A merchants house with Royal pretentions; Kew Palace

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With 44 listed buildings the UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Botanic Gardens at Kew  have no shortage in interesting sites to visit, even if you aren’t that fussed about plants and trees. There has long been a royal connection to this area, Richmond Palace stood just south of the current botanical gardens. It was the Georgians who re-connected with this area when George II decided on Kew as a suitable location to escape the capital. The now demolished Richmond Lodge was used by the King and Queen, and various offspring were housed in a selection of other buildings. One of the buildings that was put into service in this way was the little red brick mansion now known as Kew Palace.

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Kew Palace was built in 1641 for a Flemish merchant, Simon Fortrey, as a country house and was of course conveniently situated for a city businessman. The style of the exterior clearly references Fortreys heritage in a playful way and it has remained relatively intact. When George II and Queen Caroline decided on Kew as a location to get away from the city they thought the old red brick house would provide an ideal accommodation for their three elders daughters.  Opposite the Flemish house stood the White Palace where Frederick, the Prince of Wales would reside. After his unexpected death his widow, Princess Augusta, continued the developement of the gardens at Kew, employing William Chambers to design many of its striking features such as the Chinese Pagoda.

George III and his family frequently used the site, and he also underwent regular  forced incarcerations at the white palace during his bouts of madness. It is no wonder then that he engaged james Wyatt in 1800 to replace the white palace which had such uncomfortable associations for him. Wyatt designed a Gothic fantasy castle, only the shell of which was ever completed but was later swept away.

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Queen Charlotte was taken ill on a journey to Windsor and had to stop off at Kew where she eventually died there in 1818. After this period the house went into a deep sleep for nearly two centuries, only to re-open after restoration in 2006.

The interior of Kew Palace is very interesting. Although officially a palace as it was a royal residence, it was clearly not intended for grand occasions and official functions. Therefore there was never a need to create a grand impression or a big statement, comfort was paramount. Many features of Fortreys house still survive in the interior such as panelling and ceilings, although much has been moved around.

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For the recent restoration project the first floor was restored and furnished period when Queen Charlotte and her unmarried daughters occupied various rooms in the palace. The striking colour scheme of green verditer wallpaper with a Greek key pattern border combined with yellow fabrics is all based on detailed research of the house and related archives.

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The Queens Drawing Room still contains the large mantelpiece that would have been commissioned by Simon Fortrey, and some early panelling as well. This room was the backdrop for an unusual scene on 11 July 1818 when a double marriage was hastily organised to ensure there would be an heir to inherit the throne after Princess Charlotte the only legitimate child of the later George IV died in childbirth. William, Duke of Clarence, and Edward,Duke of Kent were paired off with German Princesses and the latter eventually ensured the future of the Hanoverian dynasty by fathering Victoria. It was Queen Victoria that would eventually give Kew to the nation.

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Princess Elizabeth’s bedroom is an elegant exercise in restraint. The shape of the room was altered by creating arched alcoves on its four sides in the manner of Sir John Soane. The bed is a re-creation of one described in 1805 as a Grecian couch-bed.

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Although the first floor is a testament to the efforts of the researchers and conservators involved, for me the real magic of Kew can be found on the second and third floor. Here the rooms have been left untouched and empty, and they evoke a much stronger sense of history than any reconstruction could ever do. The faded drab colours, the jumble of old panelling and the bare floorboards are a rare find in a royal residence, and should be cherished all the more for it.

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The smallest royal residence is a jewel in the already rich crown of Kew Gardens, long may it continue to surprise visitors.

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