Queen's collection of gifts amassed during reign to go on show

Caroline Davies
A Buckingham Palace London Underground sign, presented to the Queen. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Some of the more unusual gifts presented to the Queen, including a beaded throne, a totem pole and a novelty Buckingham Palace London Underground sign, are to go on show in a special exhibition.

Curated from the thousands of gifts she has received during her 65-year reign, the Buckingham Palace exhibition will feature the weird and the wonderful from over 100 countries collected during more than 250 overseas visits.

The official receiving and bestowing of gifts has been a mainstay of royal diplomacy and protocol for centuries, and the Queen has amassed an enviable collection. Some lend themselves less to public exhibit, perhaps, than others, such as the prime stud horse semen gifted by an admiring breeder, which is not on display.

The new exhibition, held during the annual summer opening of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace, will have an emphasis on local craft and artistic tradition, rather than on the lavish and luxurious.

A colourful Yoruba throne, gifted by Nigeria in 1956, symbolises wealth and status through the sheer number of beads woven together, and incorporating a motif representing, in the Yoruba culture, respect for ancestors. A pair of baskets woven from coconut leaves, given by Queen Salote Tupou III of Tonga in 1953, are examples of a creative industry the Tongan queen re-established on the island.

A beaded Yoruba throne from Nigeria, presented to the Queen in 1956. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

A 78cm hand-carved wooden totem pole, topped with a mythical thunderbird with outstretched wings, came from the Kwakiutl people of Canada’s north-west coast in 1971. It fits nicely into the state rooms, unlike another totem, which measures 30 metres and was a present from the people of British Columbia. That now stands in Windsor Great Park.

One of the exhibition’s main attractions is the Vessel of Friendship – a model of a treasure ship sailed by the 15th-century Chinese navigator and diplomat Zheng He. Decorated with a dove and olive branch medallion, with traditional Chinese symbols of friendship and peace, it was presented by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, during the Chinese state visit to the UK in 2015.

A hand-beaten silver fruit bowl, from the Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991, features a silver banana, pear and grapes. A Buckingham Palace tube sign was presented to the Queen during a 2010 tour of Aldgate East station.

Another gift is a bag of salt from Salt Island – one of the British Virgin Islands – sent in celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday. “This is definitely one of the most unusual,” said the exhibition’s curator, Sally Goodsir. “Traditionally, a bag of salt was given to the monarch, but that tradition stopped in the 19th century. This tradition was revived for the Queen’s 90th.

“One of my favourites has to be the Nigerian beaded throne. One of the designs is of a lion, and according to the Yoruba tradition, only a monarch can sit on a lion. So it really is very appropriate. For the exhibition, I have tried to focus on indigenous crafts. Some of the gifts are quite modern, but others date back right to the beginning of her reign.”

Gifts from ambassadors and high commissioners include a terracotta figure of the Great Mother, from the Macedonian ambassador – a replica of a neolithic figure discovered in Skopje.

Officials gifts, which cannot be sold or exchanged, eventually become part of the Royal Collection, held in trust by the Queen for the nation.

Previous exhibitions of gifts at Buckingham Palace have included a yellowing cloth rectangle, spun as a royal wedding present by Mahatma Gandhi, and once erroneously believed by Queen Mary to be a loincloth. Other gifts have found good homes, including a pair of sloths from Brazil, and an elephant called Jumbo from Cameroon.

• The summer opening of the state rooms at Buckingham palace runs from 22 July to 1 October 2017, with advance tickets available at the Royal Collection website.

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