Working with artists to story-weave into the dress display


Joanna Marschner

Historic Royal Palaces

 

At Kensington Palace artists and theatre-makers have united with curators to work within the palace. The imagination and skills of these creative communities have drawn powerful, emotional stories from the collection of dress on display. This has had great resonance with a contemporary audience.

 

Princess Margaret and her dresses

  • Princess Margaret (1930-2002) was the beautiful, spirited, younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. She occupied an elegant apartment within Kensington Palace between 1960 and 2002.
  • The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace contains many dresses worn by the princess, including two worn in the 1950’s.
  • A glamorous evening dress of cream silk satin embroidered with turquoise beads is unlabelled, but probably made by Norman Hartnell, was worn by Princess Margaret at a film premier in London and at a dinner in Paris as a guest of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, in 1951. With its rather risqué plunging neckline and halter neck straps it caught the interest of the press.
  • A stylish day dress made of grey lace and chiffon, with a matching bolero, by an unknown maker, was worn by the princess at Ascot races and at the wedding of her cousin, the Honourable Gerald Lascelles, to Angela Dowding, in 1952. Nine layers of stiffened net give fullness to the skirt.

 

The artist designer

  • Finding artist partners to suit the project is key. When the fit is just right the artist takes inspiration from the artefacts, and can see, and release, the stories they contain. Wonders can result.
  • For the curators at Kensington Palace our perfect partner was WildWorks, a company of theatre-makers based in Cornwall. They worked with fashion designers, community groups, academic partners and the teams within the palace between 2010 and 2012.

 

The princess poems

Writer and poet, Mercedes Kemp from WildWorks, wrote a poem inspired by Princess Margaret. It was based in the facts of her history but drew out of these something more mythic, about the extraordinary, and at times turbulent, life-course of the princess.

 

The Last Princess

 

This princess

passes all the tests

for princessness.

She was brought in

by stormy weather.

Born

between thunderclaps.

Guns saluted

and bells pealed.

She passes all the tests:

When she walks

she leaves a trail of petals.

She can wear

the tiniest

of glass slippers

and can detect

a mote of dust

under a dozen mattresses.

No toys for her

on her birthday.

Only jewels

or porcelain

will do.

She is dressed

in white satin

and tulle.

Shimmering

with pearls,

crystal

and silver thread.

She wears her diamond tiara

in the bath.

She moves in white beauty.

Courtiers

drape themselves

on the stairs

sighing:

Isn’t she beautiful…

She is

capricious,

charming,

imperious.

She is always late.

She is

elegant,

opulent,

every inch

a princess.

One day,

like so many girls before her,

she leaves the palace

searching for love.

The Palace servants

(who know EVERYTHING)

shout from the windows:

Your Highness!

It’s the wrong path!

But she is enchanted.

She cannot hear.

She is chasing

a love

she cannot reach.

Before long

she strays

off the path.

She has secret

meetings

with wolves.

They are charming.

They are

great dancers.

She abandons

herself

to their fierce

attentions.

It does not do

to forget

you are a princess.

She is not amused.

The wolves scatter.

She is alone

in the forest

dancing

upon

Her shoes

are red.

Her dreams

are broken.

How can

this be?

She IS

a princess

to the last.

The last

princess?


Mercedes Kemp 2010

 

Creating the Room of Dancing Princesses

  • WildWorks artist, Sue Hill, designed an enchanted forest in the Council Chamber at Kensington Palace in which the princess’s dresses were shown in turn.
  • Sue’s vision for the display of the dresses was grounded in the spirit of Mercedes’ poem about the princess.
  • The conservation team styled the mannequin and the dress to appear as if the princess was dancing.
  • The display suggested to the visitor something of the princess’s beauty and glamour, and also a more intangible tale of a princess who had followed her own star.

 

An artist and curator collaboration

Evening dress worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, made by Bruce Oldfield in 1990. Princess Diana was also celebrated in the Room of Dancing Princesses. Photo © Richard Lea Hair © Historic Royal Palaces
Royal baby bonnets and gloves are displayed in bell-jars to evoke a little of the other-worldliness of royal childhood in the past. Photo © Steve Tanner
Tiny shoes, beautifully made and perfectly preserved, remind the visitor that the rulers of the nations were once small frail infants. Photo © Steve Tanner
A precious dress for a precious child in the Room of Lost Childhood. Photo Richard Lea-Hair © Historic Royal Palaces
The princess poem is read to the visitor as performance. Photo © Steve Tanner
Visitors read the princess poem together. Photo © Sue Hill
Silk satin halter-necked dress, worn by Princess Margaret in 1951, in the Room of Dancing Princesses. Photo © Historic Royal Palaces

 

Further reading and resources

Joanna Marschner and Sue Hill. The Enchanted Palace (London. Historic Royal Palaces. 2011)

John Barnes and Joanna Marschner, ‘The Enchanted Palace. How Building Work Shook the Stories from the Fabric of Kensington Palace, London’, in Werner van Hoof (ed) Catching the Spirit. Theatrical Assets of Historic Houses and their Approaches in Reinventing the Past. Proceedings of the ICOM/DEMHIST international conference, Antwerp, 17-20 October, 2011. pp. 83-85

Sara Selwood, ‘The Enchanted Palace, Kensington Palace, London’, in Museums Journal, issue 110/07, July 2010, pp.44-47

www.hrp.org.uk

www.wildworks.biz

 

Youtube interview with Sue Hill of Wildworks, who describes the creation of the Enchanted Palace – an artist’s view of working with historic artefacts to draw out their message

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