I locked the door to my stone-walled, tower office. The office was accessed through a lone, tight set of spiral stairs. It was a beautiful space, but at times I felt like I was sitting in the middle of a big bullseye target. I rushed over to a corner of my large office and lay down on the dusty floor. I slid under a large table as I needed it dark. I didn’t know why – I just did. I was in my good suit, but I didn’t care. My heart was beating so fast and the room was spinning. I didn’t know what was going on, but it scared me. I was always the one who kept his shit together; I always seemed able to keep things moving without difficulty – so why was this happening? I felt like I couldn’t breathe and that I was going to faint. To this day, I do not know what specifically brought on this disorienting emotional state; I only know generally that it was a result of a lot of complicated worries and concerns.
Surrounded by exquisite beauty, I was running a large heritage site owned and occupied by a very conservative church. I often found myself internally battling with the isolationist perspective of the site’s congregation. I was young, and everything seemed important; I had no perspective on things. At that time, I had a firm sense of right and wrong. Looking back, I was unable to understand that my personal “right” could, in fact, be someone else’s “wrong.” The panic attack was my body’s way of telling me to pay attention.
So, there I was on the floor. Was I going to die, and no one would find me? Would I die alone? What would people think? The last question now seems the most telling – I was on the edge of death (so I thought), and all I could think of was what other people would think! It was ridiculous and egotistical all at the same time. Now I am embarrassed to write this, but in hindsight and with a bit of maturity to guide my thoughts, this question rested at the core of my problem. I didn’t have the maturity needed to reflect on what was going on around me. This was certainty a difficult time in my life, and I was afraid to tell those around me about the problems I was having. Keeping things quiet seemed easier than asking for help.
I think it would be hard to find someone whose life has not been affected by some form, either temporary or more long-term, of mental health issues. Just as I was resistant to ask for help, it might be difficult to find others who are willing to talk about these issues and the real-life consequences. In the age of social media, where only our very best selfies and beautiful travel shots get portrayed online, our less-than-attractive, everyday struggles often get pushed back into the closed-door darkness of our private lives.
This reality became very clear in my latest “One-Night Stand” at Kew Palace in London, England. On the surface, of course, it’s a palace for the King, Queen, and family of England, and it’s pretty spectacular. The palace structure and gardens provide an Instagram-perfect setting for anyone’s weekend or holiday. As you walk through the landscape and the palace, on the surface you get much what you expect – fabulous-ness and exceptionalism. At this level, the visit was as anticipated — beautiful, engaging, and perfectly narrated. That was until I started to sit quietly in the palace rooms and began to understand what had taken place in these quiet rooms.
Although beautiful, Kew Palace is best known as the location that a mentally ill King George III spent much of his troubled time. It was to Kew Palace that the King was brought so that his doctors could treat his illness away from public scrutiny. From the start of his reign, beginning at the age of 22, every moment of his life was on view and discussed. From historical accounts it is evident that the King’s later life was difficult and full of torment and mental decay. King George III had recurring states of mental incapacity. These attacks began in 1788 and continued, on and off, throughout the rest of his life. Eventually in 1810, exacerbated by the death of his daughter, he became permanently deranged, and officials deemed him incapable of ruling as King and the regency began in 1811. King George III finally died in 1820. Although still debated, it has been suggested that his mental illness could be attributed to a hereditary form of porphyria. More recently, some scholars have suggested that King George III experienced recurring exacerbations due to bi-polar mental illness.
The King and his family habitually split their time between three residences – Kew, Windsor, and the Queen’s House (now known as Buckingham Palace.) Kew was primarily used a summer residence, and although it was initially popular when the King’s family was young, he came to prefer the residence at Windsor in later life.
There were two palaces in the Kew estate, The White House and the Dutch House. The White House actually was the original royal residence at Kew. In 1728, Queen Caroline (George’s grandmother) bought the current Kew Palace (known at the time as the Dutch House) as a sort of overflow house for her many children. Both the White House and Kew Palace would have been used by the royal family up until the late 18th century when the White House started to fall into disrepair. It was destroyed in 1802, so when the King was in his last period of confinement at the palace in 1804, it was in the Dutch House, the current Kew Palace.
Both of these buildings played a part in the treatment of King George and the residence of Queen Charlotte and family. In November 1788, King George moved to Kew (the White House) because its private gardens protected him from the public gaze. The Queen lived there with him, but in a separate apartment, and was only allowed to see him when the doctors judged him to be calm enough. In 1801, during his first relapse, the King was forcibly detained in the Dining Room at the red brick Dutch House (now called Kew Palace) and was told he could not see the Queen. From then on, he was confined in the White House, while the Queen and her daughters stayed in the Dutch House. In early 1804, during his second relapse, the King was moved to the Dutch House. This is the era for which the palace is interpreted, during which the King was kept in the Servants Wing, strapped into a straitjacket every day.
From that point, it is accepted that the King never made a full recovery. Eventually, the Queen refused to be alone with him. However, the King continued to rule and be seen in public.
Queen Charlotte undoubtedly walked the hallways of the Dutch House concerned about her husband, King George III, and his mental health. The Queen wasn’t merely concerned about her husband, she was worried about the Monarch – its stability and long-term sustainability given the extreme unstable quality of the King. The palace contained within its walls the weight of not only a wife but an entire country. Not a single beautiful object or decorative element of the palace could make up for the possibility of sovereign crisis and loss of her husband. At what moment might the Queen cease noticing the gilded frames, the harpsicord on which Handel’s first public concert of “Water Music” was played, and become just a person wandering the rooms in a state of dismay and upset over her husband? In what ways did the King’s poor mental health affect her life?
My contemplation was detoured by my welcoming hosts, Rachel Mackay, Kew Palace Manager and Karren Harris, Preventative Conservation Supervisor, who escorted me up three floors to the raw spaced attic. As we walked from the beautiful public rooms, up the stairs, through semi-restored rooms, down long darkish hallways and up still more stairs, I felt like the gloss of social media images slowly gave way to a more real and structural back story. Nothing seemed straight forward or direct; it all seemed oddly contorted and one step removed from the highly ordered gardens I could see outside of the passing windows. I started to feel a definite disconnect between the regimented landscape gardens and the inner guts of the palace.
Once up in the attic, I could see that the ample space was partitioned off into smaller maze-like rooms. I was told that I could sleep anywhere I like, but wherever it was would have to be on the hard-wood plank floors. After walking about a bit, I threw my bags down into a north-facing room and set up my sleeping area. Throughout the attic were disparate groups of images and graffiti, handwritten on the walls. I was told that the messages date from WW II when soldiers were using the palace as part of the military effort.
For a moment, as I was unpacking and glancing at the graffiti, my mind wandered into considering the ramifications of having a governmental leader who is mentally unstable. Much has been written about various WW II leaders wrestling with mental illness, yet who still managed to convince entire countries of a vision which eventually led to massive death and destruction. Mental illness can, if left untreated, tear apart an entire family system. In many ways, it can do the same for a governmental system as well. Kew Palace itself seemed to be the very manifestation of this attempt to contain the destructive potential of untreated mental instability.
Wandering around the upper floors of the palace started to feel like peeking into someone’s bedside drawer or closet. It was not presentable in a traditional museum way. In that way, it was quite compelling and lovely. It felt stabilized but not sanitized. The attic structure was like seeing the real structure of someone’s life, not simply the Instagram presentation. The cobbled-together, spliced, multi-part concoction that is our lives.
The first floor of the palace has been restored; however, the upper floors have been stabilized and show various levels of decay and restoration. As you travel up through the palace vertically, the experience is as if you are moving more interiorly into the historic narrative. The palace shows you its age, scars, and not-so-great nooks and crannies. I loved this about Kew Palace. The outside and the gardens couldn’t be more picture perfect, but the house was allowed to be more honest and to treat you with respect. I didn’t feel like the palace was trying to be something that it wasn’t – it seemed just as it should be.
The semi-stabilized interior spaces periodically had furniture placed within the rooms. The furniture also was allowed to show its age. My impression was that the palace was hinting at what I can only call “shadow narratives.” These narratives may not be fully communicated, yet the scars of those narratives still exist in restorations, additions, decay, and habitation. Different eras seemed to blend together and make the experience even more juicy and compelling. What mattered? What didn’t matter? Maybe it all mattered – or maybe none of it mattered.
As I walked around the first floor, I entered a very clean, fully restored and orderly room. I was about to walk out of the room as quickly as I had entered when my host pointed to a typical door and suggested that I open it. I did. I stood there a bit confused because the door opened up onto a brick wall. I am used to fake doors in this period building as a way to achieve symmetry, so I suspected that was what I was looking at. I was told that the brick wall covered up an opening that led to a wing of the palace built to house the ill King and his doctors and servants. Attempting to keep the King’s illness away from the public, an entire wing of the palace was built and kept private.
The Queen and family lived in the primary portion of the palace while the king was kept – as mentioned before, sometimes in a straitjacket – on the other side of the now-bricked-over door opening. I was told that later, after the King’s death, Queen Victoria tore down the entire wing of the palace and bricked over the door opening, leaving no trace of the King’s extended struggle with mental instability. Gone. Just like that. I became interested in this lost narrative and researched Kew Palace as it existed with the wing still attached to the main structure. As I learned more, I went back to my photographs and started to see where there were architectural hints of the previously existing structure.
Food safety, hygiene, and health care were still misunderstood during the Georgian period. Of course, the King and the royal family received the absolute best quality care available at the time, but such practices still contained large amounts of conjectural theory. The period of King George was in some ways the last chapter in Medieval medical practices. Following the Regency period, germ theory and biomedicine would be recognized. It was widely thought that illness and disease were, caused by “miasmas,” or evil air – rotting things and filthy objects that caused bad smells. It was believed that breathing in these things would bring about rotting and evil within the body. This belief also included foods and drink. For this reason, large fragrant gardens were planted, and the flowers cut for use as interior arrangements. These fragrant smells would counter act the evil “miasmas.”
Oddly, at the time, the cause of the King’s first bilious attack (the first hint that he was ill) was thought to have been caused by four large pears he ate for supper the night before. This makes sense when we understand that certain foods, like raw fruit and vegetables were thought to contain bad “miasmas” because of the perceived evil night air. Doctors and cooks during the Regency period believed that foods should only be eaten cooked. In hindsight, fertilizer used during this time could have contained large amounts of human feces and thus would have caused extreme cases of diarrhea. At this time, diarrhea could have been fatal.
In addition, the concept of humoral medical is founded on the belief that there are four elements essential to the human body. They involve combinations of hot/cold and wet/dry. Each element of the material world was a different kind of humor, or biological fluid, which invaded the body. Health deepened the combinations of these humor “fluids.” The balance of the humors was seen in combinations of external and internal forces, emotions, temperature, and food.
Food during the Regency period played significant health, social and symbolic roles. For royalty, large, multi-course extravaganzas not only symbolized wealth and dominance but also acted as a form of proactive health care. Cooked food, recipes, and menus were seen contextually as combining to formulate atmospheres of good smells, miasmas, and health-producing effects. It wasn’t merely taste and sustenance; it was a complex constellation of unseen barriers to poor health and harmful humors.
I wanted to talk about these ideas, so I asked my hosts if I could go to the original Georgian kitchen while the food historian cooks prepared the meal for the evening. They took me down into the impressive Kew Palace kitchen and introduced me to the food historians, Robert Hoare and Thomas Hunt. The kitchen was an enormous rectangular room with two massive hearts and multiple open coal “stove” counters. In the center of the room were two large simple work tables upon which the food preparation was taking place. The windows were placed high up on the wall and sun shone through in distinct rays as the fires filled the atmosphere with a thin dance of smoke. This kitchen, in particular, is important because it has been left untouched since 1811 when Queen Charlotte died and Kew Palace ceased to be used as the Royal residence. In fact, our dinner was something of an event as it was the first time since 1811 that a dinner was prepared in the kitchen and then served in the original Dining Room.
As I entered the kitchen, I could see that Robert and Tom were already busy at work preparing the food for our dinner. They welcomed me and began to show me the recipe books that they were using to guide the food preparations. The book was ‘The English Art of Cookery’ by Richard Briggs, 1788. and I was told that it was considered one of the most important recipe books of the era. Dinner consisted of Beef Olives (p226); Oxford John lamb (p251); Currey of Chickens, with rice and hard-boiled eggs (p296); Asparagus, with butter sauce; (p321); Mushrooms Stewed (p322); Green Peas (p321); Syllabub, (made with cider); A dish of pickles; Claret and sparkling water; Chocolate cream; and Bread rolls.
Our cooks headed out to the kitchen garden to grab some fresh ingredients for the meal. As I sat back and watched the team combine the ingredients, I was reminded how during this period they were not merely creating a great tasting food but combining elements in a way that could facilitate positive humors and internal “fluids.” These things, of course, would ensure good health. This viewing gave me a new understanding of a “medicinal and kitchen garden.” Many of these plants served several purposes.
The meal itself included Blanquette de veaux, which was last cooked in the Kew kitchen and eaten by George III in February 1789.
While chatting over dinner, I was told about how the staff was preparing for a new public program related to mental health. They want to use the history of King George’s illness as the basis for the relationship to Kew Palace.
The story of George’s ill health is the most popular topic of conversation between staff and visitors to the Palace. It’s a powerful story that everyone can relate to, and in talking about it, people often end up sharing their own experiences. The Kew Palace team wanted to harness that power, and so the week before our visit, they had worked alongside suicide prevention charity, CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably), to trial a pilot program. The event explored how, like George, people dealing with mental health issues today can utilize the restorative power of nature and encouraged participants to take place in kitchen garden tours, poetry and drawing workshops, and mindfulness sessions. Most importantly, it became clear that talking about George’s story – his suffering, his treatment, his relationship with his family – made it easier for people to talk about their own situations. This fairly obscure historical event had become a way to open up what can be a difficult and – particularly in the case of suicide prevention – often heartbreaking conversation.
Looking ahead, the team plans to use what they have learned to get ready for 2020 – the 200th anniversary of George’s death. The project is very much still in the planning stages, but the intention is to produce an exhibition and a season of programming around mental health, working with partners such as local health services and mental health charities. In particular, the team is keen to explore the idea of that long-forgotten wing where George was held, and what it means for that specific part of the building to be destroyed.
After dinner, I was asked if I wanted to tour Queen Charlotte’s personal retreat. I happily agreed, and we headed over to a beautiful, romantically designed Tudor-esque, thatched-roofed dwelling. The retreat was built in 1770 and was used by the Queen and the Royal family for more intimate outings and occasions. As I walked through the spaces, I wondered if Queen Charlotte and her children ever snuck away from the King’s mental illness to gain a bit of composure and calm? Did the house function as a safe spot where the anxiety of everything that was going on within the palace could at least be temporarily shut outside of the quiet little house?
As I exited the palace and then walked through the extraordinary gardens, I was again hit by the same mental discussion I often have after leaving a historic site or house museums. How can I reconcile the beauty of the site and building with the harshness of the narrative? In this case, how can the terrifying story of King George III’s free fall into instability be told in a way that responds and complements the natural beauty of the estate? In many ways, I ask this question whether I am in Mobile, Alabama at a plantation house of an enslaver, or a small iron house of a colonizer in Melbourne, Australia. It seems to me that this dialogue is fundamental to interpreting historic sites: our lives and experiences are messy and not without torment, suffering, and bad choices. All of us would have to admit to such complexities. The question is how best to tell these complex stories in places of visual beauty.
In leaving, I walked past the detached kitchen where our dinner had been prepared the night before. I remembered wandering the building alone, finding a solitary room with only a bath tub placed in the middle. The tub was damaged, rusted; an artifact of past use. Wondering, I asked my hosts about the tub. They told me it was a late 18th-century tin bath found in 2011, stuffed up the chimney. An emotive object because it is believed the very one used by King George III when he was ill at Kew. He preferred to bathe in the kitchens because he felt it was easier for his servants to do so, rather than have them take the water across to the palace – a surprising act of humility for a king. It is objects like this unusable bathtub that bring a difficult story in a state of poetic resolve. In my mind, difficult stories may need poetry to allow us to engage the horror of the incident while still grasping onto some humanity.
My site hosts Rachel Mackay, Kew Palace Manager and Karren Harris, Preventative Conservation Supervisor
Food historians Robert Hoare and Thomas Hunt
Historic Royal Palaces of London for allowing this to take place
Twisted Preservation Team: John Yeagley (Research & Photography), Karen Walter (Editing)