Kew Palace: restoring a Georgian royal residence

Lee Prosser, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, tells us about the archaeology of a Georgian royal palace.


Kew Gardens are world famous for their plant collections. But the 325-acre site also contains 40 listed buildings and two scheduled ancient monuments. The gardens are the site of three Georgian royal palaces – Richmond Lodge (demolished 1772), the White House (demolished 1802 and the target of a Time Team dig in 2002), and the Dutch House (still standing and now known as Kew Palace). Though open to visitors until the mid-1990s, Kew Palace has since been closed. Visitors, intrigued by the four-storey, gabled, redbrick house, have been left rattling on locked doors and peering through ground-floor windows. That is set to change. Thanks to a £1.6 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, conservators are at work preparing the house for reopening in 2006. Meantime, the often inappropriate 1960s ‘restoration’ having been stripped away, the house has given up new secrets. Lee Prosser, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, tells us about the archaeology of a Georgian royal palace.

The south front of Kew Palace as it appears today after application of a coloured lime-wash treatment in 1999. New research has revealed fascinating evidence of earlier decorative schemes.

Kew Palace was built in 1631 as a riverside villa for a wealthy merchant couple of Huguenot descent, Samuel and Catherine Fortrey. After almost a century in private hands, the house was taken over by the royal family to form part of a large royal compound for much of the 18th century. It was in this building that King George III and his son George IV were educated. Later, as a private place, away from the public gaze, it was a perfect location in which to confine George III during his apparent insanity, now known to be a symptom of porphyria, an illness in which the body produces too much of the chemical porphyrin, leading to pain, cramps, hallucinations, seizures, depression, anxiety, paranoia … and the purple-red urine featured in the film The Madness of King George. Even with this distressing association, the domestic intimacy of the house and the beauty of the historic gardens were treasured by the royal family, and the Queen continued to retreat to her ‘beloved Kew’ until her death at the palace in 1818.

My interest as an archaeologist lies in the fact that a large part of the palace has remained lost in a time warp; never used, it remained unaltered and unseen for over 200 years. Furthermore, no one has ever looked closely at what survives.

An evaluation trench put across the area of the lost wing of the palace, to the west of the standing building. The trench uncovered shallow remains of a small 18th-century building, which housed George III during his illness. 
The star of the archaeological evaluation was an intact bottle that once contained mineral water known as Eau Rouge, which comes from an iron-rich spring in Pouhon in Spa (modern Belgium). It dates from the late 18th or early 19th century.

The conservation project began with a blank canvas, relying on little more than the official guide-book and our own eyes to understand the building and its history.

Visitors who came last time the palace was open might remember the elegant 18th-century style, colourful wallpapers, gilding and honey-coloured pine floors in the public areas. In fact, this was a 1960s interpretation, with little authenticity, and when the building was closed for extensive repairs in the mid-1990s, these additions were removed, revealing the ‘bare bones’ of the building and allowing a once-in-a-lifetime chance for detailed archaeological investigation and documentary research. The results have been astounding, transforming our knowledge of an architectural gem.

A 1970s postcard of the ‘King’s Bedroom’ at Kew Palace. In fact, Princess Elizabeth slept here in the early 19th century. This view shows the room as redecorated in 18thcentury style in the late 1960s. 

There are some 22 rooms in the palace, as well as staircases, a vaulted cellar (a relic of the Tudor predecessor of the house), and a large, open attic. Each room preserves something unique. Take Princess Elizabeth’s Bedroom on the north-west side of the house, for instance. Once its 1960s red-and-black wallpaper had been removed, a rich historical sequence was revealed, with scraps of early 19th-century bright green and yellow colour over a panelling framework. Beneath this, brick, plaster and timber from the early 17th century were found preserved intact, including the truncated ends of a smoke hood, now hidden by an elegant Regency chimney-piece. Elsewhere, large areas of 17th and 18th-century panelling survive, some even with contemporary paint schemes, so that we are able to appreciate the bright pink and beige that King George and his daughters would have known. Even ephemeral fixtures like locks, hinges, latches, shutters, dog-gates, stair balustrades and mouldings, which have long since been swept away elsewhere, are almost entirely preserved.

Princess Elizabeth’s Bedroom as it appears at the present time, stripped of modern decorative finishes and revealing much earlier building archaeology.

We have been forced to rely on the archaeology. Unlike other palaces, Kew is poorly documented and accounts of paint schemes and furnishings simply do not survive. However, the wealth of surviving fabric more than makes up for this. There have also been surprise discoveries. The original 17th-century roof survives remarkably intact beneath later alterations and enlargement and, while disentangling the sequence, one of our first discoveries was of a series of early 17th-century ritual witches’ marks, which had been overlooked in all previous investigations. The period when the house was first built was marked by a deep sense of superstition. King James I even believed that witches, or their animal familiars (in the form of cats, frogs and toads), could come into a building and curse or bewitch the occupants. Placing carved or scorched marks on timbers at strategic points such as windows and chimneys was believed to ward off the threat. Through them, we get the briefest glimpse into the beliefs of the servants who lived and worked here.

An artist’s impression of Princess Elizabeth’s bedroom, as it is intended to appear after the re-presentation. Artist: Robin Wyatt, © Historic Royal Palaces.
Princess Amelia’s Bedroom. This long-abandoned room on the second floor has remained little touched since 1818. It is intended to open it to the public for the first time, without spoiling its aged patina. 

Paint research has been a valuable tool, answering many questions about both decoration and date – from the revelation that some of the Jacobean strap-work was originally brightly painted and gilt, to the discovery that several features are actually clever 1960s additions. So the essential layering of the house, and the sequence of its history, is gradually becoming clearer. In 1999, Historic Royal Palaces painted the exterior with coloured limewash, after discovering original colour pigments that had been protected behind a rainwater hopper (a funnel which collects rainwater from gutters and discharges it down drainpipes). Before this was done, a detailed investigation was carried out that revealed how extensive the previous repairs to the famous Flemish bondwork bricks had been.

A sample of paint. Princess Amelia’s Bedroom has yielded important information on paint and decorative history.

This wallpaper sample, showing a Greek key border, dates from 1804 and has been used as a pattern for the re-presentation of several rooms in the palace.
Traditional coloured lime-wash being applied to the bricks in 1999.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew houses a number of interesting buildings, aside from its unparalleled collections of plants and trees. A good introduction is Ray Desmond’s The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (The Harvill Press with RBGK, 1995). Due out in 2006 is a new book, Royal Kew – The Official Illustrated History, published by Merrell.

Lee Prosser ( Curator, Historic Royal Palaces Apartment 25, Hampton Court Palace, Surrey KT8 9AU