Wednesday 4 June 2014

Historically Pimp One's Ride

Today, Elizabeth II will ride (or has already ridden) to the State Opening of Parliament in her brand new set of wheels: the Jubilee State Coach, made by Australian hardcore fancoachbuilder Jim Frecklington as a labour of love. Usually, this is not the kind of history that interests me, and I suspect, not the kind that interests very many of us at NHL, either. But there is something more, and something strange, about this new carriage. It looks like most of the others: drawn by 6 horses, painted wood and lots and lots of gold leaf. But it's also absolutely studded with fragments of historical artefacts, ranging from the wood of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, buttons from Gallipoli and the Western Front, to metal from a Spitfire and part of Newton's apple tree, to name but a few from a very long list.
The Diamond Jubilee State Coach, or State Coach Britannia: from the outside, like any other of Elizabeth II's carriages.

When I was sewing my baldrics (a pair of crossed sashes held together at the back and front by pieces of fabric often containing a crest or heraldic device of some sort) for my last Morris team, I enclosed bits of fabric and ribbon from my previous teams' kits into some of the joins. I see my kit as ceremonial and like to feel that I am carrying my previous history and experience as a dancer with me when I am dancing. I understand, sort of, that the same intention is present in this new coach: a rolling museum or monument to the history of Britain and the Commonwealth. My pieces of past kit are hidden in my new kit, and until now, I've never admitted to doing something so sentimental: nobody but myself even knew they were there. But the interior of Her Majesty's new carriage actually looks like a museum: the doors are inlaid with wood from all kinds of historical treasures, including famous ships, Hillary's Everest ladders, Scott's Antarctic sled, and the beams of British Cathedrals, and smaller artefacts like the buttons, a musketball from Waterloo, and a rivet from the Flying Scotsman, each item labelled. 

Before I go any further, here is a selection of some of the most notable artefacts, gleaned from news reports and Mr Frecklington's website:

Wood from Newton's apple tree
A bullet from Waterloo
Metal from a Dambuster
Wood from HMS Victory
Wood from Scott's Antarctic sled
Wood from Hut 6 at Bletchley Park
Wood from the beams of every British Cathedral and palace
Wood from Edmund Hillary's Everest ladders
A piece of the Stone of Scone
A bolt from a Spitfire
A button from Gallipoli
A rivet from the Flying Scotsman
Metal from Victoria Cross cannon
Wood from the Mary Rose
Wood from the Mayflower
Wood from the Tower of London
Wood from the Ferriby boats
Wood from HMS Endeavour
A counterweight from Big Ben
Wood from the door of 10 Downing Street
Robert Baden-Powell's buttons
Wood from Shakespeare's mulberry tree
Roman  and Viking timber from Bath and York
Metal fragment from Rolls Royce Silver Ghost
Material from Lords and Wimbledon
Button from the Western Front
Wood from Stephenson's Rocket
Wood from the Royal Box at Ascot
Wood from the Cutty Sark
Wood from Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Rugby
Wood from the Glastonbury Thorn
Weapon fragment from the Battle of Hastings
Fragments relating to Darwin, Jenner and Joseph Banks
Discs containing digital copies of the Magna Carta and the Domesday Book
A compartment containing Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

The last item warrants its own entirely separate blog post.  So, a few musings about these artefacts, and a few questions, which I hope will be discussed in the comments section. Firstly, what are the implications of removing pieces of some historical objects which are very fragile, and have been so very carefully protected and restored over a period of many years, at a great cost of time and money, for use as mere decorative objects? I am thinking in particular of the Bronze Age Ferriby Boats, and the Mary Rose, which since 1982 has been subject to an intensive conservation programme. It is nothing less than pilfering pieces of national, public historical objects for use in a private collection: the coach will be upon display at the Royal Mews after today's Parliament session, but the only people who will actually be able to sit inside the coach and view this collection will be the Queen, Prince Philip or other senior Royals, and the staff who maintain the coach. 

Secondly, these objects are divorced from their own narratives to be placed in this grand narrative of British and Commonwealth history. But more than that, they are reduced to decorative objects, the wood samples polished out of all recognition and forming a smooth inlaid mosaic of different coloured wood more at home on a parquet floor. Without the labels, one would not know that one varnished, polished, perfectly square piece of oak had been at the Battle of Trafalgar, another had assisted the ascent of Everest, and one more had been dragged to the Antarctic. 

Close up of nice inlaid wood effect achieved by polishing the history out of historical objects.
Thirdly, the idea behind the collection itself, as well as being an odd concept for a mode of transport and containing some frankly bizarre inclusions (digital copy of the Magna Carta? A piece of a Rolls Royce? Baden-Powell's buttons?), is somewhat reductive. It is fetishism: it holds up these tiny objects as sacred relics, conferring yet more prestige on the Monarch as she sits encased in the rarefied field of these objects. It is cheaply emotive: buttons from Gallipoli and the Western Front, a bolt from a Spitfire, metal from the wreckage of a crashed Dambuster: the things that make Britain great. 

I think that I have saved the best bit for last. Under the seats (gold silk brocade from Sudbury, with armrests made from the rails of the Royal Yacht Britannia - they even flip up to access heating and electric window controls), there are two wooden cases, containing 60 gold-plated canisters. Canisters for her Majesty to add to her collection of historical artefacts. Should ERII actually wish to continue collecting these historical offcuts, what should she consider filling her golden specimen jars with? Alongside bits of palaces and Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Rugby, maybe she should include some social history: after all, the concept of the carriage is to tell the history of Britain through objects. 
Golden film pots for Her Majesty's further collections. Perhaps Prince Phillip will buy her some World Cup Stickers?

Now that the carriage contains a chip of the Stone of Scone, let's hope it has central locking and an immobiliser fitted.