Photo of Lucy Worsley, Copyright of Stuart Clarke
It was in her role as chief curator of the Royal Historic Palaces that Lucy Worsely came upon the subject matter for her book The Courtiers, Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace. Lucy has a Phd in art history from the University of Sussex and had several other positions in museums before taking up her coveted role at the Royal Historic Palaces. She is married to an architect and lives in a minimalist apartment in London. Her keen wit and dry sense of humour are evident in all that I've read by or about her. And she has that rare gift of charm to make you feel like you are the only person in the room, which came through in spades during our interview.
Ingrid: In your work as curator of the Royal Historic Palaces, you must have access to reams of archived documents and artifacts about the British monarchy. Why did you chose to focus on this particular period of history? How did you begin such a monumental work when so little was known about the characters in Kent's painting?
Lucy: This painting by William Kent you mention is on the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace. It’s crammed with portraits of forty-five different servants at the court of George I. Simple curiosity drew me into its story: I was always walking up and down the stairs going about my business during my working day, and I often found myself wondering who all the characters were. When I asked my colleagues, I discovered that they all had their own rival identifications for each figure, so I naively decided that one day I would invest an afternoon in pinning down who was who, using the various guidebooks to the palace (which date right back to the eighteenth century). It ended up taking me four years!
Ingrid: How many years did it take you to complete this book? And assuming your curatorial duties are full-time, how did you find the time to write it?
Lucy: I had my Eureka moment ('hum, I think I'll write a book about this') in the autumn of 2006, and finished writing in the autumn of 2010. I do my writing at two particular times. I spend 72 minutes a day on the train when I go to my office at Hampton Court, so out comes the computer. And I’m in the British Library every Saturday. I studied for my PhD part-time, and anyone else who’s done that knows what I mean when I say it requires dedication. I’ve just maintained that work ethic. On the other hand, doing research is a real pleasure to me, so I don’t feel that it’s a sacrifice.
Ingrid: What was the most surprising thing that you learned during your research?
Lucy: One of the things that most surprised me was the sad story of Peter the Wild Boy. He was a feral child found in the woods near Hanover who was brought to court as a kind of pet. He was probably autistic, and never learned to speak. I was astonished to discover that he became something of a Georgian celebrity, lived into his eighties and retired to the countryside. I was very moved when I tracked down and held in my hands his iron collar with his name on it, and when I visited his grave in Berkhamsted (marked ‘Peter The Wild Boy 1785’).
Ingrid: Which character/courtier in the book was your favourite and why?
Lucy: Hum, I’m torn. I really like Henrietta Howard, who was George II’s lover for more than 20 years but very unlike the rapacious, va-va-voom stereotype of a royal mistress. She was thoughtful and intelligent, and put up with the rules and restrictions of court life for so long because there at least she was safe from her violent alcoholic husband. I also like Molly Lepell, one of the Maids of Honour, who had a very tart sense of humour but found court life empty and depressing. She had the good sense to run away from the court, leaving behind all the glamour to live her own life.
Ingrid: If you could interview any of the princesses or queens that ever lived in Kensington Palace, who would it be and why?
Lucy: I would really love to have talked to Queen Caroline, the funniest, cleverest, warmest (and fattest!) queen consort we’ve ever had. I think she’s been unfairly neglected, partly because of her German background, which is hard for British people to get to grips with, and partly because her handwriting was so awful it’s really hard to read her letters. (Her husband said she wrote ‘like a cat’).
Ingrid: I understand that you are involved in the ongoing restoration of the palace. With the recent Enchanted Palace exhibition, it seemed that Kensington Palace had taken an enormous leap into the modern era. It no longer was the realm of the old and musty but was a contemporary approach to art installation. Was this your doing? Where will the display of Princess Margaret's and Princess Diana's dresses be located within the renovated palace? How will it be different than the "tired" displays of the past?
Lucy: Yes, I’m very proud to say that I was part of the Enchanted Palace team. We worked with contemporary fashion designers and a theatre company to create a weird world in the state apartments – exhibition isn’t quite the word for it, it’s a mixture of installation and performance - and it’s brought in quite a new crowd who would never have come to see the rooms with the old, more strictly historical presentation.
When we’ve finally finished our current huge re-presentation project covering the whole palace, Princess Diana and Princess Margaret will probably end up in Princess Margaret’s former apartment. The nature of the new displays is work in progress! Just this week we were talking about what we might take from Enchanted Palace to apply to the next lot of displays.
Ingrid: Is there any chance the Rockingham Mantua ever come on display after the renovation is complete?
Lucy: I’m sure the Rockingham Mantua - this is the fabulous silver dress worn by Lady Rockingham, the Prime Minister’s wife, in about 1765 - will return to display sometime, it’s one of the absolute highlights of our collection. At the moment it’s taking a well-earned rest from the damaging light, but don’t worry, it’ll be back.
Ingrid: I read that your geologist father was initially enraged by your choice of profession and skeptical that you'd ever find a job. What does he say now?
Lucy: He looked a bit begrudgingly impressed last time I raised the matter. He’s reading THE COURTIERS at this very moment. Good effort, as history, princesses and dresses are not exactly his thing.
Ingrid: What is your next book?
Lucy: It’s called ‘If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home’, and it covers the history of the main rooms of the house from the Normans until the present day: the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. It goes with a BBC TV series on the same subject that I’ve just finished filming. I had a brilliant time: I got to blacken a Victorian kitchen range, sleep in a Tudor bed, have a 1920s Marcel wave, and play bowls in the Long Gallery at Ham House. And in my medieval peasant’s hovel I cooked a hedghog.
Ingrid: Are you ever tempted to bring a damask pillow into your modernist apartment?
Lucy: Because I have armour, taxidermy, seventeenth-century paintings and a bust of Socrates in my office at Hampton Court, I’m happier than I might otherwise be with our minimalist apartment at home (my architect partner insists upon it). He even makes me keep my make-up in a plastic 1970s drawing office Boby trolley. But I have sneakily introduced a gilt Baroque mirror into my own little corner upstairs (ssh, he hasn’t noticed it yet).
To learn more about Lucy Worsley and view her upcoming speaking engagements or tv appearances, check her website here.