My favorite room
Princess Michael of Kent

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 42

My favorite room
Princess Michael of Kent

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 42

A party in the splendid King's Gallery at Kensington Palace did not turn out as Princess Michael of Kent planned

In 1688, Prince William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart, elder daughter of the exiled King James II, arrived in London as the country's new rulers. William abandoned Whitehall Palace on the Thames because of his asthma and bought Nottingham House, situated on a rise by the village of Kensington, known for its good air. The royal couple employed Christopher Wren, Surveyor of the King's Works, to improve and expand the old Jacobean house, and the royal court moved to what was now called Kensington House.

The architect William Kent introduced the building's main feature: a first-floor gallery, the largest and longest of the state apartments. It was intended for the finest pictures in the King's collection. Magnificent paintings still hang there on scarlet silk damask, dominated by a copy of Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I on horseback. One wall features a parade of arched windows, now facing east onto the Round Pond and the statue of Queen Victoria in Kensington Gardens. This has to be my favorite room.

When my husband asked what I would like for a 'big birthday', I decided I wanted to share a staging of Tosca there with our family and friends. We would sit in the King's Gallery, which would glow red in the summer evening light, our 50 guests listening to an opera ensemble perform Puccini's dramatic and tragic score. I told our two children the passionate story – especially about the dramatic finale, when the eponymous heroine finds her lover shot by real bullets, not the fakes they had planned, and soldiers come for her; how she defies them and jumps to her death.

In most opera houses, deep mattresses are hung beneath the set's ramparts, and Tosca completes her dramatic aria as she jumps. How would it work in the King's Gallery? Perhaps from the central window onto mattresses on scaffolding underneath? How splendid if Floria Tosca's last note could hang in the air as she jumped out of the King's scarlet gallery to her (mattress) death! The children and I plotted with the ensemble's leader. I was told it was organized and not to say a word.

The July weather was glorious, the gallery subtly lit and, with just one piano to accompany the singers, all went as planned. In the final act, just as Tosca urges her lover to get up from where he has feigned death, she realizes he really has been shot. The soldiers are coming, she runs, singing her final great aria. Will she rush to the open window? No, the soldiers reach her and she falls on their bayonets instead. Imagine our disappointment after all that talk of jumping out of the window. There was no 'health and safety' in those days to stop it happening. Or perhaps there was.

And so the King's glorious red gallery played host to a great evening despite the slight disappointment. Perhaps it was the same for King William. Eight years after the death of Queen Mary, he was brought back to Kensington Palace with a broken collarbone after falling from his horse. He installed himself on a settee opposite the map of Europe he had had painted over the chimney piece in the middle of his gallery – where 'my' Tosca met her end. This strange map, with England depicted as large as France, has a weathervane operated from the roof which still indicates today how long it would take a ship bringing post from Holland to arrive. Homesick and missing his dear wife and beloved country, there William died in 1702.

Princess Michael of Kent's latest historical novel is Quicksilver.

Kensington Palace, London W8 is open to the public: hrp.org.uk.

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