Kew Palace

Kew Palace exterior, showing the new timber-clad lift shaft. The brickwork is painted with limewash coloured with brick dust in imitation of the eighteenth-century decorative scheme
©Historic Royal Palaces
A craftsman completes work on the rare 1630s plaster ceiling depicting a ‘banquet of the senses’ in the Queen’s Boudoir
©Historic Royal Palaces

Region: London

Local Authority: Richmond upon Thames

Summary: Kew Palace was re-opened to the public in 2006 on completion of a major project by Historic Royal Palaces to conserve its interiors and improve public access.

Description: Kew Palace, a three-storey red brick house with Dutch gables, stands at the north end of Kew Gardens.  It is listed grade I and a scheduled ancient monument, and is managed by Historic Royal Palaces.  It was built in 1631 by Samuel Fortrey, a Flemish merchant, as his private villa beside the Thames.  It first attracted the royal family’s notice in 1729, as a lodging for George II’s daughters.  When his grandson George III became ill with porphyria in 1788, Kew became his refuge, and from 1801-1818 the royal family lived there in virtual seclusion during his recurrent bouts of illness. It then fell out of use, and after a long period of neglect, was repaired and opened to the public by Queen Victoria in 1898.
Issue: External repairs and limewashing were completed in 1997, but the interior needed major refurbishment.  A key requirement of the project was to facilitate access into and around the interior of the building. The provision of lift access posed a dilemma. An internal lift shaft would have compromised both the Palace's significant historic fabric and the internal circulation. An external shaft had to be considered in relation to its physical impact on the highly significant 1630s brickwork (Kew Palace is one of the earliest examples of Flemish-bond brickwork in the country) and to its visual impact on key views of the Palace.

Consultation throughout the project with English Heritage influenced the design approach to internal presentation and access issues which respected the Palace's historic development and its garden setting.  The project successfully addressed three important areas: access, conservation and setting.  An external inclined approach discreetly inserted at the front of the building, leading to the ground-floor entrance.  An external platform lift, on the site of modern external steps at the side of the building, provides access to the basement without impacting greatly on the principal view of the Palace. Access to the upper floors was achieved by the introduction of a new lift on the site of an eighteenth-century water closet shaft and ground-floor extension which had been demolished in the 1880s. Historically, openings had been made through the west side wall of the Palace at all levels, so re-using them merely involved unpicking 1880s brickwork. Sight-line studies had confirmed that a lift would not dominate key views within Kew Gardens. The lead detailing of the external lift shaft was refined to avoid intricate brick detailing and the protrusion of the motor room above the second floor cornice. The lost water closet shaft had been timber-clad, and this was reflected in the use of untreated oak cladding to the lift shaft, used in a modern way to weather naturally and blend with its garden setting.

Finishing and fine work to the interior could not commence until a grant of £1.6m had been secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2004. A re-creation of the interiors from archaeological and archival sources, where available, was combined with the imaginative use of audio-visual installations, to produce a lively interpretation of royal life in the Palace in the early nineteenth century. The ground and first floor rooms have new paintwork and textiles as a setting to new displays of paintings and furniture principally from the Royal Collection. One wall in Princess Elizabeth's bedroom was left with exposed archaeology revealing parts of the 1630s structure. On the second floor, 200-year-old painted surfaces have survived virtually untouched, and are shown to visitors as part of a study centre.

A 1920s brick toilet block nearby was extended and adapted to include a new welcome centre for ticketing and interpretation to prevent modern clutter from encroaching into the Palace. The opportunity was also taken to re-landscape the immediate surroundings in Kew Gardens to retrieve something of the earlier nineteenth-century design.

Outcome: The refurbishment of Kew Palace was done with great attention to detail, creating a fully accessible, historically accurate re-presentation of the house at the time of George III, and reopening the house to the public after many years.  The project was awarded the 2007 Museums and Heritage Award for excellence in conservation and the 2007 RICS London Region Award for Building Conservation. It was also the RICS overall regional winner and the recipient of the Building Conservation Grand Final RICS Award.


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