The Coronation works in the Collection

‘It rained, but this didn’t stop us having our street parties,’ sums up the general mood on Tuesday 2 June 1953, the day Elizabeth II was crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey.

Early in 1953 discussions began within the Ministry of Works – the government department then managing the Government Art Collection – on how best to record the Coronation. Several ideas were considered, from commissioning a single artist to running an open competition. In the end, several artists were chosen to produce paintings of specific parts of the day. Others were given seats and the works they created were then purchased by the Ministry. Another small number of pictures were bought separately or given by artists, showing the preparations for the Coronation.

One hundred pictures were included in an exhibition held in the main hall of the New Government Offices, Whitehall Gardens, (now the Ministry of Defence Main Building), during November and December 1953. See footage from the exhibition in the British Pathé archive.


The sheer scale of planning required to accommodate the huge crowds is captured in John Ward’s painting Sir David Eccles and Mr Eric Bedford on the Coronation Stands outside Buckingham Palace. Purchased in 1954, it shows Eccles, the Minister of Works, and Bedford, the Government’s chief architect, looking over plans on the temporary stands encircling the Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. At the time, Eccles caused a stir by describing the Coronation as ‘show business’ and the Queen as the ‘perfect leading lady’.

This lithograph by Barbara Jones depicts the Gold State Coach which was used to carry the Queen to the Coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey being prepared by two stewards (and two feline helpers) in the courtyard of the Royal Mews. Originally made in 1760, Queen Victoria claimed it was very uncomfortable, complaining of its ‘distressing oscillations’. In the austere period of post-war Britain, this glittering, gilded carriage moving along London’s streets represented both real life glamour and a fairy tale spectacle.

On the day

We catch a glimpse of the waiting crowds in Kenneth Rowntree’s Last Minute Decorations and in S J Waghorn’s Awaiting the Procession, Coronation. In both of these commissioned works, the Queen’s Guards, with their tall bearskin hats, add a dramatic flash of red to the composition. Onlookers who were lucky enough to have places on the stands around the Palace patiently endured the persistent rain.

In Waiting on the Stands, one of three commissioned drawings by Edward Ardizzone, a man revives himself with a tot of whiskey, while those beside him shiver in top hats and furs.

Finally, the State Coach left the Palace. L.S. Lowry had a ringside view which allowed him to sketch the unfolding scene with his distinctive matchstick figures and eye for detail. In a letter written to a friend just before he painted this work, Lowry wrote ‘I didn’t make any drawings at the time but went back the next morning and did a few, but…what I am going to paint I don’t yet know, but it will sort itself out.’

Only the guests lucky enough to get seats inside the Abbey witnessed the service firsthand, although millions watched the grainy black and white pictures on television worldwide. For many British people this was the first time they had watched television.

A taste of the theatrical spectacle is glimpsed in Roland Pym’s mural, Imaginary View of Windsor Castle and Virginia Water: the young Queen Victoria Riding with the Prince Consort. An ermine-lined curtain is pulled back to reveal a whimsical landscape occupied by animals and classical ruins, in which the royal couple ride on horseback. Windsor Castle features on the horizon. This fantastical piece of trompe l’oeil was commissioned for Elizabeth’s retiring room at the Abbey on Coronation day and later made into this folding screen.

Across the UK

Meanwhile, around the country, people decked their streets with bunting and flags. Richard Platt’s painting Coronation Decoration, Calverley Grove N19 gives a snapshot of an Islington street, as does Street Decorations (Coronation 1953), a commissioned work by Barbara Horridge. Appropriately, Coronation day ended with a bang with a display of fireworks over the Thames. Coronation Fireworks by Frederick Gore – a painting that wasn’t part of the Ministry of Works commission – captures the burst of colour in the night sky.

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