The annual Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace has returned this year. It’s when we get to look around the Palace’s State Rooms while the Queen is away. Each time there is a special exhibition and this year it’s Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Accession.
After the Windsor Castle fire in 1992, the decision was taken to open Buckingham Palace to visitors to raise funds for the repairs. The summer opening started in 1993 with a plan to run each year until 1997 but it proved so popular it became an annual event.
Obviously, 2020 was an unusual year and last year we could picnic on the lawn as the Buckingham Palace Gardens were opened. But this year, we can go back inside.
Following on from the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June, this year’s special exhibition looks at Her Majesty The Queen’s Accession in February 1952 and the start of a historic reign.
The Queen’s image on stamps and coins until 1971 came from a series of portraits by Dorothy Wilding. For the first time, Wilding’s original hand-finished prints are shown alongside items of jewellery worn by Her Majesty for the portrait sittings, some of which have never been on public display before.
Here, you can see photographs from the initial sitting which was just weeks after The Queen came to the throne aged 25.
The photographs are accompanied by examples of Her Majesty’s personal jewellery worn for the portrait sittings. This includes the Diamond Diadem – one of Her Majesty’s most widely recognised pieces of jewellery.
The second photographic sitting was organised so that additional portraits could be taken of The Queen wearing a coronet as this was felt to be more appropriate for official use on coins and postage stamps. A crown could not be worn as the Coronation did not take place until 2 June 1953. So the Diamond Diadem was selected.
Originally created for George IV’s extravagant coronation in 1821, the Diamond Diadem is set with 1,333 brilliant-cut diamonds. Above which are diamonds set in the form of a rose, a thistle and two shamrocks – the national emblems of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Diadem was inherited in 1837 by Queen Victoria, who was frequently painted and photographed wearing it, including on several early postage stamps such as the Penny Black.
Queen Elizabeth wore this on the day of her Coronation and it has been worn by Her Majesty on her journey to and from the State Opening of Parliament since the first year of her reign.
The Queen’s final sitting with Dorothy Wilding took place in May 1956, shortly before Wilding retired. The portraits were commissioned by the Bank of England for new currency, though ultimately the images were not used. The Queen is shown wearing the Vladimir Tiara, which was made for Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia around 1874 and sold by her daughter to Queen Mary in 1921. Inherited by The Queen in 1953, the tiara is unusual in that it can be worn in a variety of ways, as its pendant emeralds can be removed or substituted for pearls.
Her Majesty also chose to wear the spectacular Delhi Durbar necklace for this final sitting. The necklace incorporates nine emeralds originally owned by Queen Mary’s grandmother, the Duchess of Cambridge. It also has an 8.8 carat diamond pendant cut from the Cullinan diamond – the largest diamond ever found. It was made for Queen Mary as part of a suite of jewellery created for the Delhi Durbar in 1911 and was inherited by Her Majesty in 1953. The accompanying emerald and diamond earrings are also on display for the first time.
Dorothy Wilding began taking photographs of members of the Royal Family in the 1920s. In May 1937 she became the first official female royal photographer when she was appointed to take the portraits at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The 11-year-old Princess Elizabeth featured in the photographs along with her sister Princess Margaret. The display here includes the embellished cream dress, purple robe and gold coronet worn by the young Princess for her parents’ coronation.
The photographs here do not get to portray how small she was as a child.
Ten years later in July 1947, Wilding was called upon to capture the official engagement portraits for Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.
In February 1952, Wilding was commissioned to take the first official photographs of the new Queen Elizabeth, just 20 days after the Accession. The series of photographs that Wilding took during this session (see above) and a second session two months later have become some of the most enduring images of the Royal Family, and of 20th-century Britain more generally, as they form the basis for the profiles and silhouettes of Her Majesty that we see on stamps and coins to this day.
Many of the items of jewellery worn by The Queen for the portrait sittings held personal connections for the young monarch. They included a sapphire and diamond Cartier bracelet, which was given to her by her father King George VI as an 18th birthday present in 1944.
Another birthday gift was the South Africa necklace, given to Princess Elizabeth for her 21st birthday by the Government and Union of South Africa. The necklace originally consisted of 21 brilliant-cut diamonds, but in 1952 it was shortened and the six removed stones were made into a matching bracelet, which is also on display.
While I mentioned above that Princess Elizabeth was a small child as Queen Elizabeth, she is also a small adult. The bracelet appears tiny – certainly smaller than my wrist – but she is only 5’3″.
One of Her Majesty’s most recognisable jewels is The Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara. The diamond tiara was a gift to the future Queen Mary, on the occasion of her marriage to the future King George V in 1893. Queen Mary in turn gave the tiara as a wedding present to her granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth, in November 1947.
At the same time, Queen Mary also gave Princess Elizabeth the Dorset Bow Brooch and a pair of diamond bangles.
Again, scale is lost in these images, but the Dorset Bow Brooch is probably 3–4 inches and the bangles looked more child-size than adult.
On display for the first time, the bangles are thought to have been made in India, where traditionally one would be worn on each wrist to signify matrimony.
Another wedding gift was the Nizam of Hyderabad necklace. The Nizam (ruler) of Hyderabad left instructions with the firm of Cartier in London that Princess Elizabeth should select a wedding gift herself, and this platinum necklace set with approximately 300 diamonds was chosen. The Queen wore the necklace for her second sitting with Dorothy Wilding in April 1952, and it was these photographs that were chosen to form the basis of Her Majesty’s image on postage stamps from 1953 until 1971.
The special exhibition is spectacular but I wonder if a different presentation could have been used to allow more to view the exhibits. Jewellery pieces are, obviously, quite small so there is going to be lots of crowding around the lit cabinets in the very dark room. It may have helped if the information about the items was opposite or in larger print beside the cabinets. Instead, visitors are going to need to get close to read about each piece when they see it. I would have liked to see the photographs much larger to fill the space and so that more people can see them and enjoy the exhibition. I wonder if this presentation may be frustrating to visitors on a busy day.
The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Lunch
After collecting your audio guide (nine languages available), in the Palace’s Grand Entrance Portico visitors you can see an extraordinary installation: a fully felted 6-metre-long feast designed by Lucy Sparrow (@sewyoursoul) to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee. Yes, this is all made of felt fabric!
It was first on display at the Big Lunch at The Oval, London as part of the Platinum Jubilee weekend in June. It features British street party favourites including scotch eggs, sausage rolls, cheese and pickle sandwiches, Hula Hoops, jelly, a Victoria sponge and of course the Platinum Pudding.
This regal spread is complemented by bottles of limited-edition Buckingham Palace English sparkling wine and cups of tea served in hand-painted felt cups and saucers.
It’s a lovely display and a good distraction while renovation work is happening in the Quadrangle.
The State Rooms
The special exhibition is in the Ballroom and the Ballroom Supper Room but there is so much more to see in these grand State Rooms.
My best tip is always not to rush. You can stay and admire the rooms as long as you like so simply step to one side and take in the opulence. Look up at the amazing decorated high ceilings and admire the furniture and paintings in each room. Clocks are a big thing in the Palace too so take a moment to see how a time-telling device can look so ornate. (I like the gold Roman centurions on the clock in the Throne Room.) And each visit I wonder how the old electric bar fires are still acceptable within the marble fireplaces.
The Picture Gallery is looking wonderful after the rehang and there are new information boards to help you identify the paintings. You enter at a wall of Canalettos and the joys continue with paintings by Titian, Caravaggio and other European Masters. There are benches down the middle of the room so, again, do not rush through.
After the special exhibition, my favourite rooms on the west side of the Palace are the Music Room as I love the curved windows, and the White Drawing Room as it has a secret door the Queen uses to reach her private apartments.
There seems to be a lot more benches available this year so do take your time. The ballroom has lots of seating so you can stop and listen to the audio guide or just look on in awe. I found the ceilings particularly captivating on this visit. And look down too as the stencilled wooden flooring in the White Drawing Room has roses, thistles and shamrocks – the national emblems of England, Scotland and Ireland.
As well as slowing down, I recommend speaking to the Gallery Assistants. They have completed a lot of training to be here and many are art or architecture graduates so have plenty of knowledge to share. It’s OK to ask a question and if they don’t know I saw them working hard to find someone who could help.
When you go downstairs towards the garden, do ensure you see all of the Marble Hall. Most people turn right as soon as they see the Bow Room and the view of the garden. But I advise walking the length of the Hall as there are some interesting busts at the far end. The huge Chinese-decorated urns are also particularly worth seeing.
It’s Not Over Yet
Allow time to enjoy a tea and cake overlooking the gardens at the Terrace Cafe. (Tea is £3 and cakes are mostly £6.) I generally don’t drink tea out of a paper cup but I make an exception to have a cup of tea here as it’s an annual treat.
It’s helpful/amusing to see calories noted on the menu. Particularly, as I’m sure most people buy a cake at the cafe. And tea is only 2 calories if you don’t have milk, of course. (Milk is available in jugs and you add it yourself.) There were a couple of vegan sandwich options but it would be good to have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free noted on the menu or cake labels as it’s easier to make a decision without queuing up to ask.
The Victoria sponge was light and delicious even if it doesn’t look so appealing once sliced and on the paper plate. There’s a Marmalade Shortbread (sandwich) which is a lovely nod to the Queen’s Jubilee comic sketch with Paddington Bear.
The Family Pavillion is on the other side of the Terrace from the cafe. Every Monday between 25 July and 29 August 2022, families visiting the State Rooms can enjoy drop-in arts-and-crafts activities in the Family Pavilion overlooking the Buckingham Palace Garden.
Do head in if you have children with you. There’s a soft play area for babies, photo opportunities and free flags. And there’s impressively strong air conditioning which may be welcome on a hot day.
Then head into the large gift shop which is better than the Palace shops on Buckingham Palace Road as it has a much larger range of goods. This year the range includes The Queen’s Green Canopy products, Paddington Bear toys, craft kits and plenty of Platinum Jubilee souvenirs.
From here, you exit via a path along the side of the Palace Gardens. Don’t rush away as it’s a lovely area to appreciate. On the way, you pass a ticket office in case you would like to buy Windsor Castle tickets. (The Coronation Dress and Robe of Estate worn by The Queen for her Coronation at Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953 are on display at Windsor Castle this summer.) And there are popular ice-cream kiosks too.
When you reach the end of the path, there is a booth where you can leave feedback about your visit and get your ticket stamped to convert it into a one-year pass. Yes, you can return multiple times this season and use your ticket for next year’s summer opening as well.
The exit then leaves you beside a busy main road. (That really is the only downside to visiting Buckingham Palace.) Turn left to go to Victoria station or right to reach Hyde Park Corner station.
Title: Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Accession at the Summer Opening of the State Rooms
Location: Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA
Dates: Friday, 22 July to Sunday, 2 October 2022
Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Accession is included in a visit to the Summer Opening of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace throughout the 2022 season.
Tickets: Adult £30 | 18–24 years £19.50 | 5–17 years £16.50 | Under 5 years Free
Official Website: www.rct.uk
Martin Thomas says
What a fantastic piece, thank you Laura. This visit has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time but after reading this I think I really need to get myself organised to visit this year.
Thank you, Laura—great article. I’ve been once, several years ago, and enjoyed my visit even more than I expected. Your advice about taking one’s time and really looking at things is spot on. I spent a lot of time in the State Dining Room on my visit, which was wonderful. I do wish I’d been that leisurely in other rooms.