The contrasts are striking. One has its feet planted firmly in the past, the other is taking a bold step into the future.
They're two of London's royal palaces, Buckingham and Kensington, respectively. And while Buckingham is surprising for its moments of normalcy (to which every homeowner will relate), it's the discreet snub of Diana, Princess of Wales, that leaves a lasting impression at Kensington. With the approaching Diamond Jubilee, both are launching major exhibitions to celebrate the royal stories. We arrive first at Buckingham, the Queen and Prince Philip's urban pile, for a guided tour of the state rooms that are used to host such visiting dignitaries as Stephen Harper and the Obamas, and the thousands upon thousands of members of the public who pay for a tour.
We move from room to room, our quietly passionate guide pointing out historical and architectural highlights. The giant red Ballroom, which was once crowded with up to 2,000 of Queen Victoria's friends dancing to the music of two orchestras (before Albert's death of course), housed Catherine's wedding dress last summer and will be the place to see the Queen's diamonds on display for the Jubilee. See that ribbon in the Queen's throne? It's actually a garter, representing the Order of Chivalry. Notice that the Welsh daffodil isn't among the flowers carved into this resplendent ceiling – Wales was only a principality then. Feel the theatricality of the rooms and note the added convenience of remote-operated chandeliers that lower for cleaning. The Vermeer in the Picture Gallery is exquisite in its simplicity, the Rembrandt is lovely, too.
This tour is very proper, perfect enunciation and all. Don't expect any juicy revelations about guests who lost their cool and pounded fists on the glass-like Spanish mahogany table in the State Dining Room (where dishes are set with a ruler to guarantee military-like precision), or about a canoodle on the couch in the wonderfully intimate White Drawing Room, which is actually a warm and inviting yellow (no wonder, since all that gilding is real gold).
But, confession time, I'm more fascinated by the condition of the wood floor that segues us from carpet to carpet, from room to room. I can't believe how remarkably bare it is (what looks almost like subfloor in one spot – shock! How unroyal!), and I'm bowled over by the simplicity of black painted scroll elsewhere. It reminds me of the decor I once considered while refinishing a century-old farmhouse in a village in Eastern Ontario.
And the carpeting. It's marked by the treads of thousands upon thousands of feet. Suddenly, I don't feel so bad about the rug in my basement back in Toronto.
Like everywhere else, even at Buckingham Palace the tour ends in a gift shop replete with Jubilee china, glittering tiaras and tawdry trinkets.
If Buckingham feels of faded glory, Kensington offers youthful hope with an unfortunate dash of snark.
It reopened this week after a £12-million transformation (journalists were given a sneak peek last week), with the historic state apartments reinterpreted to convey stories about the royals who lived within. The exhibition Victoria Revealed uses sound, quotes from her journals, images and a mix of historic and newly created pieces to capture the most important moments in her life: We learn about her first day as Queen (including the reactions from members of the Privy Council), her childhood (she was born in Kensington and spent her childhood there), falling in love (see her silk wedding dress and a manuscript Albert composed during their engagement), how she wielded power, and what happened after Albert's death.
The Queen's Apartments have a poignant and surprising "family tree" that brings to life the devastating attempts to create an heir. Queen Anne is especially tragic: Her 17 children died – 12 of them from miscarriages or still births. Only William lived to his 11th birthday – and supposedly collapsed after dancing his heart out at the party (so the story goes). The birthday room is haunting.
The King's Apartments offer a glimpse of royal life as it was 300 years ago, but it's at the entry to the staircase where I found one off-putting aspect of the otherwise forward-thinking and, at times, even whimsical presentation.
Near the captivating Mario Testino photograph of Diana, Princess of Wales, visitors are lured, fairy-tale style, down a hallway wallpapered with iconic Diana images. We're led to a small room housing five dresses (including a black strapless gown by Emanuel, on display for the first time). It's a surprisingly small room, a blink-and-you-miss-it affair.
Near the exit – you leave the same way you come in – you'll notice a door on your left marked "Servants' Secret Door – Use Only With Permission." And that seems to say it all. The Diana exhibit is tucked in a corner, supposedly near the servants' quarters, almost a footnote in this grand historical narrative. Which she is, in a governing sense. But in terms of popular opinion and the rebirth of the monarchy? Her dazzling fashion and today's outpouring of devotion and affection for her children has catapulted the monarchy to new modern heights. It seems a shame she's been treated like an afterthought.
(The door, by the way, opens to the staircase to the King's Quarters; I was told the labelling is meant as a joke for visiting children.)
Despite the Diana room, one leaves Kensington with a sense of rejuvenation. It's a breath of fresh air, a feeling of youth, of promise and hope.
The gift shop is better, too.
If you go
Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration is an unprecedented display of the Queen's jewels and Queen Victoria's coronation necklace and earrings. It is open to the public at Buckingham Palace from June 30 to July 8, and from July 31 to Oct. 7. ; 44-020-7766-7300.
Victoria Revealed (featuring more than 300 items from Historic Royal Palaces' collections and a variety of British lenders) and Diana: Glimpses of a Modern Princess (featuring five of her dresses and bespoke wallpaper by artist Julie Verhoeven) opened at Kensington Palace on March 26. .
Jubilee: A View from the Crowd is a temporary exhibition of objects produced for Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It opens on May 24 in the Pigott Galleries at Kensington Palace. .