In Conversation with Carol Swords of the Historic Royal Palaces

Written on 6th June 2019

This year, institutions across the UK celebrate 200 years since the birth of Queen Victoria. Among these is the queen’s childhood home of Kensington Palace, whose exhibition Victoria: Woman and Crown celebrates the multifaceted monarch through a poignant collection of items, beautifully arranged against a background of Farrow & Ball colours.

To mark the grand opening, we sat down with Carol Swords FRSA, the palace’s Creative Programming and Interpretation Manager, for a fascinating chat that revealed a royal history of colour, the secret to creating an emotive and immersive exhibition, and the treasures no visitors to the palace should miss.

A wide range of Farrow & Ball colours has been used in the exhibition, from delicate Calluna to rich Rectory Red. How were these particular colours chosen to represent different stages of Victoria’s life?

Colour is key to revealing the themes of the exhibition, and it plays an integral visual role in drawing out the stories we’re telling. As you move through the exhibition, the colours change to reflect Victoria’s life. The colours at the beginning are fresh, bright and spring-like – shades of white, pink and green. We chose these to reflect this part of her life when she was happily married to Albert, mother to nine children and, at the same time, Queen – balancing many roles, a very modern story!

When she is 42, Albert dies, and she enters a famously long period of mourning. We have used Stiffkey Blue in the first mourning room and Railings in the second to reflect her utter devastation and loss. Balmoral in Scotland, where she retreated to live out her grief, is represented by a heather-like hue, Sulking Room Pink

Early on in the exhibition planning, we decided to examine the complex legacy of Empire and to give voice to the communities who still live with the result of this history. We have threaded throughout the exhibition contemporary poems written by women from the South Asian community. The colours reflecting Empire and India are deep Rectory Red and, of course, India Yellow. They are combined to great effect with a turquoise fabrication in the last room in which we have built a tent-like structure.


We’d love to know which item (or items) you’re particularly excited about featuring – what should we be looking out for when we visit?

This is such a difficult question to answer! In each room, there is an object that has particular poignancy for me. The petticoat at the start of the exhibition is exquisitely made and has the same measurements as her wedding dress. It’s absolutely tiny and helps us to realise that Victoria, like all of us, had many identities. She is so much more than just the serious-looking queen in the large black dress!

There are also two small children’s outfits in the section on Scotland. The Highland outfit, comprised of a beautifully made kilt, shoes and hat, was worn by Kaiser Wilhelm II, while the velvet suit was worn by George V. These two boys played together as children but went to war as adults.

Finally, there is a portrait of the little-known Princess Gouramma, who came to England from India with her father. She became a significant person in Victoria’s life and her story is an incredibly tragic one, which ended in her death at the age of 23.


Could you tell us about the different elements and techniques you’ve used to create an immersive exhibition? How do you ensure it appeals to a diverse range of audiences?

There are three different elements in the exhibition that we hope will ensure all audiences have a memorable experience. First, we commissioned a cinematic score from the composer Benjamin Tassie, which is beautifully written. It has a melancholic quality that encourages our visitors to slow down, really look at the objects, and think about the themes.

The artist Jane Wildgoose has also created an installation examining Victorian mourning and grief. It’s based on Victoria’s favourite poem Tennyson’s In Sorrow Shut, and many of our visitors have already told us how moving they find this artwork.

Finally, peppered throughout the exhibition are exquisitely crafted peepholes and animations. Our younger and international audiences have told us how much they appreciate this visual storytelling.

What kind of role has colour played in the history of the royals and the Historic Royal Palaces?

Each of the six historic royal palaces has its own distinctive signature colour, which reflects the history of its occupants stretching back centuries. Hampton Court, for example, is a deep blue, while Banqueting House is yellow. Kensington’s signature colour, of course, is a rich red.

In terms of buildings and design, colour is closely connected to status, with the use of rare and expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli or purple. This is particularly true in terms of the colour blue in the days before aniline dyes, which were invented in the early 19th century. The Kensington Palace ironwork staircases were painted with smalt, a kind of sparkly blue obtained by mixing cobalt into a glass melt. Only the richest could afford this, and so it projected kingly wealth and power – similar to ultramarine and Prussian blue in the 18th century.

Colour on textiles was also of the greatest importance, with certain colours associated with royal status. The crimson damask in the King’s State Apartments at Kensington Palace demonstrates this very well, being a rich, expensive colour, and woven onto very expensive silk fabric.

The role of colour in dress for royalty is key. The royal family have always had to be dressed to be seen among the crowds, and this was particularly important if they were small in stature. In the exhibition, we have a dress worn by Queen Victoria when she opened the great exhibition of 1851. Albert designed it, and originally it would have been bright pink.

Dresses that shimmered and sparkled were always a sign of luxury. Royalty wore gold and silver thread to stand out at court, and also so that they could glitter in the candlelight.

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