The second invitation to Buckingham Palace in as many weeks for the private view of The Queen’s Coronation 1953 exhibition in the State Rooms of the palace. As you’ll recall, the last jaunt was among a cast of thousands for the Coronation Festival; a rather glorified and glorious garden fete for all of the Royal Warrant holders. No, I’m not in and out of the palace like a fiddler’s elbow and yes there is something incredibly thrill-making about presenting one’s credentials at the North Gate and being waved past into the quadrangle.
At first I thought this was the press preview but with ears pinned back like a fruit bat it became apparent that many of the guests invited to the private view of The Queen’s Coronation had actually attended the ceremony in 1953. As I walked along the palace corridor lined with Feliks Topolski’s Coronation mural and past the bronze of Prince Philip, I overheard the chap in front of me describing his duties as assistant to Cecil Beaton who took the Coronation Portraits in the Throne Room. Two immaculately coiffed ladies with ramrod-straight posture had served as HMs Maids of Honour at the 53.
On arrival in the Throne Room we were shown what can only be described as colour home movies of the Royal Family posing for the official Coronation portrait. Now I’ve overused the phrase ‘a blaze of diamonds’ many a time in books and features but until I’d seen that footage I had no idea of the power and splendour of diamonds when worn en masse. The Queen’s Imperial State Crown ordinarily eclipses all other jewels and yet it was finessed by the fire power of other royal ladies’ jewels. There was the Queen Mother habitually patting her coiffure like a Gaiety Girl wearing a coronet set with Koh-i-Noor and Princess Margaret, beauteous but petulant, wearing the Cartier Halo tiara loaned by her mother.
Though the coronation ‘home movie’ screen was a prelude to the exhibit, I found it hard to move on. Will there be another occasion when the British aristocracy take their diamonds out of the family vault, clean them and sail forth en masse like a bejewelled Armada ever again? I particularly enjoyed the sight of Mary Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, The Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, looking serenely unaware of the tiara envy surrounding her. The Devonshire diamond fender is a whopper. When Queen Mary once complained of jewellery fatigue to Evelyn Duchess of Devonshire, the lady was said to comment ‘Queen Mary doesn’t know what a heavy tiara is’.
From the Throne Room we were led to the Picture Gallery groaning with Old Masters where footmen stood with trays of champagne and occasional tables were laid with nibbles. It always amuses to see guests at the Palace affecting a nonchalant attitude when surrounded by such splendour: handing round the pretzels (I kid you not) like Beverley in Abigail’s Party. I was most interested to see how young many of the footmen (and women) were on duty at the Palace and how friendly they all were.
The State Room off the Picture Gallery, set up as a grand projection room, made one one realise what a superb job the Royal Collection Trust makes of showing off the Crown collections. Chapeaux to the curators for the coup de theatre of leading us through the palace’s many state rooms showing nothing but film footage until you think the tour is finished with colour footage of the Coronation ceremony itself. But turn a dark corner into the ballroom and there, displayed exquisitely in glass cases, are the treasures from the 53 Coronation. It is at this point that you understand no other museum nationally or internationally can compete with the Royal Collection Trust.
The centrepiece is s long glass case displaying The Queen’s Coronation Dress: a Norman Hartnell crinoline with sweetheart neckline so heavily encrusted with scalloped tiers of leek, shamrock, thistle and rose motifs that it could practically stand on its own. The dress is shown with the purple velvet Coronation Robe trimmed with a substantial border of Canadian ermine. It was rather a thrill to see Hartnell’s sketches and samples of hand-embellishment displayed on embroidery hoops.
The Queen’s Coronation Dress and those made for The Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Princess Marina and the Maids of Honour are masterpieces of royal fashion designed of course to show off royal jewels and harmonise with the glitter and gold of robes and coronets. I was utterly thrilled to see the George IV diamond and pearl diadem again. The diadem looks so substantial in photographs and yet in a display case the old cut diamonds and irregular pearls appear strangely fragile.
The curator Caroline de Guitaut deserves a medal (if she hasn’t already received an MVO) for cracking open the royal jewel vaults and showing Queen Victoria’s diamond Coronation necklace and earrings, her fringe brooch and the Cartier Halo tiara last worn by the Duchess of Cambridge at her wedding in 2011. Somebody asked whether the regalia would be on show – the crown, sceptre, orb etc – but that I think would have been gilding the lily not to mention robbing the Tower of London of tourist receipts in their absence. The most magical sight for me was the plain pleated linen Anointing Dress not seen since The Queen wore it for the 53 Coronation. Suffice to say, if there’s one exhibition you see in London this summer it is The Queen’s 53.