Game of Thrones: The Story of British Coronation Furniture by Luke Honey
This May, His Majesty King Charles III will be crowned at Westminster Abbey; the 40th monarch (since the Norman Conquest) to receive anointment at that hallowed place. Yet, despite our considerable knowledge of coronations past, the story of ‘coronation furniture’- a term we now use to describe the chairs and stools used by (and sold to) guests at the four twentieth century coronations- has remained unknown- until now.
Queen Victoria’s coronation in the summer of 1838 (semi-shambolic and unrehearsed) was, more or less, a closed aristocratic event- despite, as a direct consequence of the Reform Act, the addition of 500 MPs as guests – a hint of the constitutional monarchy to come. In contrast, Edward VII’s coronation (August 1902) reflected Britain’s status as a great Imperial power. Invitations ran to some 8,000 guests, including representatives from the Dominions and the Indian Princely States. More guests needed more chairs: so for the first time, furniture was manufactured specifically for the coronation, with chairs and stools sold to the guests to help cover the costs of the ceremony.
The design of the Edward VII chairs (made by Glenisters of High Wycombe) is in a practical Arts & Crafts style, loosely based on rustic chairs of the very early 19th century, with rush seats and double stretchers. To modern eyes, they are not particularly regal, with no attempt made to reflect the grandeur and status of the monarchy. Not especially rare, the chairs can still be found for sale (at auction) with relative ease- yet despite their distinguished provenance, often sell for prices below £100. Chairs are stamped ‘CORONATION’ with the royal cypher (EVII), crown and a Glenister stamp. Edward VII stools (in stained beech) are rustic in style (with caned seats) yet, again, fetch modest prices at auction.
In a change of emphasis, the chairs made for the coronation of George V (June 1911) reflect the typical ‘Chippendale’ style of the period: a typical mahogany chair to grace a country house drawing room- manufactured to a very English, if not unusual, domestic design. High Wycombe manufacturers made the chairs and stools, including Frederick Parker & Sons (later Parker-Knoll): Wycombe is relatively close to London, enabling manufacturers to send furniture by horse, steam lorry or the Great Western Railway. Sometimes described as ‘rare’, George V coronation chairs can be hard to find. Although planners slimmed the coronation down to some 6,000 guests, several thousand chairs, in all likelihood, were made for the ceremony.
So what makes them so elusive? Significantly, the chairs have a discreet coronation stamp (plus G.V. cypher and crown) inside the seat frame; consequently, chairs pass through auction sales as bog-standard reproduction ‘Chippendale’, often miscatalogued and under-appreciated. That said, even with the correct provenance, there are bargains to be had, with chairs (even catalogued properly) selling, at auction, for prices less than £100. George V stools, again, are of simple design- and can be acquired for minimal cost.
After the First World War, a communist revolution seemed a genuine threat. To survive- and to avoid the fate of the failed European monarchies- George V- the most astute of kings- realised that a monarch has to be seen by his (or her) people: this set a pattern for the constitutional monarchy we have today. Edward VIII (another moderniser of sorts) is supposed to have influenced the design of the chairs for his coronation in May 1937, which, famously, following his abdication in December 1936, never took place. The story goes (as so often regurgitated by auction houses and antique dealers) that Edward Barnsley, the Cotswold furniture maker, designed the ‘Edward VIII’ chairs specifically for a pared-down coronation. The chairs, certainly, are of a Cotswold School design, but there is, alas, at the moment of writing, no evidence that Barnsley designed them. Secondly, and crucially, at least two ‘Edward VIII’ chairs have surfaced at auction with George V stamps, proving, without doubt, that these chairs were designed and manufactured before January 1936- in other words, that they have no direct association with the planned coronation of Edward VIII. And at the same time, chairs have turned up with Elizabeth II coronation stamps. Instead, the so-called ‘Edward VIII’ chairs may, in truth, be a mid-1930s Ministry of Works design- intended for use in government offices and later (with Air Ministry stamps) the rapidly expanding airfield network in the immediate years before the Battle of Britain.
In contrast, the chairs and stools designed for the coronation of George VI feature a Tudorbethan ‘farthingale’ pattern, upholstered in a sea-green velvet, for George VI, and a royal blue velvet over limed oak for Elizabeth II. As George VI had, only, a few months to plan his coronation, this may be the original, true design of the proposed Edward VIII chair. And, significantly, the George VI chair and stool are regal in feel, reflecting the monarchy’s need to rebrand itself for radio, cinema newsreel, and later, for Elizabeth II’s coronation, the televisual age.
Prices are on the move. Not so long ago, canny auction-goers might snap up a George VI or Elizabeth II chair for around £400 each- sometimes less, with stools selling for prices shy of £100. Yet last year, an Elizabeth II coronation chair and stool sold for £1,700 at auction. And provenance can have a decisive impact on the final value, depending on the owner’s status. Last September, HRH The Duchess of Kent’s coronation chair (with signed authentication) sold for £2,800, the final result, no doubt also encouraged by the recent death of Her Late Majesty The Queen earlier that month. But there are still bargains to be discovered in the current market. Replica coronation chairs, produced by William Hands of High Wycombe for peers attending the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and often found at auction in immaculate condition, can still be bought for a price in the region of £200 (hammer). Looking ahead- and with the interest generated by H.M. The King’s coronation- these might prove to be an astute buy.
GOD SAVE THE KING!
About the Author – Luke Honey
Luke Honey is a writer, blogger and former auction specialist turned antiques dealer- with over twenty-five years experience in the British and American art market. Luke began his career as a furniture porter at Phillips auctioneers before becoming a specialist in the European Works of Art department. Subsequently, Luke worked as a specialist and consultant for Freeman’s (Philadelphia), Bloomsbury Auctions, Bonhams and the Art Advisory Group. He has contributed numerous articles for magazines and publications, including The Spectator, Barnebys Magazine, The Gourmand Journal and The Antiques Trade Gazette. Luke also writes a regular column for Homes & Antiques magazine.
He is an Arts & Antiques Chartered Surveyor, a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Art Scholars and, until recently, a trustee of The Frederick Parker Collection. In 2021, Luke co-founded The London Gasketeers, a group dedicated to the preservation of London’s threatened historic gaslamps.