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Seats of power through the centuries

19 May 2018

Following the Queen’s visit to the set of Game of Thrones in June 2014, many newspapers revelled in photographs recording the somewhat awkward moment when the longest reigning monarch in British history was standing next to the so-called Iron Throne – an intimidating piece of furniture which, according to the TV drama, was forged from 1,000 swords, surrendered by the enemies of the first ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and heated in the breath of a dragon. Some bystanders were disappointed when the Queen did not follow an invitation to take a seat on this most uncomfortable looking chair; they were told that protocol forbade her to sit on a foreign throne.

A quick internet search also reveals that many fans of the original fantasy novels rather dismiss the prop for comprising a mere 200 individual blades and not towering over 40 feet high. Still, what fun must it have been for the set designers to put together a chair that reflects the gruesome aspirations of those seeking to sit on it? Creating thrones for film and theatre provides exciting opportunities for costume and set designers to collaborate. Beyond demonstrating the character of a fictional monarch, the chair can act as a sartorial extension of his or her costume – as in Mirror, Mirror, a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 2012, in which the evil stepmother (Julia Roberts) ruled her country sitting on a golden oyster-brioche-croissant hybrid, ‘mirroring’ the shape of her wide gowns. Designing a throne for a real monarch, however, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, is an entirely different matter.

Chair of estate used at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953), White Allom & Co. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II/Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Thrones remain some of the most fascinating and yet least studied pieces of furniture, one exception being the pioneering work of Sir Hugh Roberts. Thrones have existed in almost every human civilisation and while, on the one hand, they are rarefied objects with a very specific function, they also come in every form and shape, depending on the culture to which they belong. It is the privilege of sitting down, associated with physical comfort while others have to stand, which led tribes and nations to create a prime seat for their leaders. In terms of their design, thrones are almost by definition anachronistic: they are either cutting-edge, as they seek to herald a new reign and age, or conservative, emphasising continuity. And because they usually follow similar parameters – armrests, a high back, and rich ornamentation – thrones lend themselves particularly well to cross-cultural comparisons, which can go far beyond differences in style, materials employed, and the rituals associated with them.

Some thrones are as iconic as the historical figures who commissioned them: Tutankhamun’s golden throne discovered by Howard Carter in 1922; the royal throne of Aachen, said to have been made for Charlemagne using marble slabs taken from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and Edward I’s coronation chair at Westminster Abbey, known as St Edward’s Chair, which originally enclosed the Scottish Stone of Scone. Of course, nobody knew how significant a monarch Queen Elizabeth II would become when, in 1953, the firm White Allom & Co. was faced with the challenge of supplying both the chair of estate and the throne for the coronation of the young sovereign. The first was used by the Queen at the beginning of the ceremony, before her crowning on the medieval St Edward’s Chair, the second afterwards. Following the event, the throne was brought to Windsor Castle and the chair of estate to Buckingham Palace, where it remains today with a matching pair made for the Duke of Edinburgh. At the coronation itself, Prince Philip and the other royal dukes were given traditional x-framed chairs, supplied by Beresford & Hicks, which drew inspiration from thrones made in England between the 1550s and the early 1670s.

The view inside Westminster Abbey during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 2 June 1953, with St Edward’s Throne, and the Queen’s throne now at Windsor Castle. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

The design of such Tudor and Stuart thrones – of which the largest group, with no less than five different examples, survives at Knole in Kent – derives from the curule x-framed chairs used by Roman consuls and emperors. Typically, English copies were entirely covered in crimson or purple silk velvet imported from Italy – the abundance of such precious textiles sought to convey exceptional wealth and therefore power, while the choice of colours once again hinted at imperial Rome.

But what were the Queen’s 1953 throne and chair of estate modelled on? The chairs share the same high and elegantly arched backs covered in dark pink silk damask, the EIIR cypher encircled by the Garter and surmounted by St Edward’s crown, but they differ in their lower sections. Stylistically, the chair of estate, with its straight, upholstered armrests and elaborately carved front stretcher is closer to English examples of the 1680s and early 1690s, while the cross stretcher of the throne is reminiscent of grand armchairs made around 1700, when Louis Quatorze style somewhat corrupted the courts of William III and Queen Anne. The latter’s own coronation throne made in 1702 was significantly richer than that of Queen Elizabeth II, a high baroque confection supplied by ‘The Royal Chair’, a workshop owned by Britain’s then foremost carver, Thomas Roberts. Originally, the upholstery of Queen Anne’s throne, now in the collection of the Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield House, was not crimson, but blue and gold and cost £72, while Roberts’ gilt-wood chair frame merely amounted to £20.

Throne chair used at the coronation of Queen Anne (1702), Thomas Roberts. Courtesy Hatfield House

The relative simplicity of Queen Elizabeth II’s throne – certainly compared to that made for Queen Anne – was in keeping with what her post-war British subjects expected from their new sovereign. The coronation in 1953 was, of course, the most solemn of occasions, imbued with ancient traditions (with only a few elements, such as the yellow-green carpet and the presence of large television cameras, giving away that it was the 1950s), but by no means was it to be unnecessarily ostentatious given the climate of post-war austerity. The right balance had to be struck.

Three 20th-century coronation thrones preceded that of the Queen: while the pair made for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902 presents a typically eclectic Edwardian mix of gothic and baroque forms and ornament, George V (1911) and George VI (1937) went for chairs in the traditional Tudor and Stuart style. Why the Queen did not continue in that vein is unknown, but her and Prince Philip’s chairs of estate, with their subtle gilt-wood carvings, certainly appear more at home surrounded by the heavily Frenchified neo-classicism of George IV’s Throne Room at Buckingham Palace than any x-framed thrones of their predecessors.

The House of Windsor is the only sovereign family in Europe that continues the tradition of coronations for which the Royal Household commissions new thrones, while other dynasties opt for lower-key investitures or proclamations. The kings and queens of the Netherlands, for instance, mostly reuse armchairs already in their collection, merely having them recovered for the occasion; their simplicity and human scale (except perhaps for the throne used by King William III in 1849 and his daughter Queen Wilhelmina in 1898) distinctively contrast with the masterpieces of Dutch craftsmanship that were the highly elaborate chairs of the 17th- and 18th-century stadtholders, some excellent examples of which are newly displayed at the Rijksmuseum.

The Swedes, in turn, continue to employ what is arguably the most important baroque throne chair to survive. Made of silver for the notorious Queen Christina and used at her coronation in 1650, it almost certainly inspired Louis XIV’s so-called silver throne (now lost and in fact made of wood covered in a minute layer of silver). Louis XV’s throne (also lost), on the other hand, was unashamedly replicated by the Swedish architect Jean Eric Rehn for the two imposing chairs used in the coronation of King Adolf Frederick and Queen Louisa Ulrika in 1751, one of which can still be admired in the Audience Chamber at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Silver throne used at the coronation of Queen Christina of Sweden (1650), Abraham Drentwett. Photo: Alexis Daflos; courtesy Royal Court of Sweden

Charles III of Spain also took inspiration from abroad, particularly when it came to art and architecture. The Palacio Real’s Throne Room in Madrid, decorated between 1763 and 1771, was almost entirely the product of Italian artists and craftsmen. Its opulent throne chair, created by the Neapolitan carver Gennaro di Fiore to the designs of Giovanni Battista Natali, bears a medallion with the profile of the rococo monarch. When restoring the Spanish monarchy in 1975, King Juan Carlos was keen to emphasise continuity. He therefore commissioned exact replicas of his forebear’s throne for Queen Sophia and himself, this time featuring their own profiles. Juan Carlos’s grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had done the same in 1902; it remains uncertain, however, whether or not King Felipe VI, who ascended to the throne in 2014, will pursue this royal tradition as a similar sign of continuity.

King Juan Carlos’ throne, 1978, made by the Fundación Generalissimo Franco copying that made for Charles III in 1763–66 by Gennaro di Fiore and Andrea Cotardi to the designs of Giovanni Battista Natali. © Patrimonia Nacional

One ruler who deliberately sought to break with tradition (at least with that of his immediate predecessors) was Napoleon. As recorded in Jacques-Louis David’s Le Sacre de Napoléon (1807), Bonaparte had sections of the gothic interior of Notre Dame concealed by neoclassical architecture, illustrating his zeal to be associated with Roman emperors rather than medieval kings. The new Emperor’s throne chairs at Fontainebleau, Saint-Cloud and the Tuileries, made by Jacob-Desmalter to the designs of Percier and Fontaine, were to herald a new political era. Indeed, the purity of their design, with its perfectly circular back, made them the most recognisable of any thrones made in Europe and influenced those of at least three more emperors: William I of Prussia, Nicholas II of Russia and Napoleon III.

Emperor Napoleon’s throne for the Tuileries Palace, 1804, François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter. RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)

A rather more recent coronation, which drew extensively on Napoleon’s imagery, was that of Central African dictator Bokassa, who had himself crowned Emperor in December 1977. The event, which cost $20 million – one third of the country’s annual budget – was an affair that blurred the boundaries between reality and fiction: for some, Bokassa was a legitimate sovereign, for others a power-hungry impostor. His coronation chair, rather like the Iron Throne, appeared to reflect the megalomaniac aspiration of its sitter: a monumental golden eagle by the sculptor Olivier Brice, which looked as if it came straight out of an epic Hollywood drama. As in heraldry, animals – most especially lions and eagles – have often found their way into throne designs to convey character traits, such as strength and dignity, with which a monarch wanted to be associated. Nonetheless, to many 20th-century audiences, this form of symbolism may have appeared somewhat out of date.

While Brice’s throne for Bokassa could indeed have drawn inspiration from film, the chair itself is likely to have inspired fictional thrones since. The makers of Walt Disney’s animated musical Aladdin (1992) created a superlative throne room that no doubt would have been to Bokassa’s taste: an enormous circular space surmounted by a huge dome upheld by colossal white marble columns. The centrepiece was a golden elephant head, the tusks of which functioned as the armrests for the charming chubby little Sultan, father of Aladdin’s love interest, Yasmin. Like a lion or eagle, the imposing yet harmless elephant was to embody the sultan’s character. This was equally true of the cunning, sneaky and slithering cobra, which replaced the elephant’s head, when the Sultan’s evil vizier Jafar briefly took over the reins of power before the denouement of the story.

While Bokassa may have enjoyed a palace of the scale of the sultan’s, being equated to a Disney protagonist would most likely have met his disapproval. It appears easy to dismiss his coronation – which took place at the local Palais des sports – as a mad piece of theatre, on the basis of his oversized throne and new regalia. The success and acceptance of a monarch is based on the support of his or her subjects and on international recognition. While Napoleon had been taken very seriously by his European counterparts when he set himself up as emperor, no head of state, bar one, attended Bokassa’s coronation. In 1977, monarchy itself was seen by many as an anachronism and the display of enormous opulence had taken on negative connotations. Like his ambitions, Bokassa’s throne was out of proportion. Its caricatural nature defeated its purpose, reaching the critical point where grandeur tips into ridiculousness and provokes laughter.

The relative simplicity of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation throne stands in contrast with that made for Bokassa some 24 years later. Her throne has no eagle, lion, elephant or snake. It is an almost blank canvas on which her subjects can project their own ideas – rather like some contemporary works of art – and here, at least in part, lies the success of the second Elizabethan era. The Queen may be one of the last monarchs to actually sit on a throne, but one will find many more images of her working at a desk. Indeed, since the late 17th century writing tables appear to have gradually overtaken thrones as symbols of power and authority: the imposing ‘Resolute Desk’, given by Queen Victoria to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and built from oak timbers of the British exploration ship HMS Resolute, has been chosen by many US presidents for the Oval Office, including John F. Kennedy, Bush Junior, Obama, and the present incumbent.

Perhaps the ‘Game of Thrones’ has been superseded by a ‘Game of Desks’ – not least because some political leaders give the impression that for them the business of ruling is nothing but a game. And maybe, just at the moment when thrones appear to be losing their symbolic value in real life, they are gaining power in fictional form, as we become increasingly obsessed with autocratic, dynastic rule as represented on the TV screen. It remains to be seen whether British kings and queens will continue to commission new thrones for their coronations. St Edward’s Chair, on which every monarch has been crowned since the 14th century, provides a continuity so deeply built into the coronation ceremony that the actual throne of a new sovereign can be more individual without sacrificing traditions. Just how individual such a throne might be remains the challenging question.

From the March issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.