Kensington Palace: Art, Architecture and Society by Olivia Fryman (editor)

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Kensington Palace: Art, Architecture and Society is a hard covered book approximately 25 x 29cm in size and 3 cm thick. It weighs around 2.35kg, designating it to become a coffee table book, and is encased in a paper jacket which contains a brief history of Kensington Palace which is renowned for its architecture, historic interiors, internationally important collections and its many royal residents.

The reader is taken over 300 years of almost continuous royal occupation through this home of some of the most influential members of the Royal family and scenes of great events. The Doomsday Book records in 1086 describe the manor of Kensington as ‘land for 10 ploughs, meadow, woodland, pasture, 200 pigs and 3 ‘arpents’ of vines’ (11). Kensington Palace was dramatically rebuilt by Christopher Wren for the newly crowned monarchs, William III and Mary II, and then became the favourite home of five sovereigns. Over the years it survived fires, partial collapse, bombings and periods of neglect requiring continuing structural work and refurbishment. Henry VIII had the idea for a hunting park which resulted in the creation of Hyde Park. Queen Caroline, wife of George II, had the gardens recast to become one of the nation’s ‘earliest naturalistic landscape parks’ (1). Queen Victoria recognized the national significance of her birthplace and childhood home, turning the palace into her own memorial as well as a home for members of her extended family and their descendants.

In 1899 the State Apartments were opened up to the nation and, since then, the palace has served as a historic visitor attraction in one form or another.  It became the home of the London Museum until 1975 and today houses the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. After the death of Princess Diana this collection became world-renowned and today attracts over 600,000 visitors a year. Since the year 2000 the collection has been renewed yearly. An ambitious program of presentations, exhibitions, and conservation work has been planned for future years which should ensure that Kensington’s history – both as a visitor’s attraction and a living palace – will continue to evolve for many years to come.

The book has been set out beautifully with clearly marked segments making it easy for the reader to spend short periods of time perusing the contents on many occasions.

The title page is followed by an appropriate double page photograph of Kensington Palace.  Following pages acknowledge the six writers of the various chapters, the editor and the writer of the Foreword. The book is dedicated to the memory of Deirdre Murphy 1975-2018, internationally renowned expert on the early life of Queen Victoria and senior curator at Kensington Palace who organized a number of high profile exhibitions and representations. She contributed much to this book through her knowledge and her involvement in four of the chapters presented.

After the Foreword, Acknowledgement and Introduction the book is divided into 5 parts, containing two to four chapters. Each new chapter commences on an odd number page and is accompanied by a full-page picture to its left whereas each new part has a title page only with its opposite page a blank sheet. The titles pages for each section have wording in upper case letters with the first letter being in a large flowing font.

Part 1 – KENSINGTON BEFORE THE PALACE is made up of two chapters, the first Kensington before 1600 which is followed by The Making of a London Suburb.

Part 2 – A ROYAL HOME contains chapters 3-5 with titles of: ‘A Patch’d Building, but …a very sweet villa’, which is about Sir Christopher Wren and the building of Kensington; ‘Very Noble tho not greate’, which focusses on the making of the new court for William, Mary and Anne and ‘All the elegancies of art’, the Baroque Garden.

Part 3 – This section is about GEORGIAN KENSINGTON with chapter 6 covering George I at Kensington from personal rule to parliamentary politics. The following chapters in this section address The Hub of Fashionable Society; ‘The good air, the gardens and the fine prospect’ – the landscape gardens and ‘For his Majesties service’ which looks at the household below stairs 1689 – 1760.

Part 4 – THE AUNT HEAP (home for homeless royals) – the term used to describe the palace by Edward III – is divided into three chapters which comprise Apartments for the Royal Family – 1790 -1848; ‘I like this poor Palace’ which covers Victoria’s childhood; and ‘Kensington to the core’ covering the Palace Community from 1860 – 1940.

Part 5 – PUBLIC ATTRACTION AND PRIVATE HOME looks at Neglect and Restoration, addressing the state apartments and gardens 1760 – 1899; Modern Royals at Home and ‘A pleasing contrast of intimacy and stateliness’ which looks at Kensington as a Heritage Attraction.

The information found in this book owes much to the work done by Professor Peter Gaunt and Caroline Knight in their great body of unpublished research for Historic Royal Palaces, ‘Kensington Palace: A History’ (1988 – 9). Their information, analysis and useful insights were an important starting point for further research. The story revealed in this book is a tale of three palaces: Westminster, Whitehall, and Kensington. Because of the impact of fire and politics the first two were abandoned leaving Kensington as the residence of the monarch with a much reduced court. The history of the two earlier palaces has been documented and is ‘well understood’ (xi). This book now completes the story.

The contents of this book are well presented on high quality white paper. As well as the clear designation of time periods, each page of text is broken up by clear photographs of paintings, portraits, maps, diagrams, lists, tables, statues, furniture and architectural devices (there was even a photograph of an iron stamp on timber indicating it had been imported from Sweden which apparently was common after the Great Fire). These visuals are presented in various sizes both colour and black and white. (I was intrigued by the picture of Princess Victoria’s favourite pet on page 211 as it appeared to me that the dog is levitating).

With 450 illustrations, including specifically commissioned reconstructions and historic plans, this volume explores British and European royal taste and fashions over three centuries. Kensington Palace provides a new and illuminating social and architectural history of one of Britain’s most important royal buildings.

I believe this beautiful, easy to read, volume of history is a book anyone would love to own and will be of interest to families and visitors alike. It is also a book that readers will come back to time and time again. I know I certainly will.

Kensington Palace: Art, Architecture and Society


by Tracy Borman, Sebastian Edwards, Olivia Fryman, Joanna Marschner, Deirdre Murphy and Lee Prosser

Edited by Olivia Fryman

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-23653-8

392pp; $105.00

To order a copy of Kensington Palace: Art, Architecture and Society at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.


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