To Buckingham Palace today with my Mum today to view the State Rooms and Royal Gifts exhibition for our delectation on the annual summer opening. I’ve been fortunate to attend the private views for previous exhibitions such as Fashioning a Reign, the 53 Coronation exhibit and The Queen’s Diamonds.
The curation of all the above was matchless. I was particularly taken with the coronation exhibit that showed HM’s magnificent Hartnell coronation gown and robe of state as well as Queen Victoria’s diamond collet necklace, the King George IV diamond diadem and the robes worn by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
Today’s trip to the palace was nothing short of soul-destroying. The visit began ten minutes before the allocated time whereby visitors were corralled into queues by walkie-talkie wielding kids from stage school on their summer jobs taking great delight in bossing and admonishing like Miss Jean Brodie.
Once inside we were penned into a queue for half an hour while further tadpoles with headsets shouted at the top of their lungs that we would be subjected to airport-style security checks: belts removed, phones in bags, shoes off, inappropriate piercings declared. It was like Gatwick in high season and utterly dehumanising.
Granted, we have to live in Jihadi London and security is paramount but would The Queen really approve of her guests being treated like cattle class on an EasyJet flight? To say the tour was overbooked is the understatement of the century. All I could think was £50 for two, 200 people every quarter of the hour and kerching. We were processed like pork sausages on a production line.
Once inside the palace we were treated to an exhibition that was quite frankly an international tour of toot that the poor dear Queen had been burdened with throughout her long reign. The curation was Orla Kiley boutique meets The Generation Game: endless displays of the most hideous objects that could ever be bestowed on a defenceless woman.
How HM and Prince Philip kept a straight face receiving such diplomatic gifts is a tribute to British fortitude. Canada burdened Her Majesty with a crude totem pole and a pair of knitted mittens. Australia gave her a boomerang that I am sure The Queen sincerely hoped would never come back. Uzbekistan gave her vases painted with The Queen and Prince Philip’s portraits: he looking like the late Shah of Iran and she like Joan Simms.
As Mum correctly said, you have to accept gifts gracefully though most of us have charity shops and rubbish dumps to offload such unwanted objects of veneration. It said an awful lot about John F. Kennedy’s hubris that he gave Her Majesty a signed photograph of himself (perfect for the under butler’s lavatory) or that Saudi Arabia gave her a model of camels and palm trees in solid gold that would be fun for Wills and Kate to use as a doorstop at Amner House.
Many of the Gulf State monarchs gave HM jewellery but that was conspicuously absent. In its place were tatty rugs from Botswana, a Brussels lace table mat that would look hideous in the White Drawing Room and a model of HMY Britannia that probably kept a young Prince Charles entertained in the bath for a night or two.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, we encountered a display dedicated to the late Diana, Princess of Wales as chosen by the Princes William and Harry. God it was rotten. The curator recreated Diana’s Kensington Palace writing desk down to a tatty black leather briefcase filled with cassettes of Duran Duran and Queen. The display was mawkish, ugly and ever so slightly reminiscent of turning bog standard objects into icons. Diana had such style and this echo did not do her proud.
A much greater crowd pleaser for Diana would be a single object such as her sapphire engagement ring or one dress that captured her beauty and glamour. Diana was given an awful lot of jewellery from foreign potentates that would have given this display the wow factor that the masses would have appreciated.
Buckingham Palace is an odd construction not beloved by any of the Royal Family. The stars of the palace are the chandeliers that could have been lit to add drama and the State Rooms that were ruined by the Ikea displays of ghastly gifts that most of us would have consigned to the loft. Perhaps Buckingham Palace was having a gap year with this exhibit and are cruising a little believing that the world wants access to the Monarch’s London home. For me, it was messy and lazy.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the promise that you came out in the garden. I have been to Buckingham Palace garden parties and it is a joy. On this tour, you leave the palace and there are ropes that lead your around the perimeter and out to be dumped onto a busy boring road. I believe you can book tickets for a tour of the gardens but I do think that for the ticket price a meander on the lawn would have shown class.
Instead, you are forced to run the gauntlet of the git shop where you can buy paste copies of The Queen’s Williamson Pink diamond brooch, tea towels and naff bits of corgi nonsense. I don’t think I saw a book in sight or anything approaching intellect about the British Royal Family. There was also a marquee pitched along the side of the palace doing catering. Kerching!
It is admirable that the Palace opens to the public in the summer time. It is appreciated that the Palace is seeking to pay for its own upkeep. But in naff contemporary terms ‘the visitor experience’ is tacky compared to Chatsworth or even Hampton Court Palace. My Mum deserved better.