Review: The Enchanted Palace

William Tempest with 'The Dress of Freedom'
The Room of the Sleeping Princess
Designers behind the label Aminaka Wilmont with 'The Dress of Tears'
The Room of the Dancing Princesses
Kensington Palace’s transformation into the Enchanted Palace has been unveiled at last. Fiona Anderson dons her crown and corset for a journey into the secret past of this royal residence.

Recently, a rare, never before seen portrait of Queen Victoria was released. Painted for her husband, Albert, the portrait captured the famously austere Queen as a young, glowing girl with brunette locks tumbling provocatively over naked shoulders. Victoria looked girlish, uncontrolled and, dare i say it, sexy. The portrait, so rare and so remarkable, for me, illustrated the importance of seeing history in all its dimensions, understanding that genuine loves, lives, dramas and crises have gone before us. And this is what The Enchanted Palace, held in the State Apartments of Kensington Palace, aim to do. Examining the personal lives, intimate passions and secret scandals of the seven princesses who have lived in the Palace, a theme is attributed to each woman, and a space is built around it. Visitors are therefore set the challenge of deciphering which room signifies which princess, on the way discovering the inner thoughts and personalities behind the names in the history books.

Helping to bring these seven women to life are a fantastic line up of artists and high profile designers, including our own William Tempest, who joins Stephen Jones, Vivienne Westwood, Echo Morgan and many more. Tempest takes part in ‘The Room of the Sleeping Princess’. Set in the young Victoria’s bedroom, where she slept the night she became Queen, Tempest has created a ‘Dress of Freedom’, encompassing a spectacular flock of origami birds, which spill out from the bodice and envelop the gown, appearing to lift it off the ground. Representing Victoria’s desire for independence, William explains, ‘It is well known that Victoria felt restricted and isolated in the Palace. The installation is created from one thousand origami birds which, in ancient Japanese legend, will grant the holder of the birds any wish. Here the birds are swarming together to help free Victoria and grant her dream of freedom.’

Another room, ‘The Royal Room of Sorrows’, is stunning, with a dress by Aminaka Wilmont, fittingly entitled ‘The Dress of Tears’, suspended high above a typical period bed, with two vast wings of blue dappled chiffon stretching out across the room in a dreamy canopy. Another highlight is the breathtaking, ‘Room of the Dancing Princesses’, having been transformed into a misty, shadowy forest, with silver birch trees, howling animals and whistling winds. Amongst the trees sit two glass cabinets, the first with a soft, taupe dress and blood red ballet shoes, primed and stood on point, as if the invisible princess has been frozen, mid dance. The other encases a stunning, ghostly white lace gown, surrounded by single white feathers, hanging silently, and somewhat hauntingly, in the air.

Yet more and more beautiful, thought provoking spaces appear as the visitor plunges further into the dimly lit, labyrinth-like set of rooms, each brimming with messages, words, sounds and imagery so poignant and so real, that it is at times overwhelming. Frustratingly perplexing, frighteningly human, and deeply moving, it is easy to forget you are wondering through a Royal Palace at all, so far removed it is from the fusty tours, stale antiques and faded oil paintings of trussed up, pallid figures in all their finery.

Sexing up history for the masses, (actors dressed as odd, Back to the Future-style ‘spirits’ stalk purposefully about the space) this exhibit serves as a pioneering step forward for such a traditional institution. However, with change comes the undoubted ruffling of feathers and (much to my amusement) more old school members of the public will clearly need time to adjust. Mutterings of, ‘Oh, it’s far too dark in here, I wish they’d open the drapes, you can’t see the view!’ were followed by staff, cringingly reassuring visitors, ‘It’s very modern, but everything’s based on historical fact, really it is’, felt a touch embarrassing to witness. This exhibit will need to stand the test of time before convincing the older set that moving forward, and drawing in a younger crowd, is the only way to survive.

Terribly juicy, terribly indulgent, and terribly un-British, this is one Palace that’s had a right royal boot up the backside into the 21st century. Polished, insightful and visually stunning, this installation is setting a precedent so high, that others are sure to follow.