Painted out of History

The abdication crisis of 1937 forced a royalist magazine to present a different face to the world, as Luci Gosling reports.

Click to see larger version: Albert Collings' portrait of George VI complete with the invoice and a note for the extra fee for 'alteration of face'. Mary Evans Picture Library.As Britain prepares to mark Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee this June, with newsagents’ shelves stacked with books, supplements and one-off publications to mark the occasion, it is worth noting that landmark royal events have inspired publishing frenzies for at least 150 years. The Illustrated London News (ILN), founded in 1842, had a reputation for producing the most lavish ‘special’ editions for each jubilee, wedding or royal coronation. In 1863 it saw its circulation exceed 300,000, due to its extensive coverage of the Prince of Wales’ marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in March, outselling The Times. The special edition produced for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 included beautifully detailed colour plates decorated with gold. So in 1936, with the accession of Edward VIII and his forthcoming coronation planned for May 15th the following year, it launched into preparations once more.

Artists Fortunino Matania (1881- 1963) and Albert Collings (1868-1947) were commissioned to produce portraits of the king in his ceremonial robes to be reproduced as spectacular colour plates. Collings was a respected portrait painter, while Matania was a star in the world of magazine illustration. As ‘special artist’ for the Sphere magazine he drew thousands of illustrations recording key events of the 20th century, from the sinking of the Titanic to the First World War. With a reputation for exacting standards and attention to detail, Matania was asked to paint the king in three different ceremonial costumes. The pictures he produced show the crimson Robe of State with the Cap of Maintenance, the Golden Imperial Mantle with St Edward’s Crown and the Robe of Purple Velvet with the Imperial State Crown. Collings was commissioned to paint the new king in the latter outfit in a portrait that was to grace the inside cover of the coronation edition. No records exist to state whether either artist was granted access to the uncrowned king during this period, but it is unlikely. Prior to events such as this, the Palace would usually display the robes in order for artists to take sketches and supply photographs of the monarch to ensure an appropriate likeness.

The original portrait of Edward VIII. Mary Evans Picture LibraryIn the event a sitting would have proved superfluous. In December 1936 Edward VIII, less than a year after his accession, abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson. His younger brother, Bertie, then Duke of York, became his reluctant successor as George VI, and his niece, Princess Elizabeth, heir-presumptive.

The national crisis provoked a smaller one in the offices of the ILN, where hasty alterations to the almost complete coronation edition had to be made. Today a rare, pre-press copy of the magazine is held in the ILN archive. In among the spreads of childhood photographs and completed paintings are numerous blank pages awaiting photographs of a ceremony that never happened.

The ILN, proudly royalist, pushed aside any sentiments it may have had about the departing king and focused its attention on enshrining the new one, who happily came complete with a charming family. The magazine also showed enterprising thrift by asking both Matania and Collings to re-paint their original works. In George VI’s coronation edition both images appear once more, almost identical, though with different heads. More remarkable is a marked-up editorial copy of the 1937 coronation edition, also in the ILN archives, annotated with copyrightholders’ contact details, invoices and fees payable to contributors. The frontispiece by Collings has an invoice from the artist stuck over it. It states that in addition to the £159.10s originally paid for the portrait, Collings was paid an additional £21 for alterations to the head. No matter how reverential and respectful the ILN may have been about the monarchy publicly behind the scenes, deadlines and economics inevitably played their part. As far as these coronation portraits are concerned, Edward VIII was, literally, painted out of history.

Luci Gosling works at Mary Evans Picture Library and is the author of Brushes and Bayonets: Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War One (Osprey, 2008).

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