InSight No. 104

Jubilee Edition | Craigie Aitchison | The Herald, 1953

To mark the occasion of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, InSight considers a painting made in the year of her coronation. Craigie Aitchison's work depicts a herald, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, who was present at the coronation ceremony. 

Craigie Aitchison

The Herald, 1953

 


 

 

 

Along with knighthoods, pageantry, and orders of chivalry, heralds date back to the high Middle Ages. They have long been the guardians of noble lineage, researching genealogy and issuing coats of arms to knights and peers of the realm. One of their key roles is to plan coronations. Today, the College of Arms in London has thirteen officers and, as members of the royal household, they attend royal ceremonial functions such as coronations and the State Opening of Parliament. Their uniforms are some of the most brilliant, gilt-threaded clothes in British ceremonial dress - a fact which evidently attracted the twenty-seven-year-old Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). Speaking later on about the herald in his painting, Aitchison said, 'he was very thin and he always looked amazing in the processions'.

 

 

 

 

Aitchison's large-scale, brilliantly colourful painting The Herald resonates with the mood of excitement in the coronation year, though it was not in fact begun until six months later. As Aitchison's friend Susan Campbell recalled in a memoir about that period, the coronation was held on a showery day in June.

 

In the winter of 1952, we had the state funeral of George VI, with its sombre procession from Westminster Hall to Paddington Station, followed in the summer of 1953 by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A long, cold, damp night in the Mall, followed by the news that Everest had been conquered, and then an even colder and damper wait for the royal procession was eventually rewarded with clattering hooves, waving plumes and shiny cuirasses. With a flash of white and gold and the young queen waving, a new era was supposedly about to begin.

 

 

 

 

Elements of heraldic costume, particularly the stringed harp and two (out of three) lions passant, are strongly evident in Aitchison's painting. On ceremonial occasions a herald wears a tabard adorned with the royal arms, from which Aitchison has chosen his favourite bits. The design of the herald's tabard has remained largely unchanged since the union of Scotland and England, as one early example from the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows. This uniform gives The Herald a casual sense of chic Brittania more often associated with the swinging 'sixties, in films like The Italian Job, where a veneer of patriotism complemented advanced design and free living. 

 

 

 

 

Elements of heraldic costume, particularly the stringed harp and two (out of three) lions passant, are strongly evident in Aitchison's painting. On ceremonial occasions a herald wears a tabard adorned with the royal arms, from which Aitchison has chosen his favourite bits. The design of the herald's tabard has remained largely unchanged since the union of Scotland and England, as one early example from the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows. This uniform gives The Herald a casual sense of chic Brittania more often associated with the swinging 'sixties, in films like The Italian Job, where a veneer of patriotism complemented advanced design and free living.

 

 

 

 

Only rarely does a herald steal the limelight. Devotees of another British institution, the James Bond film franchise, may recall On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969, director Peter R. Hunt) in which the hero impersonates a herald called 'Sable Basilisk'. No such heraldic office exists, though it has been suggested that Ian Fleming based the character on the youthful Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees who served as Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of Arms - a real heraldic office at the College of Arms - and who, like Sir Thomas, attended the Queen's coronation in 1953. This dashing herald might be identified as a counterpoint to the steadfast stickler depicted in Aitchison's painting.

 

 

Images: 

1. Craigie Aitchison, The Herald, 1953, oil on board, 145 x 119 cm

2. A hand-coloured photograph showing the coronation procession

3. A herald's tabard worn by Sir Henry St George, circa 1707-14, Philadelphia Museum of Art

4. Sir Thomas Innes of Learney photographed for LIFE magazine in 1947 

© Hans Wild The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

 

 

June 2, 2022
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