Elizabeth I, Regina: the woman of many portraits.
The portraits of Elizabeth I as a young woman are grave and, if not beautiful, certainly graceful; the older ones increasingly cover up a visage Oriana wanted no-one to see. Her make-up ever thicker, she used every inch of her power and wealth to portray herself as young and beautiful, even when she was old and withering physically.
Because her persona was iron-strong until her death.
We are much used, here in England, to seeing our history similarly artfully dressed.
She wears a low-cut bodice and flutters a fan back and forth so that worldly visitors to the islands might see her to her best advantage.
Thus our great castles are window-dressed with reconstructed tapestries and well-researched brand-new ancient artefacts; the old damp walls are carefully restored and repainted so that we might feel the time which has passed under History’s feet.
Our old houses are arranged so that the original nestles alongside the replica, and unless we are very crafty we will not even see the joins.
History’s make up is thick lead. It whitens her lovely features, and hides from us her wrinkles and a body which shows signs of ageing. Her experience is all. We all stand in awe of her, with her feet planted in the iron age and a head craning to make out the future.
Just occasionally, if you are very lucky indeed, you will catch her without make up, in her chemise, an honest unvarnished woman.
And today, I did just that.
I paid a Queen’s ransom to get into Kew Gardens, for one day only. Because within the gardens is a gem indeed: it is called Kew Palace, though it is just a country manor in reality.
And it is the place that fated King, George III, was happiest.
Four palaces have taken up residence on this spot on the river at Kew. This fourth – The Dutch House, as it was known- is a modest place : the walls speak of home. Here George lived with his wife Queen Charlotte, and 15 children. Here, despite the trials of the king”s illness -now thought to be a blood disease, porphyria, but which manifested itself as increasingly recurrent bouts of mental illness – here, they were happy.
Perhaps the happiness seeped into the walls. The little house has always been beloved of monarchs. Queen Victoria had it opened to the nation; the second Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday party was held there.
Days after her party, in 2006, it was thrown open to the public once more after a ten-year restoration.
Two floors are beautifully presented: arranged with sound recordings and snippets of film to tell the story of the house’s history. Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which also runs Hampton Court, has once again woven its magic with this little gem.
But what a bold choice HRP has made for the third floor.
A guide took me aside as I headed enthusiastically up the staircase. “You’ll find the third floor quite different,” she said seriously.
The rooms on the third floor were used for the two princesses, Princesses Augusta and Amelia. They ceased to be used in 1816: and throughout Kew Palace’s open-door times, this floor was never opened to the public.
For two hundred years, these rooms were mothballed.
HRP has decided not to dress them artfully, but to show them as they were. In their proverbial chemise, with no make up.
And the result blindsides you, as you walk up the stairs. The beauty of the battered panels and staircases outstrips by far the grandeur of the lower floors.
For this is history undressed.
Take a look: the pictures of the second floor come first; the lower floors second.