Untold Lives
Images copyright Gareth Gardner for Nissen Richards Studio / Historic Palaces

Nissen Richards Studio designs new exhibition for Historic Royal Palaces to reveal ‘Untold Lives’

Nissen Richards Studio as Architects

Nissen Richards Studio has completed the exhibition and graphic design for a new exhibition called ‘Untold Lives’ in the Pigott Galleries at Kensington Palace for client Historic Royal Palaces (the independent charity that cares for the Palace). The show, which runs until 27 October 2024, switches the focus to those who worked at the royal palaces in the 17th and 18th centuries, making the invisible newly visible and using multiple contemporary devices to bring their fascinating stories to life.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

‘The subtle design task for this exhibition’ Pippa Nissen, Director of Nissen Richards Studio commented, ‘was to bring people to life without disguising the historical reality of their status. One of the focuses was the use of contemporary narrative ideas, including graphic devices and specially-commissioned artwork, to imagine and communicate the reality of these previously-hidden lives, especially where few objects survive.’

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

Design Principles:

The five design principles that formed the basis of the design approach were:

1 - Making the invisible visible  
Palace servants formed an integral part of palace life, but little is often known about them as individuals. The design sought to provide glimpses of people usually hidden behind the scenes, including new photography created by the design team, used to create shadows and silhouettes, before personal stories are revealed through the scheme’s rich and vibrant design.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

The curation and interpretation of the exhibition, carried out by experts in the Historic Royal Palaces team, were informed and inspired by the rich detail preserved within the royal account books, which list names, roles and pay levels of many of those employed through palace history. From this, people’s origins and identities were investigated, creating a clear geographical pattern of origins, along with skill sets, to clarify where people would have worked, from kitchens and laundries to the specialist staff looking after lighting or, for example, the preparation of food and royal feasts.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

2 - Powered by people

A vast number of servants were needed to run a royal household – especially without today’s technology or labour-saving devices. As these people were the central focus of the exhibition, the design had to ensure they were encountered at each point as the visitor weaves through each room-set.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

3 - Intimate moments

Some servants would have historically provided very personal services to members of the royal family, present in their most private moments. Nissen Richards Studio proposed creating small intimate spaces to meet these particular servants, providing a sense of the closeness of these relationships through the spatial design treatment.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

4 - Revealing the unexpected

Visitors are likely to be surprised by some of the professions undertaken in a palace, such as the official rat-catcher or the Keeper of the Ice and Snow. Elements of surprise and theatre were to accompany these surprising revelations of roles.

5 - Making connections with today

The exhibition aims to represent the diversity of servants who worked at the palace, from different social and economic, racial and ethnic, national and religious backgrounds. It also showcases the variety of functions performed. Can the visitor see themselves in any of the individuals they meet? Contemporary voices add another dimension and help the visitor make connections to life today.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

Visually, these approaches were expressed through interplays of presence and absence; revealing and unveiling; illumination and the shedding of light on what was previously unseen, bringing new stories into focus through strong colour and vibrancy. This can particularly be seen, for example, in the bold reds and blues of the new fabric linings inside the exhibition’s showcases. The paint colours used for the walls – all by Little Greene – refer to the historical focus period of the exhibition, whilst complementing the bright fabrics used for the display cases via a rich-but-muted colourway. Ordinary objects from the past are also brought to the fore throughout the exhibition to illustrate the working lives of palace staff.

New Art and Photography Commissions:

Historic Royal Palaces’ Interpretation Manager Carol Swords, working with the curatorial team, led the commission of a series of new artworks for this exhibition that sought to distill and interrogate its themes. These include a photographic portrait by Peter Braithwaite, a series of ceramic plates by artist Matt Smith and portraits of Historic Royal Palaces staff by photographer Robert Taylor.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

Visitor Walk-Through:

A graphic threshold area at the outset shows how the hierarchy of command for staff functioned in the 17th and 18th centuries, displayed directly onto the wall as a form of staff family tree.

Visitors are also welcomed through by a portrait of Theodore Randue, the Housekeeper of Windsor Castle, as he ‘unlocks’ the door for them to enter the exhibition. The visitor then passes through a series of room-sets, each with a dedicated theme. These start with ‘Origins and Identities’, moving on to ‘Skills and Expertise’ and ‘Status’, looking at how status was communicated – eg through the livery of the guards. A fourth room-set houses a large reproduction of an historical painting depicting a tea party, with a new lighting treatment that draws the viewers’ attention away from the guests to the staff serving in the background.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

The fifth space is firstly the locus for the Matt Smith ceramics series telling the story of Gustavus Guydickens, with a second section looking at ‘Care and Intimacy’ and focusing on the staff who covered the nursery, health and medical aspects of royal life, with intimate narratives and spaces supporting the storyline of intimate actions.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

Manipulated graphic depictions of workers with shadow figures on the walls show both how people are and were constantly at work in the palaces, in their more usual anonymous state. Some of these were taken from photographs, whilst others were created by Nissen Richards Studio, helping to create also a sense of movement.

The sixth room deals with ‘Legacies of Untold Lives’, where pages from the account books become a kind of environmental wallpaper, surrounding the room’s central focus object area, where we see a number of objects given to workers by royalty – eg to Anne Percy, in recognition of her service as a wet nurse during George III’s reign.

photo_credit All images by Gareth Gardner
All images by Gareth Gardner

The room also features a gold chair, commissioned by Queen Charlotte and embroidered by orphaned young women in 1780s London, whilst artworks in the room include an unknown page boy and a piece by contemporary artist Barbara Walker.

The exhibition’s final area features bespoke shelving, housing postcard-sized snapshots of current staff working at Historic Royal Palaces today.

Project Spotlight
Product Spotlight
News
Batlleiroig recovers and improves historic promenade in Reus
24 Jul 2024 News
Batlleiroig recovers and improves historic promenade in Reus

Barcelona-based Batlleiroig, a multidisciplinary planning, landscaping, and architecture studio, has... More

Semillas creates educational space in Peru’s central jungle to promote cultural and environmental preservation
24 Jul 2024 News
Semillas creates educational space in Peru’s central jungle to promote cultural and environmental preservation

Established in 2014, Semillas is a Peruvian non-profit organization that develops architectural proj... More

MVRDV imagines mixed-use Pixel development in Abu Dhabi as an oyster
23 Jul 2024 News
MVRDV imagines mixed-use Pixel development in Abu Dhabi as an oyster

International architectural practice MVRDV has completed Pixel, a mixed-use development project in A... More

Atelier L’Abri’s design for minimal wooden pavilion embraces sustainable regeneration and self-sufficiency
22 Jul 2024 News
Atelier L’Abri’s design for minimal wooden pavilion embraces sustainable regeneration and self-sufficiency

Montreal-based architecture and construction studio Atelier L’Abri has completed the Melba Pav... More

Seattle’s Maritime Innovation Center: A catalyst for the Blue Economy
19 Jul 2024 News
Seattle’s Maritime Innovation Center: A catalyst for the Blue Economy

The Port of Seattle recently broke ground on the new Maritime Innovation Center at Fishermen’s... More

Monumental sculptures appear to embrace and support Fragment Apartments in Prague
19 Jul 2024 News
Monumental sculptures appear to embrace and support Fragment Apartments in Prague

Prague-based creative studio QARTA Architektura has completed the development of an apartment comple... More

Key recent projects by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten
19 Jul 2024 News
Key recent projects by Baumschlager Eberle Architekten

Baumschlager Eberle Architekten is an international architectural firm known for its contextual inte... More

XISUI Design creates serene woven metal pavilion inspired by bird nest and eggshell structures
18 Jul 2024 Innovations
XISUI Design creates serene woven metal pavilion inspired by bird nest and eggshell structures

Shanghai-based XISUI Design is a multidisciplinary studio with a team of architects, installation ar... More