Kensington Palace is down the road from the Radio Times offices, and I have cycled past its grand facade dozens of times without getting off my bike and going inside.
Last week I finally did, having suddenly developed an interest in royal history thanks to ITV’s sumptuous period drama Victoria (out on DVD today). After all, this was where she grew up and it currently has a tantalising-sounding exhibition if, like me, you’ve been wondering how much of the drama is poetic licence: Victoria Revealed.
Residing at the western end of Hyde Park, Kensington Palace first opened its doors to the public on Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday on 24th May 1899, and it’s been both a tourist attraction and a royal home ever since. Nowadays the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have apartments here, as well as other younger members of the royal family.
The museum part includes the Red Saloon, where Queen Victoria held her first privy council at the tender age of 18, and the room where she was born. Victoria Revealed is a collection of the monarch’s portraits, frocks and personal objects, including toys and jewellery.
Let’s start with the loudest criticism levelled at Jenna Coleman: she’s too beautiful to play Victoria. Well, the real queen might not have boasted Coleman’s enviable bone structure, but the early portraits reveal that she was pretty in her youth. In the Red Saloon, there’s a painting of that first privy council and she looks every bit as gracious as Coleman did in episode one.
It turns out the real Victoria could also be a minx. One of her gifts to Albert was a portrait of herself in a nightgown, hair tumbling down her shoulders. It’s a stark contrast to the buttoned up official portraits – this was the 19th century equivalent of sexting.
And like Tom Hughes, Prince Albert was a dish. Next to that saucy portrait is one of his gifts to her: a bust of his handsome head and naked shoulders. Egotistical? Definitely. Sexy? The cheekbones and muscular shoulders do it for me.
Victoria was also a bit of a fashionista. Very little of her wardrobe has survived, but one of the few pieces that has is on display: a gorgeous off-the-shoulder party dress with a tiny waist, delicately embroidered with flowers and leaves.
The curator of the exhibition, Deirdre Murphy, tells me that it was Victoria who began the fashion for white wedding dresses. Before she married, brides simply wore their best dress without worrying what colour it was. Not wanting to hog all the attention, Victoria opted for a demure ivory-silk wedding dress with a long train, and it’s been the wedding dress of choice for brides ever since. Sadly that’s not on display but you can admire her resplendent gold coronation gown (yes, it’s real gold).
Queen Victoria’s coronation gown
Like the current Duchess of Cambridge, Victoria made a point of supporting British designers and manufacturers. Every garment she wore in public was British, although she had a penchant for French silk stockings in private. Because newspapers and commemorative prints were increasingly cheap to print, she was one of the first global celebrities and her outfits were feverishly reported on. Like Kate Middleton and Princess Diana before her, she learned to carefully control her image and use it to her advantage.
Of course, the most pressing question is: Did Victoria really propose to her prime minister Lord Melbourne? Well, historians say it’s very unlikely and there’s no evidence of it. Nor is it so easy to believe when faced with the portrait of Melbourne in this exhibition: He had lovely twinkly eyes but he was no Rufus Sewell.
Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert
Murphy’s eyes also twinkle when I ask her opinion: “I don’t know if I have the answer to that question”. But she confirms that there were rumours of a romance between the Queen and her PM in the early years of her reign.
She also reveals that Victoria relied on him for sartorial advice as well as counsel on matters of state importance. When Albert came on the scene, he became her stylist instead; she once said that she never put on a bonnet without his approval. Indeed, Albert was a man of many talents: he designed tartan and jewellery and might even have created some of Victoria’s garments.
So, how accurate is it overall? Murphy – who’s also been glued to ITV on Sunday nights – says she’s been very impressed by the attention to detail. Indeed, eagle-eyed viewers will recognise plenty: the collection of wooden peg dolls with painted faces; the portrait of her beloved spaniel Dash; the red and navy riding outfit (known as the “Windsor uniform”) that Coleman wore in episode three.
Throughout the exhibition, sentences that Victoria and Albert wrote to and about each other are inscribed on walls and mirrors, including her heartbreaking description of his last moments. From that day on, Victoria wore black and one of her stout mourning dresses is on display. It’s hard to believe that it belonged to the same woman who wore that teeny party dress.
Victoria is distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment and is available on DVD and digital download from 10 October
Radio Times offer:
Diana: Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palace, Windsor and B&B from £125pp. 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. And, opening in February 2017, a new exhibition at Kensington Palace will celebrate her life and the evolution of her image and style. What’s included: Entry to Kensington Palace and the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition, a visit to Royal Windsor, one night’s bed and English breakfast accommodation in a three-star standard hotel in London, coach travel throughout and the services of a friendly Tour Manager. Click here for more details and to book.