There’s nothing unusual about collecting things. Many people do it, including some of the royals themselves. But just why do so many people enjoy collecting royal memorabilia in particular?
I’ll admit an interest in this now – I collect royal “things”. I don’t have a collection of specific royal items, such as commemorative china, or keepsakes. Instead, I collect all sorts of things that are associated with royalty. I also don’t buy everything “royal” that I see. For me, it generally has to be beautiful, have some kind of personal nostalgia associated with it, or be unusual.
My biggest collection is of royal books. Biographies, old and new, sit alongside books on royal fashion and jewellery and commemorative tomes produced to celebrate big occasions such as coronations and jubilees. Why do I like them so much? Well apart from being a compulsive reader (I would read the words on a cereal packet on the table in front of me if there was nothing else to read), I like learning. The Royals are so intertwined with British history that I can learn so much by reading about them. I also like reading each author’s assessment on character, although I might not always agree with their views. A few months ago, I wrote a blog about my top choices of royal biographies. I’ve also found that many old books are quite beautiful, and I enjoy their now old-fashioned cover designs, as well as seeing masses of them lined up or stacked in my very own “library” at home. On occasion, I can get a little obsessed. I’ve always admired the late Princess Grace of Monaco and I think I have almost every major book ever written about her. The ones I don’t have are missing because I simply haven’t been able to find them, don’t know they exist, or more rarely, they’ve been too expensive. I don’t always agree with the biographies that have been written about her, but I still have to have them!
Probably the best known collector of royal items is Margaret Tyler, whom the Telegraph described as “The queen of royal memorabilia.” In an interview with the newspaper in 2011, she talked about her collection of £40,000 worth of royal memorabilia – probably the most extensive private collection in the country and numbering over 10,000 pieces. It features china, tea towels, newspapers, videos and a replica of Charles and Camilla’s wedding certificate among many other things, all crammed into Mrs Tyler’s north-west London home. She herself says “It’s a mad house, I know, and some people say I’m obsessed, To which I say, ‘What about football fans?’ The only downside is all the dusting.” I rather admire Mrs Tyler. Collecting brings so much pleasure to many people, just as others have different hobbies. And just as Mrs Tyler started her collection with “a glass dish depicting the Queen’s head” costing 2.5p 32 years ago, there are plenty of cheap items out there now for anyone’s new royal collection.
King George V
I also collect royal postcards. I particularly like the black and white older postcards, ones I most often find at flea markets. At such markets, I have been known to spend quite some time at the postcard stall, spending most of my budget on a few pieces of card. To me, these pictures are also a part of history. A picture can quite often say so much more than words. These old postcards have a timeless quality, a nostalgia about the “good old days” and an inherent beauty as most of them are portraits taken by eminent photographers of the royal family, from Beaton to Snowdon.
We collectors (of anything) are in good royal company. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was an art collector – she too collected pieces not because they would be worth anything, but simply because she liked them. Famously, she bought the only Monet in the Royal Collection, Study of Rocks, the Creuse: ‘Le Bloc’ simply because she liked it, even thought she had been advised not to make the purchase as “it was unlikely to increase in value.” The painting is now displayed in Clarence House. Then there was Queen Mary, who described collecting as her “one great hobby.” Queen Mary was so enthusiastic in her collecting that when she visited friends, they would hide their treasures as she had a habit of hinting so heavily that she liked a particular object, that the owner would feel obliged to give it to the Queen as a “present”. Mary’s collection, particularly of items with a family history, is now in the Royal Collection, complete with detailed notes about each item, written in her own hand. Mary’s husband, King George V, had his own collection – stamps. The Official Website of the British Monarchy has a section dedicated to the history of the Royal Philatelic Collection. Like his wife, George was a very keen collector, supposedly spending three afternoons a week on his stamp collection whenever he was in London. The collection is world renowned for its completeness and it has been added to in the subsequent reigns of his son George VI and granddaughter Elizabeth II. I rather like the fact that George V once wrote to his philatelic adviser, J. A. Tilleard: “I wish to have the best collection & not one of the best collections in England.” I think his wish has been fulfilled.
I don’t particularly collect stamps, but I have a few special ones from recent royal occasions. These are a part of my “miscellaneous bits and pieces” collection. My family find all sorts of things to buy for me, including coronation and jubilee programmes and magazines from 1935, 1937 and 1953. On holiday this year I found myself in a quaint little toyshop full of old Dinky and Matchbox cars. While my son rooted around through the boxes and shelves, I found myself drawn towards the back of the shop where there were a few bric-a-brac items, probably put there to keep the mums happy. I found a small commemorative cup from the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, not in wonderful condition, but at just over £1, I couldn’t resist. I went back into the main shop very pleased, and happy to help my son with his car-hunting.
So if you want to start collecting royal memorabilia, where should you start? I would first of all say not to pay a lot of money for anything. Just like Queen Elizabeth, buy something because you love it. Postcards are a good place to start, especially the modern ones, as you can pick them up almost anywhere, there are any number of different pictures, they are cheap and they don’t take up too much space. Or why not think of a royal you particularly admire and try and find things associated with them? The perennially popular stamp collecting is a good way to get into royal collecting, as so many royals past and present have featured on British stamps. In fact, the Queen’s head must be on every stamp, whether a photo or portrait of her, or as the small silver profile in the corner.
I probably don’t own anything “royal” that is worth something in monetary terms. Certainly nothing I’ll be taking to the Antiques Roadshow any time soon. In fact, the sad reality is that most of the commemorative pieces produced for royal events are so mass produced that they won’t ever be worth anything. A quick trawl through eBay shows us that the search “royal memorabilia” produces 3,173 results and an amazing array of items mostly at very cheap prices. But the lack of “high value” status doesn’t stop us buying these things. Why? Probably because it is lovely to remember a big event that we “were there for”, whether we watched it on television or queued for hours in the rain to see the royals go by. Perhaps we are the same age as a particular royal, or got married at the same time, so we identify with them and the little piece of china is a small reminder of our lives as well as theirs. Or is it just an enjoyment of hunting for little pieces of history? It’s not for everyone and there will always be people who think it’s “sad”, but collecting certainly gives a lot of pleasure to many people, and if you choose to collect “royal” things, you’ll never be short of items to buy!
Do you collect anything “royal”? Or are you going to start? Tell us about your collections in the comments box below.
photo credit: andrewknots, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and ☺ Lee J Haywood via photopin cc