A New Show at Kensington Palace Honors 170 Years’ Worth of Unseen Labor

British royals typically get all the attention, but an unprecedented new show at Kensington Palace highlights the staff that kept their palaces running. “Untold Lives” shares relics including an ice saw and an early toilet to piece together the oft-overlooked livelihoods of wet nurses, rat catchers, and even a wild cat keeper who worked for Britain’s monarchs between 1660 and 1830.

A baby bonnet for George IV, an envelope containing hair from Prince Edward (Duke of Kent), a paper tape measure used to measure the heights of the children of King George III and Queen Charlotte, the childhood pink sash of Prince Frederick (Duke of York), and the blue sash of King George III. © Historic Royal Palaces.

“We have had a number of exhibitions which have touched on the lives of those living in the historic royal palaces, but we felt the time was right to explore their story from ‘the bottom up’ and focus on those who worked behind the throne,” co-curator Sebastian Edwards said. Research for the show shed light on extraordinary professionals like a female Keeper of Ice and Snow, who cut ice from frozen ponds to chill drinks, and a 96-year-old washroom attendant called a Necessary Woman.

A toilet, probably made for William III at Hampton Court ca. 1699. © Royal Collection Trust / His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Such untold lives unfold across thematic rooms. The one dubbed “Care and Intimacy,” for instance, displays a white linen apron worn by Queen Charlotte’s wardrobe maid Ann Elizabeth Thielcke in 1786.

Installation view of “Untold Lives,” Origins and Identities room. © Historic Royal Palaces

Meanwhile, “Skills and Expertise” offers the only surviving dress from Queen Charlotte, on loan from the Fashion Museum in Bath.

That same room honors the critical security that staff provided, evidenced by a mid-19th-century fire bucket. “On three separate occasions, servants and staff saved Kensington Palace from fire,” the exhibition overview explains.

Installation view of “Untold Lives,” Skills and Expertise room. © Historic Royal Palaces

“Untold Lives” also recounts the labor force’s growing multiculturalism amid Britain’s conquests and early globalization. “This exhibition brings together three extraordinary portraits probably for the first time since they were painted in Britain over 300 years ago,” Edwards said. Sir Godfrey Kneller created all three. One depicts Keeper of the Privy Purse Mehmet von Königstreu, who was taken prisoner in the Ottoman Empire and transported to Britain, where he was ennobled in 1716. Another portrait immortalizes von Königstreu’s German wife, Marie Wedekind. Together, they were the first interracial couple to live among royals, at the German court of King George I.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Portrait of Mehmet von Könsigstreu. © Klosterkammer Hannover, Gina Grond.

Turkish valet Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri appears alongside them in the Origins and Identities room. “Mustapha’s portrait was only recently discovered in Germany and bought by a collector in the UK, who has loaned it to the exhibition,” Edwards said.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, portrait of Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri. Courtesy of the Ömer Koç collection

In the show’s press release, co-curator Mishka Sinha notes, “With so little remaining of their presence, we often find that the legacy left behind of those who worked in the royal palaces 300 years ago is simply invisibility.” The curators recruited contemporary artists to fill in those gaps.

Matt Smith, plates devoted to the story of Gustavus Guydickens, for “Untold Lives.” © Historic Royal Palaces, Matt Smith

Matt Smith crafted ceramic plates to share the story of disgraced Gentleman Usher Gustavus “Gusty” Guydickens, who served Queen Charlotte from 1777 to 1792—when, sources say, “he was caught in Hyde Park in ‘an unnatural situation’ with an 18-year-old lawyers’ clerk.”

Peter Brathwaite, commission for “Untold Lives.” © Historic Royal Palaces, Peter Brathwaite, courtesy of Autograph, London.

“Untold Lives” also commissioned a photograph from Peter Brathwaite that expands upon Black identity in Kensington Palace’s King’s Staircase. Elsewhere, Robert Taylor bridges this show with the present in photographs that document staff overseeing the Palace’s State Apartments and grounds today.

Installation view of “Untold Lives,” Legacies room. © Historic Royal Palaces.

Source: Exhibition -


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