Coronation memorabilia is fun, collectible and commemorative, finds Philip Corbett
From the cheapest and, some might say, tackiest item to items of great artistic merit and beauty there is something for everyone when it come to royal commemorative items. The sheer range of items produced is absolutely amazing from items designed to be used once and thrown away; to items that are designed to last for generations. My own interest in collecting commemorative items came with the discovery of jug made for the Rington’s Tea Company to celebrate the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in my grandmother’s kitchen cupboard. It is a simple piece and must have been made in huge numbers and sold to households across the North East of England. But for me it is a special piece because it belonged to her. That is the beauty of these pieces: they are designed to be handed on and shared within a family, sadly so many languish in the back of cupboards and never see the light of day until they are sold or cleared out and sent to a charity shop.
For the Coronation of the King and Queen, the Royal Collection Trust has commissioned an official range of merchandise. Consisting mainly of decorative ceramic items including plates and tankards, the inspired collection incorporates a wonderful deep royal blue colour and the design includes the Royal Coat of Arms surround by a garland of laurel leaves representing peace. There are also oak leaves indicating strength and the emblems of the four nations of the United Kingdom: the shamrock, thistle, rose and daffodil. The design is completed with entwined ribbons to represent the supportive partnership between the King and Queen. This rather fine design shows just how much thought is given to the creation of royal commemorative pieces and how they speak not only our history as a nation but of faith and the symbolic representation of our hopes for the future.
Every event and milestone anniversary celebrated by the Royal Family, from births, coronations, engagements, weddings and jubilees, sees the production of vast amounts, and types, of merchandise. However, as there is no trademark on the Royal Family, anyone can produce anything depicting its members. This means that there can be a rather wide variety of items from tea towels to slippers and bars of soap. These aren’t always the most flattering depictions of the Royal Family but they can be the most interesting.
Some of the earliest pieces of commemorative china date back to 1661 and the coronation of King Charles II. Following years of puritanism under Oliver Cromwell, the coronation was one of great pomp and circumstance and generated items such as hand-crafted plates by English Delft. Again here the symbol of the royal oak prevails as a thanksgiving for the King being saved to go into exile and to rejoice upon his return. The date of the Restoration of the Monarchy was often known as Oak Apple Day. A century later, at the coronation of King George III, transfer printing had been invented making royal pieces of pottery more widely available. One of the most poignant pieces of commemorative china from the Georgian period are the items made to commemorate the death of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV in whom so much hope was placed for the future of the monarchy and the nation.
Collectors of royal commemorative items will often have specialised areas. For many this may be coins or stamps, for others it will be ceramics or glassware. The Royal Mint releases proof coins on the occasion of important royal events which are sought after by collectors of royal memorabilia and numismatists alike.
Often limited runs of ceramicware are produced by renowned manufacturers such as Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, and it is the limited-edition pieces that are more likely to appreciate in value and be of more interest to collectors. Of course, pieces made for the Royal Family itself are of tremendous value, although not strictly commemorative. For example, a dinner service commissioned for the coronation of William IV famously took so long to finish that the King had died before it was delivered.
Lingering at the back of most kitchen cupboards or china cabinets will be a royal commemorative mug or two. These vary widely in quality and design. For example, loving cups tend to break more easily and so are a widely sought-after commemorative item. The Paragon factory produced a series of loving cups for royal events with handles made to look like royal lions. Often people imagine that the items produced for the coronation of King Edward VIII will be more valuable but this is not the case as there was much mass production of items. What are rare are items that have the date of his abdication on them. There are also amusing items, such as a splendid mug featuring then Prince Charles where the handle is made in the shape of an ear.
An unusual area for collectors of royal wedding memorabilia is cake! Following a royal wedding, the often large and elaborate wedding cakes are distributed to people who have been involved in the wedding at some level. A slice of cake from the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Phillip in 1947 was given to a guard of honour who bequeathed it to the Princess Alice Hospice. When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 there were several cakes – the official 5-tier cake displayed at the reception and a further 22 which were given to royal staff. Following Prince William’s wedding, Buckingham Palace held a garden party at which each of the 650 guests received a slice of wedding fruit cake.
There are other unusual things people collect such as items belonging to members of the Royal Family. Famously, a pair of Queen Victoria’s undergarments sold for almost £10,000 in 2011 and Lady Diana’s bicycle fetched a similar price in 2018. Although members of the Royal Family do not sign autographs, they do send Christmas cards which they sign personally.
My own personal collection now runs in to many hundreds of items and over time I have nuanced and changed what I collect. There is always a joy in finding something rare hidden away in a charity shop or flea market, particularly when it completes a set or series. The joy of collecting never disappears and I firmly hope that this wonderfully British way of celebrating our Royal Family and history will find its way into a permanent museum or exhibition. The items tell us so much about ourselves, not just about those and the occasions they commemorate.