1714 - 1727
The accession of George I (1714-27) was celebrated at Kensington with a bonfire in the gardens, where the household servants and courtiers toasted their new King with six barrels of strong beer and over three hundred bottles of claret. This became a regular event and during the King's reign celebratory bonfires were held each year on 1 August - the anniversary of his accession.
On the King's first visit to Kensington he inspected the palace and gardens and declared himself satisfied with both. However, a survey of 1716 found the building to be in a very poor state of repair and several designs for alterations were in the King's hands by April 1718.
A plan for a dramatic rebuilding, to rival Blenheim Palace, was prepared by Sir John Vanbrugh, possibly as early as 1714. But such a transformation was not to be and the King chose a more modest scheme.
The work was carried out under the supervision of William Benson, who replaced Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor in 1718.
Rebuilding Nottingham House
The core of the old Nottingham House, which still survived at the heart of the palace, was replaced by three new state rooms: the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room and the Withdrawing Room. These rooms were probably designed by Colen Campbell, the Deputy Surveyor, rather than by Benson.
The most striking feature of these rooms was the elaborate decorative painting of their ceilings. By rights this work should have been given to Sir James Thornhill, the Serjeant (or official royal) Painter. However, his £800 fee for the Cupola Room was thought too costly and the little-known William Kent offered to paint the room in a similar design for £350.
William Kent’s influence
The Cupola Room was William Kent's first commission at Kensington Palace.
Kent's skill as a painter, strongly criticised by some, was evidently admired by George I.
Between 1722 and 1727 he devised decoration and hung pictures in nearly all the royal apartments at Kensington, and finished by painting the King's Grand Staircase.
A palace without a court
The extensive rebuilding work initiated by George I meant he was able to make only limited use of the palace for much of his reign. In November 1723, Vanbrugh remarked that the court had been at Kensington 'so little for want of the New Rooms being ready for the King's use'.
George I disliked the show and formality of court life and preferred to spend his time in his private apartments. Having equipped the palace with a full set of lavishly decorated state rooms, it was ready to play a central role in the life of the court under George II.
Lead image of George I c1700, copyright Bristol City Museum Bridgeman Art Library