Have you bought into the excitement as the royal wedding approaches? Have you snaffled any Kate and Wills knicknackery, succumbed to a tea towel, a crested porcelain plate, the official royal mint £5 coin? Perhaps your grandma has a commemorative collection, marking every coronation, wedding and jubilee since Victoria in china and biscuit tins. Is the dynasty enthroned on her dresser?
You may sneer at such purchases yourself, but the royal wedding promises an estimated boost of £515.5m to retailers, according to the Centre for Retail Research, with souvenirs accounting for £222m. There’s nothing trivial about tat.
The royal couple have reportedly withheld approval from naff tea towels, but they are as helpless as Canute against the relentless tide of unauthorised kitsch. Looking gooey on a towel is the least of their worries now Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction has launched the Royal Wedding Collector’s Edition condom to mark the happy day. The three pack comes in royal purple. A classy touch.
If you’re crafty you can Knit Your Own Royal Wedding, recreating the key players as woolly dolls. The cheekiest among you might suggest that orange yarn will do for both Prince Harry and the corgis. For educational monarchists, the Early Learning Centre offers the Happyland Royal Wedding set. It promises hours of cheerful ceremony on the nursery floor with plastic happy couple, wedding coach and horse, guardsman, cavalry officer and corgi, aimed at tots from 18 months up, a steal at £15.
I myself foresee pressure to procure the Sylvanian Families Royal Wedding Celebration Set. The rabbit bride Catherine Balmoral is radiant in “shimmering organza”, while a beaver called Kelvin plays the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It comes in at a steep £25 – they are no slouches those Japanese toy wizards.
Even disloyalists are catered for. Just as 1981 saw the proliferation of ‘Don’t Do it Di’ badges, so ‘I’m NOT a ROYAL WEDDING MUG’ and ‘Thanks for the free day off’ plates are ideal for a Republican street party on 29 April.
You may think this proliferation is confirmation of the absurdity of modern consumerism, but the commercial souvenir has ancient roots. Coins and medals were commemorative products of the Roman state. The material objects saints left behind were revered as holy relics and enshrined by the medieval churches. Pilgrims could purchase medals and amulets as proof of their gruelling trek to Canterbury, Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. Perhaps the Jerusalem amulet presided over the medieval hearth like the proverbial gift from Blackpool?
You can buy Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction
in royal purple
But it was in the 18th century that British manufacturers speculatively supplied commemorative artefacts, seizing any event as an opportunity to shift stock, decorating teapots and tankards, fabrics and fans with scenes of British triumph. William Duke of Cumberland, butcher of Culloden, loomed on many a mug, to be flourished at every anniversary of the Highlanders’ bloody defeat on 16 April 1746.
Naval heroes were commemorated with special fervour. Emma Hamilton donned full regalia to seduce Nelson. “My dress from head to foot is à la Nelson. Even my shawl is in blue with gold anchors all over. My earrings are Nelson’s anchors; in short, we are be-Nelsoned all over.”
Commemorative antiques mark bursts of past celebrity – like that attained by Princess Charlotte who died in childbirth in 1817 aged 21. Her fortitude through a 50-hour labour is recorded on scores of ceramics and bracelets – In memoriam.
The souvenir trade was not a Hanoverian monopoly. The first statesman to appear in a transfer print on ceramic in the 1750s was Frederick the Great of Prussia. He became so familiar that Horace Walpole complained: “All England kept his birthday. The people… think that Prussia is a part of Old England.”
Staffordshire potters were not above hedging their bets during the American War of Independence, producing George Washington plaques to counter their George III busts. Partisan souvenirs were sold to both sides in elections. The disenfranchised flourished their political affiliations through objects – even down to chamber pots for the parti pris.
Protest plates and patriotic mugs can both claim a venerable heritage. So who’s for a ‘future princess figurine’, hand-painted, complete with faux sapphire? You are? Well lucky you as there are lots more figurines in the pipeline marking ‘each sparkling step’ of Middleton’s ‘journey into royalty’. Clear that mantelpiece.