For eight years I was the Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. This was a Board-level position which put me in charge of the curatorial aspects of Hampton Court Palace, The Tower of London, Kensington Palace state apartments, The Banqueting House, Whitehall and Kew Palace. After 1996 I was also in charge of building fabric, its maintenance and repair and of all projects.
Historic Royal Palaces came about through accident, literally. When English Heritage was set up it was not felt appropriate that these unoccupied palaces should be managed by a Quango and the Department of the Environment maintained them under direct management. The arrangement, which involved split accountability, was not a success and contributed to the terrible fire at Hampton Court in 1986. In the aftermath of the fire (in October 1989) Historic Royal Palaces was set up as an executive agency to manage the palaces. The story of all this is told in detail in my book Hampton Court, A Social and Architectural History on pages 374-88.
My boss at HRP was the Chief Executive David Beeton who placed a huge amount of confidence in me. I was responsible for devising a programme of restoration that was academically sound, but engaging and lively for visitors. I had already cut my teeth devising such a scheme for the fire-damaged King’s apartments at Hampton Court and in this had been hugely influenced by two books: Mark Girouard’s Social Life in the English Country House and Peter Thornton’s Seventeenth Century Interior Decoration in England France and Holland both published in 1978. These books were about how people in the past lived in buildings – they were art historical to a degree; but they were really social history – and it was social history that I did for eight years at HRP.
The first project was to set the tone of what we wanted to do. This was the re-presentation of the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court which opened in 1991. I wanted to light the fires and fill the kitchens with real food and piles of utensils that people could get close to without barriers or signs. Other historic kitchens had been re-displayed, of course – but this was on a scale and ambition that had not been done before. The Daily Telegraph called it ‘quite the most stunning exhibition of its kind in the world’.
This was a taster for the big event that was the opening of the King’s Apartments at Hampton Court on 8 July 1992. The rooms were transformed thanks to a brilliant partnership that I had with my colleagues at the Royal Collection. Tapestries were brought out from store, restored and hung in their original locations. Furniture was reassembled and laid out as it was in 1700; we re-made the ground floor rooms that the king had used off-duty: these were almost the best bit – intimate and atmospheric. The project was very influential and people from all over Europe came to see how we had done it. I have written the whole story of this in my book on Hampton Court, if you are interested in knowing more.
We had a very small team who worked together on the Hampton Court projects and we all wanted to try and give the Tower of London some sense of being a place where monarchs had actually lived rather than being just a prison and a jewel house. So in 1993 we opened the ‘medieval palace’ in the Watergate and the Wakefield Tower. This was a very ambitious project, perhaps too ambitious, as we wanted to evoke some of the appearance of the interiors as they might have been in the time of King Edward I. Of course this was a very different issue to that of the King’s apartments where everything has been minutely documented. I published a detailed article on our findings (see my bibliography) and though I think we got the furnishing a bit wrong, later scholars have agreed with our interpretation of the rooms. Later at English Heritage we had another go at recreating a medieval palace at Dover Castle; this was much more successful.
We also started on a five year programme to re-decorate the state apartments at Kensington Palace. The first room was completed in 1993; the cupola room and then we went on to redecorate the king’s gallery. This project, that was never completed (only three rooms were done) was very exciting as in the gallery we re-created one of the finest Georgian rooms in London. Everything we had learnt at Hampton Court was applied here, and the rooms, which had wonderful painted interiors were somehow aesthetically more successful than the outer rooms at Hampton Court.
Meanwhile at Hampton Court we had made an important decision. This was to divide the visitor experience into ‘routes’ – individual itineraries that allowed people to appreciate the different suites of rooms in their historical and functional context. This also gave us a menu for restoration (once again see my book for details). In 1993 we finished a restoration of Henry VIII’s rooms. In 1995 we opened the privy garden and we completed a project almost as remarkable which was the replanting of the Lime avenues in Home park. The same year remarkably we opened the Georgian rooms and the Mantegna Gallery.
The cash cow for all this work was the Tower of London and it was here that we had our most expensive and ambitious project: re-displaying the Crown Jewels. The Jewels had been moved to an underground bunker in 1967 and when HRP was set up we had up to 15,000 a day descending the 49 steps to the vaults. In 1992 we decided to rebuild the jewel house at ground level in rooms vacated by the Royal Armouries. The project took two years and cost £10m.
We installed a travellator to get the, then, 2.3m visitors past the most famous objects some of which were only the size of a golf ball. The regalia was laid out in the order that it was used in a Coronation and the big cases dressed as if they were altars or banqueting tables. Once again this was all part of our desire to contextualise the objects and explain their history.
There were many other smaller projects, but this gives a flavour of a very remarkable period in which we invested over £50m in new displays, restoration and interpretation. It was paid for by our commercial success: we grew our income from £12m to 29m reducing the proportion of our turnover that was state funded from 35% to 17%.
In all this time I worked with a brilliant group of historians, archaeologists and curators. In 1990 I established a curatorial department for the first time. By 1998 it had 53 staff. In 1996 I also became Surveyor of the Fabric and had an additional staff of 60. Many of the people from the HRP Curator’s department in those days followed me to English Heritage, Edward Impey became one of my number twos, Jeremy Ashbee became our chief historian, Susan Jenkins became Senior Curator for London and the East, Esther Godfrey became a listing inspector, Anna Keay became our Curatorial Director… and then my wife.