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2024 Kensington Palace exhibition

New Kensington Palace exhibition uncovers the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over three hundred years ago

Untold Lives: A Palace at Work opens at Kensington Palace on 14 March 2024   

They were at the centre of royal life, but little is known about the servants and courtiers who ran royal palaces for centuries.  From pages to cooks, from wetnurses to seamstresses, a host of workers managed life at Court and used their skills and expertise to look after the royal family and their homes.  Now, for the first time, the lives and contribution of these forgotten figures will be explored in a new exhibition, created by the independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces.  Untold Lives: A Palace at Work will shine a spotlight on the overlooked people from all walks of life who worked tirelessly - often behind-the-scenes - to maintain, protect and promote the monarch and the royal palaces.  

The exhibition will reveal the breadth and diversity of the roles required to keep the palaces running. From the rat-killer, complete with his (or even her) own rat-embroidered uniform, to the ‘Groom of the Stool’, who was responsible for looking after the monarch on the toilet, the court was full of varied roles.  One such role was the ‘Keeper of Ice and Snow’, and one of its occupiers was a woman, Frances Talbot, whose story will be revealed for the first time.  Talbot managed the royal icehouse at Hampton Court Palace in the 1770s, performing a physically demanding job, cutting ice so that that palace guests could enjoy cold beverages, iced desserts and drinks all year round. Her role will be remembered with the first display of an ice saw in an exhibition at Kensington Palace. The vital security role palace workers performed will also be explored: on three separate occasions, servants and staff saved Kensington Palace from fire.  Seemingly ordinary items including a fire bucket and an oil lantern will be on display, telling dramatic stories of salvage, and highlighting the people power that ensured the palace’s safety and survival. 

The servants and palace staff who worked at Court came from a range of backgrounds and brought a huge variety of experience to the palaces.  Some, like the Waterman William Timms, who served four monarchs over forty-six years, chose to dedicate their lives to royal service. However, the exhibition will also expose the hierarchies and inequalities within the palaces of the time.  For example, a young boy called Peter, found living alone in German woods was brought to Kensington Palace, and became famous as the subject of intense scientific and public interest, before being sent away. Peter’s image survives, in a mural on the King’s Staircase, but many other people were forgotten and overlooked, with only brief details of their lives preserved in the royal accounts.  By necessity, the exhibition team have had to find other ways to explore their contributions, working with contemporary artists such as Peter Brathwaite and Matt Smith to bring some of these forgotten stories into the spotlight and ensure that their legacy at the palaces lives on.  

The exhibition will also focus on the unexpected origins and identities of some of these people, which have been uncovered by its curators during their research. In an age of great change in the form of colonial expansion, religious wars and a fledgling constitutional monarchy, new figures arrived at Court from all over the world.  A range of portraits and objects will explore the presence of Black and Asian royal servants and attendants at court. Among these figures was Abdullah, a wild cat keeper from India, and Mehmet von Könsigstreu, Keeper of the Privy Purse for King George I.  Mehmet and his wife Marie Hedwig are believed to be one of the first interracial married couples at the Hanoverian Court.  As a trusted servant of King George I, with intimate access to the monarch, Mehmet was an influential, and sometimes, controversial figure.  His portrait is also featured on the King’s Staircase, but now, for the first time, his fascinating story will be brought to the fore, alongside his fellow Turkish valet, Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri, (more commonly known as Mustapha) in a portrait by Godfrey Kneller – on loan from the Ömer Koç Collection - never exhibited before in the UK.  

Sebastian Edwards, co-exhibition curator at Historic Royal Palaces said, “For centuries the palaces have been kept running by a host of people working behind the scenes. While their work has been crucial, their stories remain largely untold, and through our new exhibition we hope to shine a spotlight on some of these fascinating individuals from across the past. In recognising the contribution they made, we hope that all our visitors find new connections with the Palace and their stories, celebrating the lasting legacy which their roles have contributed to these amazing historic places.” 

Untold Lives: A Palace at Work opens on 14 March 2024 and is included in palace admission. 

Notes to Editors 

For further information and images please contact the Historic Royal Palaces Press Office via [email protected] / 020 3166 6166  

Historic Royal Palaces is a team of people who love and look after six of the most wonderful palaces in the world. We create space for spirits to stir and be stirred. We want everyone to feel welcome and accepted. We tell stories about the monarchs you know and the lives you don’t. We let people explore and we set minds racing. We are a charity and your support gives the palaces a future, for everyone.   

Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk 

 

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Untold Lives

A new exhibition at Kensington Palace, uncovering the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over 300 years ago.

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  • In line with palace opening hours
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  • Included in palace admission (members go free)
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