A Century of Spectacular Coronation Specials

Words by
Lisa Barnard

18th April 2023

Thanks to our access to the incredible archive of Illustrated London News, we at SPHERE are able to explore the story of how Coronation content is made through over a century of exclusive imagery, as you'll discover. Oh, and look out for content production 1911 style, to see how far we have come. 

There is no nation that knows how to stage a major royal event quite like Britain, and in its heyday there was no publisher that knew how to turn out a Coronation special edition better than The Illustrated London News — and its sister publications. This included the original SPHERE, from which this magazine derives its name.

As the world’s first pictorial magazine, marking a revolution in journalism and news gathering, founded in 1842, just five years after Queen Victoria acceded to the throne, The Illustrated London News proved that pictures sold and that great royal occasions — from births to weddings, jubilees, funerals and, above all, coronations — were a publisher’s dream.

Illustration specially drawn by C.E Brock for The SPHERE Coronation, May 1937
Illustration specially drawn by C.E Brock for The SPHERE Coronation. It depicts King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as they start their return journey in the Coronation Coach from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace following the Ceremony.

Unlike births, weddings and funerals, with a coronation there is the benefit of advance notice between the accession and the ceremony, allowing the editorial team to go to town on preparing a Coronation edition. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, there was a generous interval of 16 months, allowing a lengthy period of mourning for the passing of the previous monarch and for the planning committees to make their meticulous preparations. In the case of King Charles III, there has been a decent eight months, but his Coronation Day has been planned for years.

Terence Cuneo's spectacular painting of the Queen's Coronation, 1953
Terence Cuneo's painting, which took a year to create, depicts the scene in Westminster Abbey during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, reproduced in the Illustrated London News on 29 October 1977.

The shortest interval — five months — was for the Coronation of George VI, when everything changed on 10 December 1936. The abdication caused a constitutional crisis and sent shockwaves across the world, and, closer to home, there was panic and furious activity at the offices of The Illustrated London News. The Coronation edition for Edward VIII was all set to go to press, apart from a few last pages and advertisements, as demonstrated by the printer’s proof copy.

The Sketch, 19 May 1937
The cover of The Sketch showing a photograph of the newly crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The national crisis proved also to be an editor’s nightmare. Creating a portrait of the new King in his Coronation robes was out of the question, so the editor Sir Bruce Ingram, with some resourcefulness, instructed the commissioned artist Albert H Collings to superimpose the head of George VI over that of his brother — possibly the first example of Photoshop-style manipulation. Collings charged handsomely for the work, as he submitted a bill to ILN for £178 and 10 shillings, including £21 for “the alteration to the face”. Thus King Edward VIII was airbrushed out of history. Poor King George, who never wished to be King, not only had to step into his brother’s shoes, he also didn’t even get his own Coronation portrait.

The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace after the Coronation of King George VI
The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace after the Coronation of King George VI, on May 12, 1937

The Illustrated London News commemorative royal editions set out to be the definitive records and must-have collector’s items: lavishly produced, bound with high-quality covers, illustrated with exclusive commissioned portraits of the monarch and engraved decorative borders, with in-depth articles and glorious colour plates capturing the monarch at all earlier stages of his or her life. Pressure of time often meant that ILN offices turned into studios. An illustration of the artists, draughtsmen, writers, art editors and the editor frenetically at work on the George V Coronation edition, perching and standing cheek by jowl at easels and desks, captures the frenzy vividly.

Samuel Begg's portrayal of artists at work on Illustrated London News in 1911
Artists hard at work creating the content required to publish the The Illustrated London News for the Coronation edition of George V, 1911.

The 1953 Coronation issue was no exception. The lead article, The Record of the Life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, spanned some 30 pages and was written by the eminent historian and royal expert Sir Charles Petrie. Renowned artist Terence Cuneo, commissioned over decades by The Illustrated London News, produced a number of iconic royal portraits and scenes, as did his father before him. In 1953 he was the official artist for the Coronation, commissioned to paint the scene in Westminster Abbey. It was a mammoth task, involving months of preparation and many private sittings before and after the Coronation, taking a year to complete in total. Prince Charles features in the portrait, being the only British monarch to attend his mother’s Coronation.

The SPHERE Coronation Number front cover on 6 June 1953
THE SPHERE Coronation Number front cover on June 6 1953 features an illustration by Leslie. S Haywood

ILN editions expounded the various rituals and significance of the ceremony. For Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation edition for The Illustrated London News, The Dean of Westminster was invited to pen a piece. This article was not as reverent as might be expected from the very Rev Dr A. C. Don. He opened the article by describing the copy of the service used by Lord John Thynne, Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Coronation. “Judging by the pencil notes scribbled in the margins after the conclusion of the ceremony, the proceedings appeared to be punctuated by considerable embarrassment and confusion.” He recounts how the Bishop of Bath and Wells appeared to have turned over two pages of his book in error, and thus concluded that the service was at an end. He announced this to Queen Victoria, who rose prematurely from her throne and disappeared into St Edward’s chapel.

The Illustrated London News Coronation Ceremony Number published in 1953
The Illustrated London News Coronation Ceremony Number published in 1953

The Dean also notes an entry in Queen Victoria’s journal for 28 June 1838: “She is anything but complimentary to Archbishop Howley, who ‘as usual was so confused, and puzzled and knew nothing’. This may account for the fact that ‘the Archbishop most awkwardly put the ring on the wrong finger and I had the greatest difficulty to take it off again, which I did at last with great pain.’ No wonder the unhappy prelate is reported to remark when all was over: ‘I think we ought to have had a rehearsal.’”

By the time of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter’s Coronation in 1953, there were rehearsals galore. As the world’s first televised Coronation ceremony, there was no room for blunders. After more than a year of careful planning and choreography,

The Queen played her part with perfect poise and dignity, and her solemn demeanour was entirely genuine. A devout Christian and fully prepared for a life spent serving her people, this was her defining moment. Afterwards, she vowed: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart  I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”

The Queen on the cover of The SPHERE in May 1953
The Queen on the cover of The SPHERE in May 1953, after which she vowed: “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”

The estimated three million people lining the five-mile processional route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey (30,000 of whom had camped overnight) were not deterred by the wet weather. Coronation fever had gripped the country. From mid-May onwards, London swarmed with visitors.

Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation procession, which stretched for three kilometers
The Queen's Coronation procession followed a five-mile route and took the 16,000 participants two hours to complete

On the day, the morning’s newspapers brought reports of the conquering of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay — a timely, victorious flourish to the day’s proceedings. The stoicism of the bedraggled spectators was rewarded by a ravishing display of pomp and pageantry. The gold State Coach carrying the new Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh was accompanied by 27 more coaches conveying other Royal Family members as well as Heads of State, 29 marching bands and around 13,000 troops. Prince Philip, who had been on the  Coronation organising committee, rather modestly described it, in characteristic fashion, as “not a bad show”. Best of all, copies of ILN’s Coronation edition sold like hotcakes.

Cover of the Illustrated Coronation Edition from Illustrated London News
The Illustrated Coronation Edition from Illustrated London News is on sale now across Britain at all major supermarkets and W.H Smith

The Illustrated Coronation Edition 2023 is on sale at major supermarkets and WH Smith, and at britishcoronation.com