Sunday, 28 August 2011

New books: Ceremonial headgear

After several years’ delay the Dutch goldsmith René Brus has at last finished his long-awaited book Crown Jewellery and Regalia of the World, which was published by Pepin Press of Amsterdam earlier this month.
This is a monumental book based on a lifetime’s passion for crowns, an interest which has apparently taken Brus to many a distant country in order to study crowns or witness ceremonial events. The result is not, he stresses in the preface, an encyclopaedia of regalia, but “an attempt to show that crowns can be found everywhere, in any form and design”.
This Brus certainly succeeds in doing, as he does not limit himself to royal crowns, which the somewhat misleading title might indicate, but covers a wide range of ceremonial headgear, including tiaras, votive crowns, mitres, beauty queen tiaras, various headdresses worn for religious and tribal rituals and much more. Africa and Asia are the continents which figure most prominently in this book while Britain and the Netherlands are the European countries most closely studied. There are some surprising omissions, such as the splendid crown regalia of Bavaria, which are not mentioned once.
One cannot help being impressed by the enormous effort Brus has laid down through many years to document so many crowns of different types from far away corners of the earth and to supply the readers with photos (although not all of them of the best quality, he admits). But on the other hand I could also not help feeling that he tries to cram too much into one book, which is also arranged in a rather disorderly manner.
The sequence of the chapters does not feel entirely natural – why “Royal children and marks of rank” before “Coronations”? Why is there suddenly a photo of Queen Sophia of Sweden and of Norway’s malachite parure, which has never been worn for any wedding, in the chapter titled “Royal and aristocratic weddings”?
Despite René Brus’s expert knowledge there are also several mistakes to be found in this book. The book opens with a disclaimer saying that “Every effort has been made to ensure that all information and original names are accurate. However, due to the historical and langual [sic] ambiguities inherent to the subject matter, the author and editor are not in the position to guarantee, with absolute certainty, the historical information provided”.
But if every effort had really been made, one would certainly have avoided such basic mistakes as referring to Britain as “England” throughout (there are no kings or queens of England since 1707, nor is there an “English Parliament”) and to the Bernadottes as kings simply of Sweden during the near-decade when they were kings also of Norway. His statement that “Norway’s Crown Prince has a crown that was actually made for the Swedish Crown Prince” is certainly nonsense – the crown was made for in Norway and paid for by the Norwegian Parliament to be worn by Norwegian crown princes at Norwegian coronations. But later on, Brus writes that Norway “became an independent kingdom” only in 1905, so he is obviously ignorant of the basic facts about the nature of the union between the two kingdoms.
He goes on to say that the Norwegian King’s crown was made by Adolf Zethelius, although it is now two decades since it was established that it was actually made by Olof Wihlborg (the most recent book on the Norwegian crown regalia, which was also published in English in 2006, is not included in Brus’s list of sources). He also maintains that Queen Desideria was not crowned in Norway “as her husband King Oscar I was never crowned as King of Norway”, although Oscar I was in fact her son. Her husband, Carl XIV Johan (whom Brus calls “Carl XIV”), was crowned in Norway and there were other reasons why Desideria’s coronation never took place.
Concerning Sweden, Brus writes that the crowns of both king and queen “were present at the accession ceremony of King Carl XVI Gustaf on 18 [actually 19] September 1973 and at his wedding in 1976”, although only the King’s crown was present at the enthronement (at which time Sweden had no queen). Regarding Denmark he states that “the coronation crown of King Frederik III, made in 1665” was used for Frederik IX’s lying-in-state in 1972 although there is no such crown and the crown actually used was Christian V’s, which is pictured on the same page of the book.
The regalia of the Scandinavian countries are those I am most familiar with and when noticing so many mistakes and misunderstandings concerning them, I cannot help wondering if I can trust the information about the regalia of those countries I am less familiar with. The result is that I have mixed feelings about this book, which it seems is not as reliable as such a great work, the fruit of decades of work, ought to be.

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