10 historic stairways in London – 8. The King’s Staircase, Kensington Palace… 

PICTURE: Tuomo Lindfors (licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This staircase, a grand entrance to the King’s State Apartments at Kensington Palace, are famous for the paintings on the walls and ceiling which depict an 18th century court looking down on those who ascend.

The work of William Kent, the staircase paintings were complete in 1724 and replaced earlier wooden panelling.

The stairs were originally constructed as part of Sir Christopher Wren’s remodelling Nottingham House into Kensington Palace for King William III and Queen Mary II. Following a fire in 1691, they were rebuilt in marble.

There are 45 people in Kent’s painting and only about a dozen have been identified. As well as members of the Yeomen of the Guard, the images depict King George I’s Polish page Ulric, his Turkish servants Mahomet and Mustapha, Peter the ‘wild boy’, a child found in the woods in Germany, and Dr John Arbuthnot, a medical doctor and satirist who tried to teach Peter to speak.

Interestingly, Kent included a selfie on the ceiling – a depiction of himself, wearing a brown turban and carrying an artist’s palette, standing with his mistress by his side.

The trompe l’oeil (a technique which creates the optical illusion of 3D) work features architecture inspired by Rome where Kent had trained while there’s also a painted figure of Diana on the top landing which is based on an antique statue at Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

In 1734, Queen Caroline commissioned Kent to rework the stairs to the Queen’s State Apartments. His work there features a Roman-inspired scene again created as a trompe l’oeil. There is also a homage to Queen who is compared to Britannia. The staircase’s balustrade was another by Huguenot ironworker Jean Tijou.

WHERE: The Broad Walk, Kensington Gardens, Kensington (nearest tube stations are High Street Kensington or Queensway); WHEN: Daily 10am to 6pm (last admission 5pm); COST: £16 adult/£12.80 concession/£8 child (Historic Royal Palaces members free); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace.

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