home to several kings and queens as well as the chosen home (if the sign with the photo can be believed) of William and Kate.


Sadly, this is as close as I got to seeing the royal couple. Or any royalty, even though I overheard one of the docents talking about how there are a couple dukes who walk their dogs in Kensington Park, without guards around.  (Then again, I'm not sure if I would recognize a random duke who was walking his dog without security around... so maybe I did see one.)

Kensington Palace has been the home to royalty since the 1600s. Notable royals (notable because there are exhibits dedicated to them) include Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (continuing the theme of the day), Queen Mary II and King William, and King George II and Queen Caroline.  The royal line continues to confuse me-- though I've now been to many palaces which tell the history of royalty in England (and have cataloged a lot of it in previous blogs), I still have a hard time figuring out how they are connected and in what order they came.  The connection, at least, is actually confusing, as I found out as part of my tour of Kensington Palace.  So, really what I've learned from touring palaces and castles is that my confusion is justified, but only because I'm not British. (The Brits all seem to have a solid grasp on the royal lineage and succession.)

From outside, Kensington Palace is probably the most indecorated palace I've been to.  The gates themselves are smaller than most palace gates (and, don't really serve more than a decorative function since you can walk around them).


And, the palace "front" (where you enter to get tickets and tour), is fairly plain, though quite impressively large.


The Kensington Palace tour is divided into three wings-- Victoria Revealed, about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; The Queen's State Apartments, about Queen Mary II and Queen Anne; and the King's State Apartments, about King George II (and Queen Caroline, a little).  (Further adding to my confusion about when they all ruled is the fact that I went backwards in time as I toured-- so Victoria ruled in the 1800s, George in the 1700s, Anne in the earlier 1700s, and Mary near the end of the 1600s.)

Victoria Revealed is told largely through quotes from Victoria's diary.  It's staged in the room where she was thought to be born and on the floor where it is known she lived as a child.  Much of it is hard to photograph, however, because, like many palaces, it's not well lit and there's no flash allowed.  There were exhibits of her clothes as well as the wedding attire from her marriage to Prince Albert.






What is really highlighted is how sad she was after Albert died.  There is a display with the mourning clothes worn by her and the children after his death and an emphasis on how she wore black for the rest of her life and retreated from society after his death.  While there were informational plaques saying she was quite pretty as a young woman, most of the pictures of here were from after Albert's death, when mourning clearly took a toll on her.  The great difference in her before and after Albert's death is a real focus-- and comes to light in a lot of her quotes.

The King's State Apartments is a walk through the Presence Chamber and other receiving rooms.  The staircase is something of a tribute to all the courtiers.


The glass boxes along the railing contain small replicas of different court workers, like the chocolate maker or clergy.  They didn't photograph well individually though.  There is also a mural with a picture of all the actual court member-types


which is explained in a graphic at the top of the staircase.


The first room of the King's State Apartments is the Presence Chamber with George II's throne (which I'm assuming has seen better days-- it's a little worn)





where those seeking an audience with the King would first have to ask.  However, those who really wanted the King's ear had to be allowed to advance farther into the apartment.  How far you could go depended on status.  So, if you were lucky, you could get into the Cupola Room, the scene for nights of dancing and music. 








Or, if you were a really lucky courtier, you could get all the way into the King's drawing room (which was pretty dark-- so not photographed).  What surprised me about both these rooms is that there was almost no furniture, despite the description of the Drawing Room as the place where people engaged in activities like playing cards.  It was forbidden to sit in the presence of the King, so I guess there was no need for furniture. They must have played cards standing up.  It was also quite crowded in these rooms-- they weren't terribly big but the docent told me that there could sometimes be as many as 300 people in them. There wouldn't have been any room for furniture (or dancing, really...), especially since women wore dresses like this.



The dresses themselves had to create space issues.  And, the King's robes had a really long train (which you can sort of see trailing off behind). I wonder if there was a penalty for stepping on it?


The last wing of the Kensington Palace tour is the Queen's State Apartments which includes the "closet" where voices whisper about the 1710 fight between Queen Anne and her friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough while bird cages and tea cups move mysteriously. (I'm not sure how well you can hear the whispering-- people kept noisily walking through while I was trying to record it. It's the hissing noise in the background.)






Following the fight, the Duchess was stripped of her duties and the two women never spoke again.

There is also the dining room.





It's quite small-- but it's where she ate because she and her husband didn't like dining in public (in fact, many monarchs seemed to hate this tradition, which makes me wonder why it continued.  It seems like the kind of thing that lots of more private monarchs could have simply abolished.)

And, finally, the Queen's bedroom, where the heir to James II was born (Mary II died next door to this room).


However, James II's heir was raised Catholic, which was a source of great concern for the Brits, as explained in the plaque.





In fact, that James' heir was Catholic caused people to spread rumors that Mary of Modena's actually baby died and this "imposter" baby had been smuggled in, producing an illegitimate heir.  The people were so afraid of a Catholic monarch, that after Queen Anne died with no successor (Anne had 17 children, only of one of whom survived, and he died at 11. I'm pretty sure the numerous baby chairs in the dining room pictures are memorials to them all.), more than 50 people in line for the throne were passed over, according to the new laws of succession, to find a Protestant king. The docent who explained the chart below to me (he actually did the research to create it) is the person who gives credence to my confusion, especially since this chart doesn't include the children of the people in this line (since the children wouldn't have claim until the parents' deaths), which means that there really were more than 80 people who actually had claim to the throne before George I, who inherited it.


In the bedroom, there is a display created by College of Wimbledon art students-- there's a box representing each of the 50+ people from the chart who had claim to the throne.





They were really quite remarkable, though hard to photograph in the dim room.

After touring the palace exhibits themselves (which confirmed that I do think that a palace is a better expenditure of 15 pounds than a small exhibit of ballgowns, even though I'm sure they were exquisite), I wound up walking most of Kensington and Hyde Parks.

I walked through the Sunken Gardens, which are a part of Kensington Palace, and provide a much more aesthetic photo point for the palace than taking shots of it from out front do.


And, past the statue of Queen Victoria


which is impressive until you get to the memorial she had built to Prince Albert which is hard to get in its entirety, even from far away.  It took 10 years to build.








The pictures don't really do the glittering gold justice.




The statue friezes around it are allegorical-- there are 8 of them, four representing Victorian arts (poetry, painting, architecture, and sculpture) and four representing four continents (Asia, Africa, America, and Europe). This is Asia (I like the expression on the camel.).


From the Prince Albert Memorial, I set off to find the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, for which the signs are not particularly good, so this was a bit of a winding path around Kensington Gardens. The memorial is to the side of the Serpentine, just past the bridge.






The fountain itself is a large "circle" (and a guarded site-- the man in the yellow jacket in the middle is security. He's also helpful at giving directions and later pointed me in the direction of the Hyde Park Corner tube station.)


where water runs downhill from two directions to form a pool.




As you can tell from the pictures, it was starting to get dark (it's pretty much totally dark by 4:45 now), so I decided to head back to find the coach back to Oxford (which was a long walk through most of Hyde park to get to the tube. It's one of the few times when something actually looked closer on the map that it really is. Usually, I find things are much closer than they appear on maps.).  On the way, I passed the carnival rides which are being set up in Hyde Park (though, I didn't take a picture because they're half built so it's really a lot of mud and cranes and pretty unattractive) for Christmas. (This also increased the length of may walk to the tube station since the fastest path would have been through where the carnival was being set up-- but I had to go around.)  Again, I marvel at the Brits dedication to being outdoors no matter the weather-- only they would think outdoor rides that only increase the wind velocity and cold are a good idea in late November and December.

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