How rebirth of Kew Palace sets seal on Britain's own 'chateau valley'

It's the forgotten jewel of the Thames, the favourite haunt of George III. Now Kew Palace is to be lovingly restored, says Michael McCarthy
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The Independent Online

It's small and it's almost forgotten, but it's a jewel. And now Kew Palace, the most intimate of English royal residences, is to be brought back into the light.

It's small and it's almost forgotten, but it's a jewel. And now Kew Palace, the most intimate of English royal residences, is to be brought back into the light.

An ambitious £6.6m restoration project is to repair and reopen the west London, Thames-side home of George III, where the monarch who went mad came to recover from his bouts of mental illness.

But the restoration of the diminutive palace, which sits in a corner of the Royal Botanic Gardens, will mean more than the rediscovery of one charming building with a captivating past.

It will set the seal on Britain's most remarkable collection of great houses, clustered together on one 10-mile stretch of river.

You could call it the Thames Heritage Corridor, if you like. You could, because at present nobody calls it anything.

There are nearly a dozen palaces and stately homes along this single reach of river where the Thames turns to flow northwards from Hampton Court to Kew Bridge, and they represent Britain's equivalent of the chateaux of the Loire: ancient noblemen's houses gracefully sited at the water's edge, just like Chambord and Azay-le-Rideau.

Yet in sharp contrast to their French counterparts, they are hardly ever thought of as an ensemble. There is no focus on them as a group, no ticket that lets you visit them all, no waterbus to carry you the easy distances from one to another, and what a summer's afternoon that would be...

Perhaps the forthcoming restoration will change things. It was announced yesterday by Historic Royal Palaces, the charity set up six years ago to manage the unoccupied royal residences of the Tower of London, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, the Banqueting House and Kew Palace.

Kew is very much the baby of the family. "The other great palaces have long enjoyed national and indeed world recognition, but Kew Palace has rather hidden its light under a bushel," Sir Nigel Mobbs, the chairman of Historic Royal Palaces, said.

The palace, originally built in 1631 as the home for a wealthy merchant, Samuel Fortrey, is all that remains of the once-extensive complex of royal buildings at Kew, which played a central role in the domestic life of the Georgian monarchy.

Its most poignant associations, which will be vividly recreated in the restoration, are with George III.

The young king was educated at Kew, a favourite home of his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, but it became of most importance for him during the bouts of demented behaviour - now thought to have been porphyria - which his subjects thought of merely as madness. The situation was dramatically portrayed by Alan Bennett in his play The Madness of George III, (later filmed as The Madness of King George with Nigel Hawthorne in the title role).

After two bad breakdowns, in 1801 and 1804, the monarch came to Kew to recover in surroundings where he had spent happy times as a boy. For much of the rest of his life Kew Palace was the country home for the King and his beloved queen, Charlotte, until she herself died in 1818. That year, a room in the palace was used for the wedding of the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, whose daughter ascended the throne as Queen Victoria.

It was Queen Victoria who allowed Kew Palace to be opened to the public 1899, but since then it has had a chequered history and not much money or effort has been spent upon it; it was closed in 1996 for major structural and exterior repairs.

These are now complete, and the brick building with its distinctive curved Dutch gables has been given a coat of ochre-coloured limewash to match its original appearance. The project announced yesterday will entirely transform the interior of the palace, especially the upper floors, which have never been open to the public and remain - somewhat spookily - very much as they were in George III's time, untouched since Queen Charlotte died.

The aim will be to recreate the king's domestic interior, by combining painstaking research of early 19th-century decor with modern interpretive techniques. A number of personal momentos of George III will be on display, including a turquoise silk damask waistcoat worn by the monarch and specially adapted to make it easier for him to be dressed in periods of irrationality.

There will also be a wax life-cast of him, created from the mould made by Madame Tussaud herself (the originator of the waxworks). It has been recast and is so lifelike it stops you short.

But the theme will not simply be the king's illness: George III was a man with a surprising range of interests, from the music of Handel to farming techniques and the workings of clocks, and they will all be explored.

While the attraction of many royal palaces is grandeur, it is, perhaps paradoxically, the intimate quality of Kew which most excites those involved with the restoration.

"It's the domestic feel that is so attractive. You don't have that at Hampton Court," said Dr Lucy Worsley, the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces. "Hampton Court is about the king being in his place and ambassadors approaching him through grand state rooms - the public face of royalty. Kew shows you the royal family as men and women like other people. You can easily imagine their domestic life taking place here."

Dr Worsley added: "I think it's fantastic, a building full of stories. We want to retell them so the public can appreciate them."

Yesterday the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced a £1.6m grant towards the restoration. "For years Kew Palace has been a hidden treasure, tucked away from the crowds of visitors to Kew Gardens," said Valerie Bott, a member of the HLF London Committee. "We are thrilled to support a project which opens up this historic house again for everyone's enjoyment."

Historic Royal Palaces is putting in £2.5m of its own money and has secured another £1m towards the project from private benefactors, leaving £1.5m to be found from other sources. Yesterday an appeal campaign was launched by the deputy chairman, Lord Inge (formerly Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, chief of the Defence Staff).

"It's a wonderful gem," Lord Inge said. "It's the smallest royal palace, but it's the most quirky and intriguing. It's one of the nation's unknown jewels."

The restoration is scheduled for completion in 2006. Then, were you so minded - and let us say the waterbus was available on a sunny summer's afternoon - you could set out on a full tour of the Great Houses of the Thames, Britain's rivals to those Loire chateaux.

You would cross from Kew, on the Surrey bank, to Syon House on the Middlesex side of the river, Robert Adam's harmonious home for the Dukes of Northumberland, set in beautiful grounds laid out by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.

You would then cross back to the King's Observatory in the Old Deer Park (having applied in writing to visit), and continue along the Surrey bank to look at the noble remains of Richmond Palace, where three sovereigns of England died (Edward III, Henry VII and Elizabeth I).

Then you would sail back to Middlesex to gaze on the classical splendour of Marble Hill House, built by George II for his mistress, and cross back to wander through the wonderful rooms and gardens of Ham House, the country home of one of Charles II's most flamboyant courtiers.

Back again in Middlesex you could look on the octagon-shaped gallery of Orleans House in Twickenham, and a few hundred yards further on, the 17th-century York House with its remarkable fountain (get those water nymphs).

Beyond the town, you would come to Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's fantasy of a medieval castle, built in the 18th century. And then, sailing serenely on through wooded riverbanks - apart from the urban interruption of Kingston upon Thames, which soon passes - you would come to Hampton Court, the daddy of them all.

Who said the Loire was unique?

Yet this is a journey that nobody does because no one seems to have thought of it yet. Perhaps the welcome rebirth of Kew Palace will set people thinking.