Last weekend, Karen Kilrow and I visited the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. I was looking forward to it, even though I had been some years before. What I was most looking forward to, however, was the new exhibition for 2013, “The Queen’s Coronation 1953”.
Coronation Portrait of The Queen painted by Sir Herbert James Gunn
The exhibition celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, the year after she acceded to the throne. The Royal Collection Trust’s tells us that:
“This summer marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most momentous occasions in 20th-century British history – the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. To mark the anniversary of the event, a major exhibition for the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace will bring together for the first time since Coronation Day, a spectacular array of dress, uniform and robes worn by the principal royal party. Works of art, paintings and objects used on the day will also be on display to recreate the atmosphere of that extraordinary occasion.”
As a particular lover of history and vintage fashion, I was suitably excited. On the day, we found that the exhibition actually starts earlier in the tour than we expected, soon after entry in the Lower Corridor, where we saw the Coronation Frieze, a colourful mural consisting of 14 panels, by Feliks Topolski (who was the official artist of the Coronation), which was commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1959. At the edge of the Quadrangle (the inner courtyard) we heard an account of the Queen and the Duke leaving in the Gold State Coach on their way to Westminster Abbey. Upstairs, we soon arrived in the Green Drawing Room. This was the room where the famous official photographs were taken by Cecil Beaton, and we could see displays of the photographs in the positions in which they were taken. Then onto the Throne Room, where more photos were taken, and we saw footage from the big day itself. After touring around more of the State Rooms with our audio tour, we were told that we were about to enter the main exhibition space and we should remove our headsets as it would be a “fully immersive experience”.
As we walked into a darkened Ball Supper Room, which is the room usually used for Buckingham Palace’s summer exhibitions, we were truly immersed into “Coronation fever”. Sitting in rows, one complete wall was filled with different projected films of the nation’s preparations for the Coronation. There was so much to take in, it was hard to remember the individual films I saw, but I came away with a sense of the excitement of the build up. Walking into the Ballroom, I saw (comparing it with my last visit) that it has been divided up by large walls, so as we walked along part of it now made into a corridor, we were told of the six principal stages of the Coronation ceremony itself:
The Coronation Invitation issued to Prince Charles
The Recognition, during which the people acclaim the new Sovereign
The Oath, by which the Sovereign pledges to serve the people
The Anointing, an act of consecration when the Sovereign is anointed with oil on the hands, breast and head
The Investiture, when the Sovereign is presented with the symbols of sovereignty, culminating in the Crowning
The Homage, during which the Church and the peerage pledge their loyalty
The Communion, during which the Sovereign receives the sacramental bread and wine
The relevant parts of the ceremony were shown on a screen, which I think we were all supposed to glance at and walk past, but it was so mesmerising that a large group of visitors formed to watch it in its entirety.
Prince Charles and Princess Anne in their Coronation outfits
Then, at last, we were into what must be considered the showpiece of this exhibition. The main part of the Ballroom was set up to display various “things” connected with the Coronation. We saw the magnificent dress and jewellery worn by the Queen herself, the outfits worn by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the maids of honour, and others besides. One thing that particularly caught our eyes was the hand painted, personal and unique illustrated invitation for Prince Charles to attend the Coronation. I was also stunned by the intricacy of the dress the Queen wore for the annointing – seemingly simple, the white dress is a marvel of construction, with endless pleats. In contrast, the Coronation dress is absolutely full of embroidery and beading and must have been incredibly heavy to wear.After spending quite a while in the Ballroom, we entered the State Dining Room to see tables arranged as they would have been for the Coronation State Banquets held on 3rd and 4th June 1953. The remaining State Rooms after this are not particularly significant in respect of the Coronation, but are interesting in themselves. They include the Music Room, where Prince William was christened, and the White Drawing Room which has a special hidden door through which the Queen enters from her private apartments when she entertains guests in the State Rooms.
Our tour ended in the garden, where every year an impressive shop in a tent is created. I found myself looking out onto the lawn and remembering pictures of the newly married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge walking out across the grass to their helicopter the day after their wedding. Quite a long walk through the gardens lead us to the exit – a small gate on Grosvenor Place. I’d recommend a visit to Buckingham Palace any year, to see the State Rooms. The exhibitions are always excellent – when I last visited in 2005, I saw the famous “White Wardrobe” worn by Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) in 1938 and immortalised in portraits by Cecil Beaton. But this year in particular, I was not disappointed at all by the Coronation Exhibition, in fact, I saw more than I expected to see, and was awestruck by so many priceless artefacts. Well worth making the trip to London.
The White Drawing Room with the Queen’s secret doorway behind the mirror on the left