Source: Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair/Luke Honey Ltd
Eagle eyed readers of Homes & Antiques will recognise this rather stylish chair, pictured above. It’s a ‘Red Chair’ from the Prince of Wales’s Investiture, held at Caernarvon Castle in 1969. The investiture sounds like a ceremony steeped in arcane antiquity, but in reality it was actually a 20th century re-invention (revived as recently as 1911 at the instigation of David Lloyd George): a heraldic pageant for the television age, and at a time of burgeoning Welsh nationalism (and even terrorist threat), for some, controversial.
The Queen personally invited Anthony Armstrong-Jones (the Earl of Snowdon) to oversee the design of the ceremony. As a Welshman, designer, architect of the London Zoo aviary, and photographer, Snowdon was an inspired choice. Through his marriage to Princess Margaret, he also happened to be the Queen’s brother-in-law.
To help him, Snowdon recruited two other designers to the royal cause: Carl Toms, the great stage designer who had spent his formative years under the influence of Snowdon’s uncle, Oliver Messel, and John Pound, a ‘brutalist’ designer from the Ministry of Works. The investiture took place on a circular raise dais, beneath a lanced Perspex canopy bearing a huge Prince of Wales feather crest, presumably made from a moulded plastic.
Not unlike the Queen Mother’s see-through PVC umbrellas, the transparent canopy was specifically designed to allow the television cameras (mounted on hydraulic cranes in the specially designated ‘television compounds’) a better view, bringing the glamorous six hour spectacle into the homes of millions, rather than as Snowdon put it in a television interview, ‘an elitist few’.
Snowdon, as Constable of Caernarvon Castle wore a uniform to his own design: a natty high collared number in bottle green (with zip) which depending on your point of view, either looked like ‘something from Carnaby Street’ or in Snowdon’s own words ‘a cinema usherette from the 1950’s or the panto character, Buttons’.
Design for the Prince of Wales’s Investiture, 1969 by Carl Toms, from the Investiture programme. Collection: Stephanie Connell Antiques & Art
And the guests needed chairs to sit on. According to Anne de Courcy’s recent biography, the Ministry of Works wanted the ‘riff-raff’ (as they thought fit to call them) to sit on planks mounted on scaffolding, with the VIP’s permitted to sit on chairs. Fortunately, this was over-ruled by the designers, and 4,000 special investiture chairs were made (‘a sea of red’).
Manufactured by disabled workers at the Remploy factory in Bridgend, the chairs are made from a beach-wood frame and the seat and backs are constructed from preformed plywood, veneered in Olive Ash and stained in ‘Vermillion Red’. The backs are embossed with the Prince of Wales’s Feathers in gold leaf and the seats are upholstered in red Welsh tweed, using a stable dye that would not run onto the guest’s clothes during a Welsh shower. The underside of the seat bears a Prince of Wales’s feathers stamp and the date ’69, and, obscured by the upholstery, hand-written numbering.
Prince of Wales’s Investiture Chair Sales Leaflet, 1969. From the collection of Luke Honey Ltd
The chairs were offered for sale after the ceremony and sold flat-packed for £12 each, via a promotional advertising leaflet. Snowdon bought six. And in a more egalitarian age, guests were encouraged to re-assemble the chairs for themselves, IKEA style.
Gold tasselled cushions, upholstered from the same red Welsh tweed and emblazoned with a medallion sporting the Prince of Wales’s feathers, were also made, but are now extremely hard to find, as presumably many were thrown away. An investiture chair is now held in the Frederick Parker chair collection at the Metropolitan University, London.
Prices for the chair are rising as collectors and interior designers begin to appreciate their handsome looks, regal history and practicality. They work especially well in dressing rooms and bathrooms.
Expect to pay in the region of £650-950 (depending on condition) from a specialist dealer. Condition is important, and originality is key. Many chairs on the market are in poor condition or have had the Welsh tweed cloth replaced. The special Investiture cushions remain especially scarce.
Luke Honey is a former auction specialist, dealer in art and antiques, writer, and custodian of the Frederick Parker chair collection.