The Fairy Tale that Wasn’t: Collecting the 1981 Royal Wedding Antiques & Auction News September 8, 2017 Forget what happened later.  Pretend you don't know.  On July 29, 1981, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  "Here is the stuff of which fairytales are made," said the Archbishop of Canterbury. The truth was more complicated.  The commemoratives, by contrast, can be objectively documented. On the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death, here’s a look back at some. This article is limited to ceramic commemoratives made in Great Britain. The engagement was announced February 24, 1981.  Officially, the potteries had five months to bring their wares to market.  In fact, they had been preparing for the marriage of the heir to the throne since the mid-1970s.  The emergence of Lady Diana Spencer as a possible bride in the summer of 1980, gave hope to an industry devastated by a recession. Diana was 19 and the daughter of Earl Spencer.  She lived in London and worked as a preschool teacher.  In the words of the London Times, she was "young and shy enough not to have been seriously involved with other men." Designers set to work months before Charles proposed. There was, however, one unexpected detail.  Westminster Abbey was the assumed location.  "Abbey ceremony will be a grand occasion" was the Times headline. The surprise announcement on March 4 that the wedding would take place at St. Paul's must have been heart-stopping. The first mug by Britannia Antiques of London was in stores six days after the announcement.  Staffordshire Potteries was also ready for the good news.  Twenty-thousand white china mugs based on newspaper cutouts were shipped to Woolworths. But these rush jobs weren't really in the spirit of the event.  Something special was required.  Certain points had to be kept in mind. There were the couple's rank and character. They were the future king and queen. Charles was earnest and deep-thinking while Diana's chastity and simple tastes were canvassed widely in the press. Because royal titles and insignia were copyrighted the Lord Chamberlain could forbid their use on commemoratives that were in bad taste.  The elusive quality of good design also counted. The Design Council, which was founded to help British industry, pronounced most wedding souvenirs "appalling, abysmal, worse even than we expected.  We are amazed that people will buy these crummy things." Images Buy them they did. The biggest selling point was Diana.  Although she had been tracked by photographers for months, most commemoratives were based on a few images: Engagement Announcement, February 24, 1981: Together at last. The engagement was announced at Buckingham Palace, where the couple was interviewed and photographed.  Diana looked hunched and overwhelmed in the blue suit that she picked out at Harrods with her mother.  It was the antithesis of the Lady Di style: a long skirt, belted jacket, and patterned blouse that were more suited to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Commemoratives: Where to begin. So popular was the engagement photo-op, that it would be impossible to form a collection without several specimens.  Below are the major categories (most categories also apply to commemoratives based on other images): Together (side by side): Busts of Charles and Diana surrounded by a red heart on an armorial ground: A transfer by an unknown designer that was used by ceramic manufacturers around the world.   British firms included Arthur Wood, Midwinter, Palissy, and Wade.  The transfer was applied (not always with strict regard to proportion) to goblets, plates, vases, thimbles, boxes, teacups, and bells.   Together (groom behind bride): Based on photographs of the couple standing outdoors on the palace garden steps.  Charles looms over Diana. (In reality, the height difference was only one or two inches.)  Commemoratives by Caverswall and Royal Grafton show Charles collegially resting his hand on Diana's shoulder. The mug designed by Richard Guyatt for Crown Staffordshire is one of the few to suggest the attraction and tactility of a loving couple with a grainy newsprint-style portrait encircled in yellow ribbon. Monochrome: A tradition in royal commemoratives.  Monochrome (that is shaded single-hue) wares have been made for more than 200 years.  Spode's blue-on-white mug sketchily depicts Charles and Diana in a single frame surrounded by foliage. Another standout: Enoch Wedgwood's bold black-on-white plate: A photograph of Charles and Diana occupies the well and the scalloped rim has distinctive lettering. Separate Frames: Diana's head is in her frame and Charles' head is in his frame. A prescient design metaphor for the lonely isolation of a loveless marriage?   Not exactly.  Royal couples have occupied separate frames since the early 20th century.  Both Aynsley and Royal Stafford used head shots of Charles and Diana shiftily looking to the side.  "Many manufacturers slapped the faces of the couple on to their mugs any old how"-Design Council. His-and-hers: Diana is on one plate and Charles is on another.  Again a design decision that has no bearing on the couple's relationship. It may have been a ploy to sell two commemoratives instead of one. The 1981 wedding aside, pairs are rare. (Figurines are the exception.) Royal Overhouse was unusual in issuing a pair of 4-inch dishes based on the engagement photo-op.  Most manufacturers of his-and-hers preferred the Snowdon portraits.  Snowdon portraits, published February 1981: Two portraits of Lady Diana Spencer were published in English Vogue in February 1981. The photographer was Lord Snowdon, who was for many years married to the queen's sister.  Snowdon portrait 1: Diana wears a pale pink chiffon blouse with a soft ruffled collar by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. The hesitant smile and three-quarter view are Shy Di traits. Commemoratives: It's a long list: Spode, Crown Staffordshire, Adams, and Poole to start.  Also, Hammersley, Royal Worcester, Paragon, Sylva, and Royal Albert. A perennial favorite, the portrait was used to commemorate many events in the couple's marriage, including their divorce in 1996.  Snowdon portrait 2: Diana wears a cream organdie and lace dress by Gina Fratini that exposes her throat.  More ethereal than other portraits from this period. Commemoratives: A slightly less long list that includes Centre Gallery, Croft, Price Kensington, Masons, and Coalport.   Poole and Sylva were exceptional in using both Snowdon portraits.   Wedding, July 29, 1981: The apotheosis of the Lady Di style:  The bride wore a lacy and ruffled gown by the Emanuels.  It was just the thing a teenage girl (which Diana was) would have chosen.  Commemoratives: Commemoratives that incorporate the wedding seem almost like an afterthought. For poignancy you can't beat the Caverswall plate: The newlyweds are surrounded by medallion portraits of the pages and bridesmaids, who are now in early middle age. Paps and alterations:  Few paparazzi shots were used on ceramic commemoratives. In addition to copyright and suitability, there was the problem of what Diana was wearing.  The plumed and netted hats, pearl chokers, and high-necked blouses tied with ribbon would have been difficult to portray in small scale. She was more adventurous with evening wear.  A strapless black gown (another Emanuel creation)   was a sensation ("I was quite big chested then and they all got frightfully excited").  But décolleté Diana wasn't right for the potteries. Designs that are based on pap shots probably antedate the engagement.  One clue is that the wedding date and place are not part of the design. A Caverswall beaker, which captures Diana's round-faced sweetness, lists the information on the back stamp. Likewise the Wedgwood plate that includes the couple’s names and phrase "royal wedding;" the date and place are again confined to the back stamp. A variant (and presumably later) version incorporates them into the design. Alterations can make it difficult to trace a commemorative portrait back to the original photo. A Royal Doulton beaker shows Diana with an assertive gaze and wearing a crisp white blouse, as if she were already looking ahead to the post-Shy Di era. But what is this representation based on?  Hard to say because designers liked to tinker, changing colors and adding or suppressing details.   Themes, fashions, and motifs Anatomy: Carlton made his-and-hers teacups with biped supports. The Charles cup has heavy black shoes and the Diana cup is shod in white and yellow. Carlton's Walking Wares had been in production since 1974, but the form seems especially appropriate here. Runaway! Runaway! Another Carlton gag makes fun of jug-eared Charles: A mug with an ear-form handle. A favorite with the critics, it made the Design Council's list of top wedding commemoratives. Irreverence was a new development in royal commemoratives.  The commemoratives that were made for Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969 strove for youthfulness with flower-power motifs, but there was no mocking HRH. Architecture: The domed silhouette of St. Paul's is ubiquitous. (Coalport was unusual in depicting the Baroque interior.)  Caernarvon Castle, the medieval fortress where Charles was invested as Prince of Wales, is recognizable by the castellated towers.  Rarer are the depictions of Highgrove, the country place that Prince Charles bought in 1980.  In later years, Diana called Highgrove a "prison." After the wedding, though, it was "a cozy nest for Mr. & Mrs. Wales to roost." Thus the earl's daughter described the three-storey, nine-bedroom Georgian house.  The Engagement:  A few commemoratives were made to celebrate the engagement.  The Caverswall loving cup includes a close-up of Diana's ring finger-proof that she'd sealed the deal. A striking (and snobbish) mug by Panorama Studios lists all Charles' titles as well as the Spencer family's stately home (Althorp). Both pieces feature engagement portraits and the date.  A more dubious engagement commemorative is the unmarked mug that has only the year "1981" and a pap shot of Diana taken the previous November. Probably made on spec.  Figurines: Diana was a favorite figurine subject.  The ones made at the time of the wedding convey her girlish prettiness. The soft arms and dark blond hair are period details.  Royal Doulton introduced two pairs in 1981 and '82.  The first pair is HRH the Prince of Wales (HN 2883) in his investiture robes and Lady Diana Spencer (HN 2885) in a polka-dotted evening dress. The second pair is HRH the Prince of Wales (HN 2884) in the uniform of the Welsh guards (he was married in the uniform of a naval commander) and HRH the Princess of Wales in her wedding dress (HN 2887).  Coalport's wedding-era figurines include Lady Diana Spencer (she's wearing that horrible engagement suit) and HRH The Prince of Wales.  Before he gained a reputation for doddering eccentricity Charles was called "action man;" hence the safari suit and binoculars.  The most romantic is a group of the couple seated and holding hands.  Diana is in her wedding dress and Charles is in a military uniform (the right one this time).  Regional Motifs: The red Welsh dragon was a popular motif for the Prince of Wales' wedding.  Of special note: the gilt-white Caverswall loving cup with sculptural dragon handles.  Because Prince Charles is the Duke of Cornwall Arthur Wood made a mug for the Cornish market. It is decorated with the duchy's coat of arms, a cartoon of Charles and Diana, and the inscription "Congratulations and loyal greetings to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall on the occasion of their wedding July 29th 1981."  Swap the bride's portrait and wedding date and the design could have been recycled for Charles second marriage in 2005 to Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is known as the Duchess of Cornwall.  Rustic wares: Some commemoratives are timeless with century-old motifs decorating traditional forms. Others belong squarely to their period. Take the stoneware commemoratives. In the 1970s there was a fashion for brown stoneware dishes.  Patchwork, Bracken, and Woodstock were representative pattern names. The worst was over by 1980, though a mitigated version of the style survived in the Bilton wedding mug. The body is off-white with brown lettering and ornament; the interior and rim are glazed brown.  Occasionally studio pottery commemoratives show up on eBay: Squat and massive vessels embellished with the couple's names. Vases and chalices: Nothing dish-washer safe here. For serious collectors only: A Wedgwood blue jasper vase decorated with portrait medallions.  By Spode, a vase with a scene of Highgrove and a chalice with coats of arms.  The high end commemoratives were made in limited editions.  Many sold out before production began, which explains the absence of advertising in magazines, like Country Life and The Illustrated London News. Today they pass through salerooms (often in the original box) for up to half off the original retail price. Collecting the 1981 wedding is an affordable hobby that can be more satisfying, alas, than the marriage turned out to be.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples 212-787-5971