Until last month, a day out at Kew Gardens meant a delightful meander through the grounds to admire specimen plants and beautiful vistas, perhaps punctuated by trips to the great glasshouses. Now visitors may also plunge back in time to the domestic interiors of Kew Palace, where King George III and Queen Charlotte retreated during the king's madness and where Queen Charlotte spent her final days. In an unusual collaboration between Kew Gardens and Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which owns and operates Kew Palace (as well as the Tower of London and Hampton Court), the modest 1664 brick palace has reopened its doors after a 10-year multi-phased £6.6 million restoration, complete with a dedicated visitor centre and an elaborate interpretative exhibition with the latest audiovisual technology, which evokes life in the house in 1804.
KEW PALACE ACCESSIBLE TO ALL A critical aspect of the project was to make the building as accessible as possible, and the design team's multi-pronged approach to this issue included input from a Disability Access Forum established speci-cally to review the project. The introduction of two lifts and a ramp and the redesign of the stone steps at the front entrance are the most prominent features of the newly accessible palace.
From the outset, the brief from HRP included the addition of a lift, not an easy task given the compact symmetrical plan of the building - often referred to as a doll's house - and its status as an Ancient Listed Monument. Approval by English Heritage (EH) was predicated on a historical quirk documented in a 19th-century watercolour - the serendipitous existence of an external royal privy shaft which had been added in the 18th century. Evidence of the original door openings inside the palace had survived and they have been reinstated as the entrance to the lift.
Purcell Miller Tritton (PMT), responsible for the architectural aspects of the project, undertook an options study for lift access. The palace has three primary oors (ground, first and second) accessible for visitors; an attic, which is closed to the public; and a beautiful brick-vaulted undercroft, which will serve as a reception area for school groups. Concern that the new lift shaft might disrupt the foundation of the palace if it extended below ground to serve the basement meant that a platform lift was added to the project to serve the basement only.
PMT associate Dante Vanoli explains that the main challenge of the lift design was to achieve as small a footprint as possible so that the lift could fit between two existing pedimented bays on the west side of the building. Height was also a concern because of the required refuge space at the top of the lift shaft and a desire to keep the top of the shaft below the projecting cornice of the pedimented bay. Several different design approaches were considered, including a structure that adhered closely to the building or a slightly detached shaft with a visual gap, as well as a variety of cladding materials, including bronze, lead and timber.
The final design of horizontal lapped oak weatherboarding over a steel structure with the shaft tight against the existing building was selected because it was considered by the design team to be the least visually obtrusive, giving pride of place to the palace itself.
HRP, rather than the architect, negotiated the necessary approval with EH after extensive groundwork presenting the project to its numerous stakeholders, including the Trustees of Kew and the Georgian Group, neither of whom had any actual jurisdiction over the project.
The lift design had to be 'reversible' in the event that it should need to be removed at some future date. The bespoke steel structure is designed as a vertical cantilever which is completely independent of the existing building. Steel projections at each lift landing were individually dimensioned to accommodate the fact that the building was not completely plumb.
The continuous vertical ashing is detailed to allow movement.
Another given from the outset of the project was that all visitors should be accorded 'dignified universal access' through the front entrance of the building. Consideration was given to having disabled visitors access the palace through the new lift on the side of the building, but this not only complicated the lift design but also posed security problems by creating a second entrance to the building. Access through the front door proved difficult to achieve, not because of the steps, which could be easily resolved by adding a ramp, but because of the 130mm level change between the Portland stone landing at the front entrance and the height of the front-door threshold. PMT developed an elegant solution which involved raising the existing stone landing to the height of the threshold. The steps and landing were carefully removed and then reinstated over a 130mm band of new stone. The surrounding paving was gently regraded to accommodate a ramp graded at 1:21, which eliminated the need for a handrail. With the exception of the ramp, the worn stone entrance steps appear unchanged from the days of George III.
Many more subtle design decisions resulted from the input of the access forum, which was composed of local people with a range of disabilities, including mobility, hearing, sight and diabetes.
One example is the treatment of the edge definition of the palace's front entrance steps. At the suggestion of one of the forum members, the risers were treated with soot rather than unsightly tape. Jo Thwaites, the HRP conservation department project sponsor responsible for the restoration, explains that the access forum was initiated as an alternative to a focus group and was found to be more effective in terms of meaningful input and financial outlay. Forum members were paid for attending biweekly meetings. For Thwaites, it was the intersection of the views of people with a range of disabilities and differing requirements over the course of the project that resulted in the best access design solution. Details ranging from the size of text in the interpretative exhibition to the location of lighting so as not to create glare for wheelchair users were scrutinised by the forum. An additional study, a wheelchair path survey, was undertaken by access consultant David Bonnett.
PAINT ANALYSIS Visitors to Kew Palace cannot help but be struck by the colour scheme of the restored building, which, though based on extensive research to ensure its authenticity, looks rather garish. Lee Prosser, HRP curator of historic buildings, does not hesitate to call the exterior limewashing, completed in 1998 as part of a previous phase of work, 'controversial'. In Kew's pastoral setting, the limewash, which is pigmented with red brick dust, is certainly eye-catching. Used in its day to cover up imperfections in the Flemish bond brickwork and protect the building fabric, it was reinstated after a sample of the original limewashing was found behind a rain hopper. The limewash, like the lift, is reversible because it weathers naturally. The technique had not been used in England for over 150 years, and must be renewed approximately every seven years.
By contrast, the choice of interior paint colours, pinks and off-whites, is restrained, though the wallpapers, carpets and recreated furnishings, also based on historical research, are not.
A variety of specialists and curators employed a range of techniques to ascertain and date original colours. Stratographic cross-referencing was used to document the layers of paint on every interior surface to facilitate dating and comparison between rooms. Chemical analysis was used to identify the pigments used in different layers of paint also for dating purposes. Ultraviolet lights were used on paint samples which had faded to restore their true colours. A spectrophotometer was used to digitally record absolute colours in order to precisely match new paints. There was one moment of certainty when a sample of pink paint dating to the beginning of the 19th century was found behind door ironmongery in the king's drawing room. Thwaites admits that the art of paint analysis is 'far from an exact science' and that the procurement of paint specialist work is 'quite tricky'.
AND FINALLY? Access issues and paint colours aside, the overriding impression of the restored palace is shaped by the interpretive display masterplanned by Metaphor, which is also responsible for the installation of the Michelangelo show currently at the British Museum. At Kew Palace, Metaphor has artfully threaded together artifacts with an audio-visual radio play which movingly recounts the story of the palace during the occupancy of King George III.
In lieu of headsets, sounds emerge from unlikely places, such as the entrance path and from behind closed doors. The fascinating content will engage all ages, though the presentation does feel overly packaged. Unusually, certain rooms have been left in a state of semi-restoration to enable the visitor to see what lies behind the finished surfaces. Well worth a visit - but be prepared for the double entry fees.
Further reading: Kew Palace: The Official Illustrated History, by Suzanne Groom and Lee Prosser, was released last week to coincide with the reopening of the palace.