Senior curator of decorative arts, Caroline de Guitaut, stands with a quintet of looks from the exhibition in the palace’s white drawing room.
London! Fresh off the plane, delirious with jetlag, but with some hours to spare before I sped off to the depths of the English countryside (for a Vogue assignment that you will find out about in the fullness of time), I raced to take in two shows dear to my heart.
I’ve idolized David Hockney’s portraits ever since I first clapped eyes on his masterly Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) depicting the artist’s friends—and my design heroes—the era-shaping fashion-designer, Ossie Clark and his wife, inspired textile designer, Celia Birtwell. (That picture is now at the Tate while the spiraling scarlet and black bias-cut Heavenly Twins frock that Celia wears in the portrait is safe and sound in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery). This latest high-impact show at the Royal Academy places 82 of the 79-year-old Hockney’s very recent portraits (and one still life) in the Sackler Wing through October 2. They are full of verve, life-affirming energy, and the light of Los Angeles where Hockney has returned after a sojourn in his native Yorkshire. And oh, goodness! How I longed to have been one of his subjects! Instead, they included many of the people in the artist’s life, from Lord Rothschild and Larry Gagosian, Frank Gehry and John Baldessari, to his family and studio assistants.
Then, with breath bated, I crossed Green Park for Buckingham Palace, thither to gawp once more in wide-eyed amazement at John Nash’s high camp, and entirely theatrical, mise-en-scène originally created for the tastemeister George IV. This summer, there is a new incentive to visit this treasure-packed place: The ballrooms are displaying “Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe” (also through October 2). I’m mad for the work of Sir Norman Hartnell who dressed socialites and actresses in the ’20s and ’30s and whose theatrical confections caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother just before the war. I have a considerable number of them in my own collection. Hartnell famously concocted a rainbow-color wardrobe for the King and Queen’s state visit to France in 1938. When the Queen’s mother died before the trip, Hartnell was charged with remaking everything in black. But the designer cleverly recalled an historic precedent for white as a color of royal mourning and his workrooms raced to remake all his designs in that photogenic color. The Queen caused a sensation in Paris in her picturesque fluttering white lace and tulle dresses and her Dame aux Camélias crinolines. In turn, she influenced the city’s couturiers.
Surprisingly enough, it was her husband, George VI, (the self-effacing stutterer depicted by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) who pointed out to Hartnell how much he liked the clothes in the many 19th-century Franz Xaver Winterhalter portraits at Buckingham Palace. As a result, the designer adopted this style for the Queen’s evening clothes and the grand silhouette remained her iconic look until the end of her life.
Her daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and her pretty younger sister Princess Margaret, were dressed by Hartnell as girls (initially when they served as bridesmaids to Princess Alice). Princess Elizabeth (as she then was) also turned to him to make her elaborate 1947 wedding dress, for which she paid partly with clothing ration coupons. Inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, it is nevertheless fitted with the quarterback padded shoulders favored in the 1940s. And although she also patronized his rival, the subtler Sir Hardy Amies, the queen went on to wear Hartnell’s clothes for another three decades. Much of her wardrobe was specially and diplomatically designed to complement a host nation (incorporating the country’s national flower, for example, or colors of its flag), or the nationality of a state visitor.
There are some of these divinities in the show, and many of those pieces from the 1950s and early 1960s feature the spindle waist that his client then possessed. But Hartnell’s undoubted triumph was the ensemble he designed for the Queen’s 1953 coronation. Her magnificent robe was originally designed with embroidery to represent the symbols of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—respectively the rose, thistle, shamrock, and leek (although Hartnell, understandably, but unsuccessfully, lobbied for a daffodil instead!). The Queen asked him to add emblems of the Dominions too—the wattle flower for Australia, the maple leaf for Canada, and so on. This dress, along with Her Majesty’s elaborately restored wedding dress, is on display in the exhibition. I have to say that whilst it is undeniably majestic and splendid—as befits the occasion for which it was intended—it’s also mesmerizingly beautiful.
(L) Queen Elizabeth II’s 1947 wedding dress by Norman Hartnell was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera and featured garlands of embroidered pearl orange blossoms, jasmine, and White Rose of York. Photo: Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust. (R) Hartnell’s sketch depicts the diaphanous train worn by the Queen at her Westminster Abbey wedding.
(L) The designer’s sketch for the resplendent gown in 1953. (R) Hartnell’s tour-de-force coronation gown for the soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth II featured emblems of the Commonwealth rendered in 10,000 seed pearls and thousands of white crystal beads. Photo: Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust.
(L) Hockney’s recent portrait of textile designer Celia Birtwell. (R) Australian comedian Barry Humphries’s portrait on view at “David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.”