Thursday 17 September 2015

"A ROYAL WELCOME" at Buckingham Palace. By Penny Dolan

Once I heard a writer talk about finding the right word for the “thing you’d drink from” for an exact historical setting. “Goblet” seemed too grand, “beaker” sounded too ancient and “glass” did not fit the time or the object. “Cup” was the word finally chosen. This always struck me as a clear example of how, in historical fiction, the right word is needed for small objects as much as for the grandest items, However, I’m sure that every correct term is known by those involved with the meal that I‘m writing about today.

One sunny morning this summer, I walked through London’s Green Park, heading for Buckingham Palace. I’d been invited, along with a small group of bloggers, to visit the annual Summer Opening of the State Apartments.This year’s theme, “A Royal Welcome”, was an interpretation for the public of all that was involved in welcoming visiting Members of State to an official State Banquet, set within the impressive state rooms where these meetings usually take place.

From the side gates, we were led towards the Grand Entrance where the Australian State coach, horseless, was a reminder that Ambassadors and similar visitors would not be arriving on foot. We went up a few carpeted steps before pausing in an opulently gloomy space, observed by stern, stony-eyed busts. Ahead rose the Grand Staircase, that leads all visitors – us included – suitably slowly towards the brightness of the State Apartments above. The dark and light created a moment of architectural drama that must have an impact on anyone approaching an audience with Her Majesty.

The Throne Room, at the head of the stairs, was dedicated to Investitures and Honours, displayed documents, looping videos and portraits of the many people honoured by the Queen during her long reign. Then we were led into the main part of the exhibition: the preparations for a State Banquet, always held on first night of any official State Visit. The matter of who is being invited is diplomatically planned and negotiated between officials at the Government and the Palace, often over three years or more, and the purpose is the development of good trade and political relations between the prestigious visitors and Britain. This was a useful thought to bear in mind when the hard work and careful preparations were shown within the next cases.

The Office, the first display showed some of the administration involved to make sure the 170 guests, particularly the Guests of Honour, feel as much at their ease as possible. We saw the cupboard of thick files, each bearing the name of a state or country, as well as the writing desk where invitations are prepared by hand and, on a table nearby, the deep wooden tray filled with invitations, and the small booklets also sent to each individual guest.

Inside the booklet, along with general notes and the night’s menu, is the seating plan. A red dot marks the guest’s own seat, and the plan would also show the names of those seated nearby. In addition, the administrative staff also check that each guest knows enough of any foreign language to converse with their neighbours and - if not a first visit - that the guest is seated so they can meet a different group of people, widening the spread of the relationships. This intense planning perfectly illustrated that the evening is about trade and diplomatic relations, not principally about being with friends in the everyday sense. Though no doubt pleasant, a State Banquet was starting to feel like royal work.

It would be work certainly for the Kitchen. Victorian copper pans, regularly re-lined, hung gleaming from a rack, alongside a set of chef’s whites with embroidered insignia. Although four courses are traditionally served (fish, meat, pudding and fruit) the kitchen table on show concentrated on the third course, with a display of recipes and moulds used for the creation of a chocolate bombe, the State Banquet favourite. 
There was also a charming tray of delicate sugar-work orchids, “national” flowers used to personalise the banquet of a visiting President. There were also rows of chocolate buttons, moulded and gilded to match the real buttons on the palace livery.  Would any of those embossed buttons be taken home discreetly as treats for children?

The Wine Cellar display hinted at bottles stored somewhere within the palace walls, as well as the glassware. With four wines served at the meal, almost seven hundred delicate glasses must be inspected beforehand for breaks or splintered edges. What I would call the crockery and cutlery came next: the golden plates, almost like those in a fairy tale, must be counted out. True gold is soft, so the plates are really made of silver-gilt. The gilt cutlery too, must be counted out, as well as the china plates and dishes used for the other three courses. With so many guests, no single set is sufficient for the entire table, so a variety of plates, cutlery and glassware will be used for the meal. The exhibition showed a pretty blue Georgian dining service, along with the huge wooden storage chests that keeps it safe when not in use. I could not help thinking of old tales of travelling royalty and their long baggage trains.
The Queen herself will obviously look her best at such events, so "A Royal Welcome" included a display based on the work of her own dressmaker, Angela Kelly, as well as three examples of designer gowns worn by Her Majesty during her long reign.  

(Further on, in the Music Room, there was a display about the work of the Royal Garden Parties, where our guide explained that Her Majesty often dresses in a single “block of colour” for such events, which made identification and photographs much easier. Of course, I’d seen that the Queen dressed like that, but I hadn’t truly appreciated quite why.) 

At last, we came to the huge Ball Room where an enormous u-shaped table was shown in full banqueting glory, spread with place settings, flowers and ornate decoration. Tiny dots of lights shone down over each place, instead of the usual candles, to make sure there was no danger of fire during the long hours of this public exhibition. However, one end of the table had been left as it would be at the start of preparation, with the measuring rule still across the white cloth, and places still to be laid (rather like a bad “Downtown Abbey” staffing moment, although in a most superior situation.)  The white napkins are folded into a neat “dutch bonnet” pattern so they sit easily on the plate and also so they can be moved discreetly if there are sudden changes in guest numbers. When seated for the Banquet, the Queen and her State Visitors face the huge pipe organ once housed in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion but – no doubt thankfully – dinner music will be provided by the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra or other musicians, and be pieces by Elgar, Gershwin, Debussy, or even themes from the Harry Potter movies.

In all the rooms of “A Royal Welcome”, there were short video loops showing all the various staff at their work in more detail. On one of the three screens in the Ballroom was the moment when the Queen’s Piper and his band greet the start of the State Banquet, followed by the procession of wonderfully synchronised waiting staff. all in scarlet jackets, each allocated to a set group of diners. A discreet “traffic light” system regulates the serving around the table, or so I heard, as it would certainly be difficult to see the head of the table from either foot. There was also a short, clever time-lapse video, showing the whole process of table preparation, banquet and clearing away all within three minutes. 

How briefly all the Royal Party and guests seemed to be sitting there! You can find a version on the Royal Welcome website, too.

After leaving the Ballroom, we were led into the State Dining Room. This is where, on a long polished table, the exchanged State Gifts are displayed for viewing, along with all those previously received. (Someone whispered that, during a long ago state visit, there was some embarrassment when a second chess set was received for display.)

On show we saw gifts such as elegant Japanese porcelain and a delicate gilt temple from Indonesia, but what a surprise the Queen must have had when she received this traditional Tree of Life plaque from Mexico: the heavily coloured ornate surface was covered in tiny images of her own self and her life as a monarch.

What did I feel at the end of “A Royal Welcome”, after all the magnificence and the life size Georgian portraits and the bright chandeliers and gilded ceilings and walls?

I admit I felt respect for all that the Palace staff that keep this great enterprise running.

Also, knowing that the original Banquet shadowed for “A Royal Welcome” was only one of many the Queen must have sat through during her long reign - now the longest of any British Monarch - I felt a sense of the work this must be for Her Majesty as well : to be always the centre of such events even when you felt unwell or unwilling, and with so much history and tradition constantly around you and your duty that must be done.   
 Not, I felt, a life many would long for.

Finally, as with achy feet, I eyed the golden sofas and single footstool in the White Drawing Room, I ended up hoping that the Queen’s private rooms give her and her family a place to relax comfortably when they are away from “the shop”, and free of “the function of promoting peace, good relations and trade.” 

Many thanks to Buckingham Palace Press Office for inviting me, as one of the History Girls, to visit this year’s “A Royal Welcome”.  There are still ten days to go before this year’s showing finally ends on 27th September 2015. Each year has a different theme, and last year’s exhibition, “A Royal Childhood”, was visited by History Girl Sue Purkiss.  Quite how, I wonder, will Buckingham Palace celebrate 2016?

Penny Dolan
A Boy Called MOUSE, pub Bloomsbury.


Sue Purkiss said...

I think it's always fascinating to find out how things are actually organised and made to work. Thank you, Penny!

Penny Dolan said...

From a historical view, the State Rooms were grand and impressive and I was glad to have seen inside the Palace. I'm somewhat given to daydreaming when I'm in old or historic buildings - what would it be like to be here, to live here? - and these rooms were not spaces that "breathed" for me. Then they are not really the Queen's home, are they? I felt glad she had Balmoral as a place of escape. In addition, with all the protocol required, the public perfection expected and all the organisation such events involved, such meals and banquets seemed rather like being caught in a round of continual wedding receptions - the formal, awkward part, without the happy wedding-y moment or the relaxed party afterwards. Even so, I did enjoy the tour very much, Sue, as well as some of the fine paintings in the Picture Gallery, and the long stroll through the gardens afterwards.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this blog, Penny. You explain what's going on clearly and concisely and I love the atmospheric photos. I agree with you about the impressive attention to detail; my own impression of the exhibition (which is well worth visiting)is that nothing is too much trouble to make the guests feel comfortable.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for your comments on the photographs, Elizabeth. I'm only just starting to use my own research images and still need a bit of tech help. I really appreciated being allowed to use cameras when we were going round the rooms and displays.

Yes, there was certainly a sense that people tried very hard to make sure that Guests at royal events, whether State Banquets or Garden Parties, enjoyed their visits as "easily" as possible.

Joan Lennon said...

So much work! And I fuss about a couple of friends over for dinner! Thanks for the inside scoop -