The day I went to Westminster Abbey London was sweltering. Long queues of tourists stood in the broiling sun in their shorts and sunhats. Listless children looked as though they rather be anywhere else. Another June day 60 years ago, the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, was one of the coldest and wettest of the year. Perhaps there’s something about the Monarchy that the weather gods don’t favour. The Queen shivered through the recent sodden river pageant for her Diamond Jubilee.
As I made my way through the ancient cloisters to the Chapter House to find the small exhibition mounted to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, I thought how strange it is that if you live in London you never come to these landmark locations and forget how redolent with history they are. Ostensibly the exhibition documents the energetic preparations undertaken at Westminster Abbey, the pomp and magnificence, and its prodigious transformation in the six months prior to the big day. The Ministry of Works, the government’s building department at the time, carried out extensive arrangements to re-configure the Abbey and recorded it all in meticulous detail. Some of the original Ministry of Works prints, which are now all stored at The National Archives, Kew, have been scanned specially for use in the exhibition. David Eccles, the minister responsible, can be seen with his slick Brylcreamed hair explaining his vision to a press conference on 28th March 1953.
The Coronation caught the imagination of a nation ground down by post-war austerity and the photographs show how deeply enmeshed the monarchy is within the fabric of British society. Over hundreds of years it became a symbolic, almost magical institution at the heart of the nation. By implication, these potent photographs also emphasise that during the last sixty years it has slowly turned from something mystical and sacred into a plebeian soap opera that fills the pages of Hello and OK.
The exhibition opens with a photograph of the young Queen and her husband Prince Philip in full coronation regalia, standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace above the adoring crowds. Below is a replica of the invitation to the event. An intimate little do for 7,500 guests from the Commonwealth and ‘The Queen’s Realms’ – a reminder that the effects of the British Empire were, still, very much in evidence. Two hundred ‘tradesmen’ were employed on the site at any one time. Men posing amid the scaffolding, in flat caps, big boots and shabby working clothes, remind us that this was an age where the rich man still largely kept to his castle, while the poor man doffed his forelock at the gate.
A modern, rather ugly annex was specially erected at the West Door of the cathedral for the processions to assemble, while tiers of seats were built in the transepts and nave. A railway line was laid especially to transport the materials and the Abbey closed completely to worshippers for five months. It took days for the ministry officials to clean the dust and debris from the organ.
There is an instant nostalgia inherent in these photographs with their plethora of officials in baggy suits, NHS glasses, moustaches and bad haircuts, and a photo of the Abbey’s boy choristers in short trousers, like the caste of Just William. They were part of the 480 musicians who took part in the celebrations. Music performed a central role under the auspices of Dr. William Mckie. Handel’s Zadock the Priestconjured a suitably sanctified atmosphere.
There are numerous photos of the Queen’s Maids of Honour – the nomenclature suggests a wedding – which in many ways it was, of a young woman to the nation. Dressed in white, like sparkly vestal virgins, they came from the foremost aristocratic families. The heels of their shoes were even adjusted so that they would all appear to be the same height as they carried the Queen’s sumptuous and enormously heavy train.
The ceremony itself was over two hours long, complicated and full of symbolism. There were those with arcane titles such as Mistress of the Robes and something called the Sword of Spiritual Justice, as well as a Sword of Temporal Justice. There was a Lord Privy Seal, an Earl Marshal and a Lord High Constable. Few probably knew what they actually did. It hardly mattered.
Like some sacrificial virgin, the young Queen wore a simple white robe for the anointing, which was done by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher. She looks rather vulnerable sitting on the throne amidst all the pomp. The St. Edwards Crown weighed nearly 5 pounds and there was some concern that it would be too heavy for her to manage. We see her seated on the Coronation throne beneath its weight, ceremonial orb and sceptre in hand. This is in contrast to a more intimate image of the four year old Prince Charles, standing between the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, looking extremely bored.
The whole ceremony was built around the Holy Communion, a service that had remained pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. It included The Recognition, when the people acclaimed their new sovereign, The Oath, when the sovereign pledged to govern with justice and mercy, maintaining God’s laws (which is interesting as in our modern parliamentary democracy where the Queen does very little ‘governing’ at all), The Anointing, when the Archbishop anointed the sovereign with Holy Oil, The Investiture, when she was presented with the robes and regalia and actually crowned and then, The Homage, when the church and aristocracy pledged their loyalty. It was a piece of carefully choreographed theatre in which each played his or her allotted part, a drama to unite the country.
Many of the photographs show not only the pomp of the soldiers and carriages outside the Abbey but the celebrations of ordinary Londoners. Children having tea and sports in Stepney, where the impoverished East End streets were decorated, despite the weather, with bunting. And there is a wonderful photograph of the women of the shoe makers, J. Sears & Co, of Northampton, sitting over their Singer sewing machines on the factory floor that is decorated with Union Jacks. Patriotic and affable there is a strong sense of community. Probably few of the woman were much over 40. But the majority look, to put it kindly, ample and worn. And, of course, there’s a shot of the journalist Richard Dimbleby, who became the official voice of the proceedings and brought the whole event live into households on flickering grainy grey TVs for the BBC.
The Abbey has joined up with Getty Images to produce this exhibition, which includes some of the best news pictures taken during the heyday of black and white photo-journalism. There are over 40 works, including those by the renowned Bert Hardy and John Chillingworth, along with iconic shots from thePicture Post. Given a 21st century digital make-over for the exhibition, these historic images recall a simpler media age. Now they can be seen in massive detail, as the latest techniques have allowed the pictures to be blown up to many times their original size and printed onto paper-thin fabric, and then dramatically backlit through giant light-boxes.
In many ways it is hard to believe that they are only 60 years old. The past, as L.P Hartley wrote in his novel The Go-Between, is another country. They do things differently there. What these photographs show is, in many ways, a more straightforward world. A world defined by class and deference, privilege and poverty, but where there was, also, what might now might seem, a rather innocent belief in the sense of Divine duty. One that would be taken seriously by a young woman, not born to the role, for more than half a century.