A forthcoming exhibition, ‘Untold Lives: A Palace at Work,’ set to open at Kensington Palace in London this March, sheds light on the untold stories of royal staff working behind the scenes. Among the featured tales is that of Abdullah, an Indian “wild cat keeper” believed to have been hired to care for royal tigers during the Raj era. The exhibition aims to spotlight the often-overlooked contributions of black and South Asian royal servants and attendants from the 18th century onwards.
Historic Royal Palaces, the charity caring for Britain’s palaces, seeks to recognize the essential yet neglected roles of various individuals who managed life at court. From butlers to cooks, wet nurses to seamstresses, the exhibition reveals the diverse workforce that played a crucial role in maintaining royal households. Sebastian Edwards, co-exhibition curator, emphasizes the importance of acknowledging these individuals and celebrating the lasting legacy of their contributions to historic places.
The exhibition goes beyond familiar narratives, uncovering unexpected origins and identities of palace staff. One such figure is a Turkish valet, Ernst August Mustapha von Misitri, known as Mustapha, portrayed in a previously unrevealed portrait by Godfrey Kneller. The exhibition aims to showcase the breadth and diversity of roles required to run palaces, revealing lesser-known positions such as the ‘Keeper of Ice and Snow.’ Frances Talbot, a woman who managed the royal icehouse at Hampton Court Palace in the 1770s, will have her story revealed for the first time.
In addition to the everyday roles, the exhibition explores the vital security contributions of palace workers. Servants and staff played a pivotal role in saving Kensington Palace from fire on three separate occasions. The display includes seemingly ordinary items like a fire bucket and an oil lantern, emphasizing the people power that ensured the safety and survival of the palace.
‘Untold Lives’ seeks to rewrite the narrative of palace life, acknowledging the diverse and often overlooked individuals whose efforts were instrumental in maintaining the grandeur of historic royal residences.