LONDON — Kensington Palace, home to Queen Victoria and Princess Diana in the past and from next year to Prince William and his wife Catherine, reopens to the public Monday after extensive renovation.
Fringed by manicured gardens, the red-brick palace in central London has borne witness to both the high politics and intimate personal lives of the British monarchy for more than 300 years.
Visitors — who officials hope will come in droves during a summer in which London hosts both the Olympic Games and celebrations for the queen’s Diamond Jubilee — can explore dozens of rooms in the spruced-up palace.
“When you come here, you meet four different centuries of the royal family,” chief curator Lucy Worsley told AFP, unveiling the results of the two-year, Â£12 million ($19 million, 14.5 million euros) makeover.
Of course, the 407-year-old building is anything but brand new — but curators have used innovative methods, including light projections and ‘whispering’ curtains, to bring its rich history to life.
In contrast to the imposing splendour of Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s main residence, the smaller Kensington Palace has offered something resembling cosiness to the British monarchy.
Visitors hoping to snoop around the former living quarters of Prince Charles’ former wife Diana or the future home of their son William and his bride, however, will be sorely disappointed.
The lavish Apartment 1A of the palace, which William and the former Kate Middleton will occupy from 2013, is carefully protected from tourists’ prying eyes, as are the apartments where Diana lived until her death in 1997.
And while the palace was surrounded by a sea of mourners’ flowers after Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris, today it houses only a small tribute to the “people’s princess” in a tiny room at the end of a corridor.
Five of Diana’s dresses are on display, from a long black tafetta gown by David Emanuel she wore in 1981 for her first public engagement with Prince Charles, to a slinky mini-dress designed by her friend Gianni Versace in 1995.
“We’ve got wonderful examples of how Diana’s style evolved over the years — and examples of clothing that she wore as a much more confident and stylish princess,” said Alexandra Kim, curator of the Royal Dress Collection.
On one wall a large photograph of Diana, taken in 1997 by Mario Testino, provides an unusually carefree snapshot of a laughing princess.
Opposite, by the same photographer, hangs an engagement portrait of her son with Catherine, the daughter-in-law she never met.
With their first wedding anniversary approaching next month, the British press has turned quickly to whether the couple will try to have a baby — a question that seems to resonate through the palace’s centuries of history.
The palace’s first residents William III and Mary II, who bought the building in 1689, were childless — so the crown passed to Mary’s sister Anne, who despite 18 pregnancies produced just one living son and heir, but he tragically died aged 11.
An installation of 18 tiny chairs is a haunting reminder of the family’s sorrow, while a “soundscape” of whispering curtains reminds visitors of the constant presence of court gossip through the ages.
Kensington Palace was also the setting for the lonely childhood of the future Queen Victoria, who was under constant surveillance as a young princess and was not even allowed to use their stairs without assistance.
Britain’s longest-reigning monarch is often depicted as a severe old woman in mourning dress — but a new exhibition paints her as full of vitality before her beloved husband Prince Albert died in 1861.
Projections of her tender words about the prince, as well as the elegant jewels he gave her, all bring their famous love story to life.
“Victoria’s character is full of surprises,” said curator Deirdre Murphy. “She loved dancing, she loved parties. If visitors come out with a different image of Queen Victoria, then we’ll have succeeded.”
The company that manages the palace hopes to attract 380,000 visitors a year, compared to 280,000 before the renovation.