Kew Gardens was only lightly populated early one morning last summer when I set off on a habitual circuit: turn right after the Victoria Gate, past the Palm House, through the rock garden, then left to follow the perimeter path to the rhododendron dell and on through the oak collection. The route takes you past the front of Kew Palace (a big name, I always think, for a fairly modest brick house, painted a powerful red, with rather awkward Dutch gables. A ‘palace’ only in being a former royal residence).
That morning there were two young women in long skirts and straw hats standing by the front door. ‘Won’t you walk in, sir?’ said one of them, to my surprise. I turned. Their clothes were a little more than quaint – but their welcome was warm. Walk in I did, to find the house newly decorated and furnished to evoke its most royal era, when it was home to King George III, Queen Charlotte and their fifteen children. The poor king, though, was in seclusion, suffering from porphyria. His physicians had forbidden him his knife and fork, fearing violence. It was an unhappy household.
Light has returned, though, in the house as it has been restored. The palace is celebrating the king’s recovery. The royal knife and fork are back on the table and the original kitchen, marvellously surviving in its original state in the next building, is preparing his favourite dinner: partridge with celery in a cream sauce.
It is a brilliant restoration, master-minded, I understand, by Dr. Lucy Worsley, the TV history presenter who is now curator of the five Historic Royal Palaces. The Queen has lent back to Kew the furniture that was there in Queen Charlotte’s day; the decorations, carpets and curtains are exactly reproduced. The royal silver teapot is beside her chair. The cramped conditions of a big family in a small house are very evident: two unmarried princesses had attic bedrooms like maids. And ghostly voices recall moments in the house’s history; very poignantly the Prince of Wales comforting his mother, dying in her bedroom.
It is a giant step beyond Son et Lumière, this intimate evocation of history. It adds a quite unexpected dimension to a visit to Kew. Perhaps one day we shall be able to follow the great directors, William Aiton and the Hookers, directing the planting of their trees.