Flights of Georgian Fancy

Lucy Worsley reveals the strange stories of the cast of characters on the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace, painted by William Kent for George I in the 1720s.

The staircase at Kensington Palace

If you visit Kensington Palace, your ascent to the second-floor state apartments will be up the King’s Grand Staircase. You will find that the walls of this magnificent space are crowded with painted people: laughing, flirting, balancing dangerously on the balustrade, playing music, toying with their fans … and watching you as you climb.

These paintings were completed in 1726 by the artist William Kent (c. 1685-1748) as part of George I’s grand and very necessary refurbishment of a palace built rather shoddily for William and Mary in the late 17th century. When I first became a curator at Historic Royal Palaces, my colleagues the room stewards used to tell me all sorts of stories about the identities of the sitters: that one lady was a mistress of George I; that another was a lover of George II. Intrigued but slightly sceptical, I decided one day to take a proper look at the evidence for who was who.

I began with the 18th-century, Victorian and modern guide books to the palace. Confusion ensued. Each writer had different identifications of the portraits, some implausible, some contradicting each other. The task of unravelling the identities of the sitters began to captivate me. At that early stage I did not realise that it would take four years.

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