The Opening of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace has become one of the most popular and eagerly-anticipated fixtures of the British Summer. The palace was first opened to the public in 1993, when the late Queen, Elizabeth II, decided the cost of the repairs to the fire-damaged Windsor Castle should not come from public funds.
This year’s season will hold added interest for Royal fans with it marking the first Summer Opening since the Coronation of King Charles III. Royal Collection Trust has marked this historical moment with a fascinating, new Coronation display added to the tour of the King’s official London residence.
If you’ve never visited Buckingham Palace before, you’ll be struck by the lavishness and grandeur of the State Rooms. The Picture Gallery, which serves as the Palace’s principal reception area, boasts priceless paintings by the likes of Canaletto and Rubens. Just as you are suitably impressed by the artwork here, you turn the corner into the East Gallery with even bigger artwork. George Hayter’s enormous oil depiction of Queen Victoria’s coronation is a suitable wow moment – and not the only depicture of such a ceremony you’ll experience.
Visitors will have their favourite rooms, though the curved bay windows of the Music Room with the sunshine streaming in is hard to beat. If your design tastes veer towards a ‘more is more’ aesthetic, then prepare to gasp at the White Drawing Room. Why have one chandelier when you can have five! Whenever the decision to add gold to the room was taken, they certainly forgot to say “when”. There’s a grand piano so heavily decorated with gilt and bronze, that Elton John might even call it OTT!
But, whether you’ve visited Buckingham Palace before or if this is your first time, the Coronation display is undoubtedly the irresistible centrepiece of the 2023 Summer Opening.
No sooner do you begin the tour than you find yourself at the Quadrangle, familiar from the televised arrivals and exits of incoming and outgoing Prime Ministers (of which there have been several in recent years). It’s here that you have your first taste of the Coronation up close. 20 million Brits watched the Coronation on TV with millions more viewing across the world. They would have seen Charles and Camilla travelling to Westminster Abbey in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach and you find yourself standing just feet away from this historic transport. What makes this year’s Summer Opening so fascinating is that it puts you in such close proximity to very recent history. It’s one thing seeing this coach on telly. It’s a different thing being able to look at it right in front of you and make your own observations. Ours: for a coach weighing over three tons, it seems quite ‘cosy’. You get a real sense of how disproportionally large the windows are so that the occupants can be visible but it struck us how far from roomy it is. We’ve had more spacious Ubers!
But the main event takes place in the Ballroom of the Palace. As you approach the special Coronation display, the corridor is lined with images of King Charles and his mother at various moments in their life. For even the most casual supporters of the monarchy, there is something rather moving about this photographic timeline. The sense of Royal continuity is reinforced by a photo of Prince William, the future King, cradled in Princess Diana’s arms, surrounded by the late Queen and William’s father, in the middle of this sequence.
At the centre of the display are the outfits worn by Charles and Camilla as they left Westminster Abbey and as they appeared later on May 6 on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Encased in a glass cabinet but sensitively lit, you can see the incredible detail in the garments.
Looking at the King’s outfit, it’s easy to imagine not only how he wouldn’t only have been aware of the weight of the occasion, but also the heaviness of the robes. If you see exhibitions of film costumes, you often think how flimsy they are and yet the cinematic tricks of camera and lighting makes them look substantial. No trickery needed here. The heft of these outfits is instantly noticeable. Not least the length of the train, as captured in this photo by The Recs.
There has been much discussion how King Charles intends to modernise the monarchy – and indeed, the decision that Camilla should not be wear the Queen Mother’s coronation crown due to the controversy surrounding the Koh-i-Noor diamond that adorns it, was a wise one.
However, as you look at the King’s robe, previously worn by King George V in 1911 and King George VI in 1937, it’s impossible to ignore how much ermine there is. Even though it represents tradition, it feels like such a missed opportunity that Charles did not reject the white fur of the stoat and opt for a fake fur alternative.
What does strike you as you look through the assembled items of the fascinating Coronation display is quite how idiosyncratic so much of it is. The little details that the exhibits offer underline and give insight that to the people at the centre of these momentous occasions. There is something utterly endearing that Queen Camilla, as patron of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and as adopter of two rescue Jack Russells, Beth and Bluebell, has two terriers stitched into the design of her dress.
The arcane nature of a British Coronation does throw up quirks that are simultaneously intriguing and slightly bonkers! You will make up your own mind but we can report that the Anointing Screen is just as curious an object (think School Nativity vibes) as it appeared on screen. Similarly, the Coronation Gauntlet seems such an outlandish accoutrement, it could easily rival a glove worn by Thanos in the Marvel franchise.
The item that caught our eye most, not least by its sheer blingy sparkle, was the Coronation Necklace. Dating from 1858, it was made for Queen Victoria and has been worn by successive queen consorts (Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth and Elizabeth II). Jewellery fans, get ready to bill and coo. This entrancing necklace could make cat burglars of us all yet! (For transparency: that was a humorous aside and not an invitation to larceny)
If you are a fan of the Royal Family or are simply intrigued by this moment in time, the 2023 Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace is an absolute must-see. To be only footsteps away from recent history is too tempting a chance to miss!