Wedding memories at Buckingham Palace

IAN COLLINS Diamonds are at the centre of a Buckingham Palace display celebrating the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s diamond wedding. But Ian Collins was more moved by homelier relics of a happy couple’s big day back in 1947.

IAN COLLINS

They're changing the garb at Buckingham Palace - and to mark the Queen and Prince Philip's looming diamond wedding, a very special exhibition for the summer opening is taking us back to the culture and couture of November 20, 1947.

The display, entitled A Royal Wedding, ranges from the terrifically opulent to the touchingly ordinary and underlines just how badly our bombed and rationed nation needed a party.

In the grey years between VJ Day and the Festival of Britain, the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten brought a blissful burst of colour. Gifts flooded in; crowds went wild. Pack up your troubles in a royal trousseau.


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For the first time since that November day the palace show reunites all the outfits worn by the principal members of the wedding party - a triumph for Norman "Simplicity is the death of the soul" Hartnell and a team of seamstresses including the likes of Mam'selle Davide, Miss Holliday and Betty. A fascinating insight into mid-20th century style, skill and class.

Like any bride of the time, the heir to the throne had been awarded a bonus of 250 clothing coupons by the government. Wanting a truly spectacular spectacle, many women sent their own allowances to the palace - only to have them returned due to a killjoy law banning ration access from being given away.

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But the millions in their drab utility dresses were not to be disappointed: Hartnell spangled a sea of silk with many thousands of seed pearls, and based his dazzling design for the 13-foot bridal train on Botticelli's Primavera - symbolising rebirth and growth after the war.

This was also a marriage of private and public. What was clearly a love match was also a further linking of close family connections - Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark had been acquainted from childhood.

Speculation of a romance had flared from the mid-1940s and the suitor had renounced his own royal title and become a naturalised British citizen in February 1947, ready for an engagement announcement on July 10.

Given all the formalities of state, and the grandeur of history and the call of the future, the bride was showered with gorgeous jewels. Her diamond tiara was originally made for her grandmother, Queen Mary, and her two pearl necklaces had reputedly belonged to Queens Anne and Caroline (the latter consort of George II).

The queen dowager, a most stately figure at the wedding, had also given a pair of pearl and diamond earrings that she herself had received for her 20th birthday.

The groom presented the bride with a stonking piece of bling. Doubtless the most impressive part for the recipient (who even then preferred more casual attire) was that he had designed the diamond bracelet himself.

Piles of very particular presents made this affair a perfect period piece. Kent sent boxes of apples, while the governor of Queensland despatched 500 tins of pineapple, for distribution as the princess saw fit.

Patriotic manufacturers and other royal admirers sent 131 pairs of nylons, 17 pairs of silk stockings, 38 handbags, 30 scarves, 21 pairs of gloves and 16 nightgowns. The Women of Devonshire chipped in, as did the Elizabeths, Alexandras and Marys in the Borough of Twickenham.

The palace display includes a double-lidded silver casket from the Lord Mayor and Citizens of Norwich, inscribed with the city's coat of arms, and a gold pen in quill form from the Chartered Institute of Secretaries with which the happy couple signed the marriage register.

With hindsight many of the gifts showed history in dramatic transition - among them Queen Helen of Rumania's musical box and King Farouk of Egypt's gold and jade necklace. There were two thrones in the process of being lost.

A China service from president Chiang Kai Shek of… China was delivered barely two years before the nationalist leader lost the mainland to Mao's armies.

And while the Maharaja of Patiala sent a carved ivory table, and the Nizam of Hyderabad yet another diamond necklace, Mahatma Gandhi contributed a small piece of textile woven from yarn that he himself had spun. That bore the legend JAR HIND (Long Live India) in the year of a sub-continent's division and independence.

When I last dreamed about the Queen, she came for tea at my terrace house in south London - arriving in the coronation coach and dressed in all the finery of state. But many folk in the supposedly deferential 1940s had a more homely view of the monarch-to-be.

Her gifts included an electric washing machine and a refrigerator. For me the most poignant (and comic) exhibit is the Singer sewing machine from the Provost and Council of Clydebank - proof of what civic fathers imagined as the chief domestic aspiration of any new bride.

And then there's a prototype HMV radiogram virtually the size of a battleship. That was a present from Sir Malcolm Sargent, possibly so the royals could catch his prom concerts without the bother of actually attending.

I found an unexpected sweetness in the confectionery section. One cake was baked by Peek Frean, while the official wedding cake - a nine-foot tiered creation with ingredients provided by the girl guides of Australia - was the pièce de résistance of McVitie and Price.

Here at heart was an exercise in patriotism, with profoundly personal touches. Panic spread from a rumour that the silk for the bride's dress had come from Japanese or Italian worms - enemy worms! - before a reassurance that the cocoons came from China.

The bride's bouquet of "a modern type", supplied by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, included the traditional sprig of myrtle from a bush beside Osborne House on the Isle of Wight grown from a piece in the wedding bouquet of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, the Princess Royal.

At such a patriotic moment no one recalled, or at least cared to mention, that Victoria's ultimately tragic daughter had given birth to the Kaiser.

Summer opening of the state rooms of Buckingham Palace is from today until September 25. Open 9.45am-6pm daily. Timed tickets with admission every 15 minutes.

Admission - including entry to the special exhibition A Royal Wedding: 20 November 1947 - costs £15 for adults, with concessions from £8.50. Family tickets (two adults, three under-17s) £38.50.

Advance tickets are available from www.royalcollection.org.uk and 020 7766 7300.

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