This October, Winterthur is launching a new exhibition series, Eye on the Iconic. The concept behind Eye on the Iconic is to closely examine an iconic object. The first in the series is a well-known replica of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gown, which was used on the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series The Crown. This gown allows us to explore the design and iconography of the original and helps us to understand how it became iconic and what the significance is of a replica object. While the historical and cultural significance of the original dress is self-evident, this replica is interesting because it was created for the celebration of the queen’s jubilee and was used as a costume in The Crown. A literal icon, the replica invites us to look at why commemorative objects such as the dress and coronation souvenirs play such an important role in our experience and memory of historical events.
Considering this question led me to wonder exactly how Ruth Wales and Henry Francis du Pont remembered their trips to England and their own encounters with the royal family. Their keepsakes and correspondence in the Winterthur Archives did not disappoint.
H. F.’s papers in the Winterthur Archives include postcards from various houses and gardens he visited in England. Some include notes on the back regarding what he saw. Among the social visits and trips to see various collections and gardens, the du Ponts also had the opportunity to attend some special royal occasions. Ruth recorded details of these events in her diary and letters.
Long before Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, H. F. and Ruth had attended a garden party at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, were the guests of honor to hosts Ambassador and Lady Lindsay. In a letter on June 12, 1939, Ruth recounts the June 8 party:
“Finally we heard the cheers of the populace and knew that the Royal couple were arriving at the Embassy. In a few moments Lady Lindsay and the Queen began a tour of the grounds and Sir Ronald and the King made a tour in a different direction. Everyone acted well, no one crowded around. All stood quiet and were dignified.
The Queen is simply enchanting, so charming in manner, so pretty, such poise. Everyone was wild about her. She wore the most beautiful white dress imaginable and the way she raised her hand in greeting is a gesture too charming to attempt to describe. It is not a wave or a hail, but something between the two.
The King is attractive, but cannot touch the Duke of Windsor for looks as he was ten years ago. The King is not nearly as tall as I expected. He is not a short man, but certainly not tall, and he is very slight. I should think he is very sweet and has a good deal of charm. . . . I think he looks delicate and I am terribly sorry they have had this overpowering heat to bear, for I am afraid they won’t remember much else.”
Similarly, Ruth expressed her interest in the royal family and her concern following the death of King George VI in a letter she wrote to Mrs. Lillian Best of Yorkshire, England, on May 10, 1952:
“I was delighted to hear from you and can assure you that all Americans shared your sorrow in the death of your King. We had a young Englishman here the other day, a Major Barber, who is, I believe, head of Exbury Garden (property of the Rothschild family). He is here lecturing on orchids and rhododendrons. He has travelled here from coast to coast, and told me he was very much impressed by the admiration of all Americans for your Royal Family and by the sincere expressions of their sorrow on the death of the King.”
In this letter Ruth acknowledges the American adoration of the royal family, a fascination that lives on today as Americans make a point of watching royal weddings, keeping up with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their children, or marking the queen’s 91st birthday.
It seems that H. F. may have been just as enamored with the ceremony associated with England’s royal family. On June 13, 1959, the du Ponts attended the queen’s birthday parade and witnessed the Trooping of the Color. Among the treasures in the archives, I found the tickets and the program from the event as well as a separate booklet all about the Queen’s Guards. While the queen’s actual birthday is April 21, it is in June that the people officially celebrate her birthday with the Trooping of the Color, a parade of the queen’s personal troops and a display put on by more than 1,400 men and officers, 200 horses, and 400 musicians from 10 bands and drum corps that play as one.
What charmed me most about these keepsakes was not the image of H.F. and Ruth sitting along the parade path from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade via the Mall, but the note he inscribed on the back of the program. For H. F., the parade was “simply marvelous.”
Ruth also remembered the day and noted the special nature of the event; however, she did not seem as impressed. She recorded the event in her diary with the following description, “Up betimes on the most perfect of days as we are to go to see the Trooping of the Color. This was a wonderful experience and the regiments were wonderfully drilled and equally wonderfully rehearsed. An enormous number of spectators as well, both those in seats, and also those across the street in the St. James Park. The Queen rode at the head of the troops; the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret having driven in beforehand as spectators. I was disappointed in the selections played by the band. They played well, and at great length but the selections were unfamiliar and I thought, uninspiring.”
At other times however, Ruth does seem to have found the pomp and circumstance of these royal events just as intriguing as H. F. did. A few years later when the du Ponts visited England, they attended an Order of the Garter Ceremony. Tucked among the house and garden brochures and postcards that H. F. saved from the 1962 England trip, I found the program from the Order of the Garter service.
The Order of the Garter is one of the ancient orders of knighthood in Europe. King Edward III founded the order in 1348. Today the queen appoints both men and women to the order, and those appointments are announced on St. George’s Day (April 23), since St. George is the patron saint of the order. Members of the order include the queen, appointed members of the royal family, and 24 knights chosen by the queen for their service to the public or to her. The royal family’s website explains, “The annual iconic Garter Day procession, where The Queen and the Knights process in grand velvet robes, glistening insignia and plumed hats, is one of the most traditional ceremonies in the Queen’s calendar.”
Ruth recognized the grand nature of this event to which the Marquess of Salisbury had given tickets to her and H. F. She wrote, “The ceremony began at 3:00 with every kind of pomp and majesty. The procession was impressive and the whole ceremony, breath-taking.”
With this fall’s exhibition of the replica coronation gown, we look at not only the fascination for the royal family that inspires shows such as The Crown, but also at the objects and memorabilia that are created to celebrate the queen, such as this replica dress, which was originally displayed in a Harrods department store window designed to recognize the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (a 60-year anniversary).
See Royal Splendor: The Coronation Gown from The Crown, October 20, 2017–January 7, 2018, at Winterthur.
Post by Kim Collison, Manager of Exhibitions & Collection Planning, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
British Orders and Awards. Kaye & Ward Limited, 1968.
The home of the Royal Family, www.royal.uk
“Trooping the Colour.” The Household Division: Seven British Army Regiments serving Her Majesty