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The State Opening of Parliament takes place annually, formally starting the parliamentary year. It is the only regular occasion when the three parts of Parliament – the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons – meet. This ceremonial event includes many traditions that can be traced back to the 16th century. In the run-up to a State Opening, the Keeper of the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection, Mary-Jane ‘MJ’ Tsang, and her team are always very busy preparing for this major event. Here she tells us all about the work that goes into the ceremony of State Opening, and how our collection items form an essential part of the Parliamentary tradition.

Question: How did you become the Keeper of Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts at Parliament?

Colour print showing the State Opening of Parliament in 1958. The viewpoint is high, looking down on to a full House of Lords from above the galleries and above the ceiling lights, which shine brightly. In the centre is Queen Elizabeth II in the Sovereign’s Throne. She is wearing white and a long red robe which flows down the steps. The Lords wear red.
State Opening of Parliament 1958 Print by Unknown © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 4721

MJT: I trained as an object conservator and worked in various museums including the National Maritime Museum, before I joined Parliament in 2011. As well as the daily care, conservation and research of our objects, the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection team supports ceremonial events by supplying appropriate furniture and furnishings. This includes State visits, but the biggest ceremonial event of the year is the State Opening of Parliament.

Q: How important is the role of the Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection in the State Opening?

MJT: It’s integral. When you imagine the State Opening, you immediately think of what’s going on in the Lords Chamber, where the central object is the Sovereign’s Throne. This is permanently sited in the Lords Chamber, but only used by the monarch, when they deliver their speech at the State Opening.

When architect Sir Charles Barry designed the new Palace, he did so specifically with the ceremony in mind, which is why we have the Sovereign’s Entrance and the Royal Robing Room today. It’s also why some of the items in our collection like the thrones were created.

Q: How do you prepare The Sovereign Throne?

MJT: We, of course, make sure it’s clean! We make regular checks on the Throne throughout the year, but State Opening is an opportunity to give everything a good clean and dust, especially in spots that are not usually easily accessible. In recent years we’ve also done some extensive conservation work on the embroidered seat.

Throne in situ in the Lords Chamber. The throne and its surroundings are elaborately gilded and carved. Around the square back rest cushion is an alternating band of 22 quatrefoil enamels, with gilded lions and 22 oval crystals. Above the cushioned back the central backrest is triangular and topped with a gold crown. The posts on either side are carved gilded columns topped with gold lions. The back rest and the seat are upholstered in red silk velvet with elaborate embroidery. The front feet are carved lions. In front of the throne is a gilded footstool with red upholstery and elaborate embroidery.
Historic Chairs by John Webb, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Hardman & Co. © Historic Furniture POW 08031

Q: Can you describe what happens during the ceremony and what collection items are used?

A large free-standing floor mirror. It has a wooden frame and stand. The stand has carved decorative details. On the vertical supports are a diagonal striped pattern. Along the bottom horizontal support is a chevron pattern. The mirror can be tilted on its stand. It is pictured in a room with wood panelling, a red carpet, wallpaper and curtains.
Chevals by Holland and Sons © Historic Furniture POW 00039

MJT: On the day, the monarch and the royal party usually arrive by carriage at the Sovereign’s Entrance to the House of Lords. Then they go to the Robing Room, which we set up especially for the occasion. We make an enclosed area where they can prepare and where the robes are laid out, if they choose to wear them. The Throne Chair in the Robing Room is not actually used, but will be in situ, with its accompanying footstool.

All of the objects involved in State Opening are designed by Barry and Pugin, except for one free-standing floor mirror that we borrow from the Speaker’s State Rooms. That is a stunning mirror designed by Braund. There are also a couple of tables that are usually used in the Prime Minister’s Suite, so we borrow those from the PM (who always says ‘yes’!)

Some furniture in the Robing Room is loaned from the Royal Collection. Most of it comes from Windsor. It’s very early Pugin, things that he designed as a young man – at around 16 years old, which is amazing.

Q: What happens next?

MJT: The monarch and royal party process through the Royal Gallery then into the Chamber, where they take their seat on the Sovereign’s Throne. Depending on who attends with the monarch, different ceremonial chairs are used and we organise the loans. For example, the Consort’s Throne and the Prince of Wales Chair of State come from Houghton Hall [in Norfolk].

Meanwhile, all members of the Commons have been summoned to the Lords Chamber by Black Rod. One of the things people often know about State Opening is that Black Rod knocks on the door of the Commons Chamber. If you look at the door, you’ll see quite a big indentation. That’s part of the history of the door, so it is left as it is – it isn’t repaired.

Q: Do you provide items for the crown?

MJT: We provide the embroidered Crown Cloth and the cushion that the Imperial State Crown sits on. The royal jeweller brings the crown. First it sits on the Crown Cloth in the Royal Gallery for people to view, then it’s taken to the Robing Room. For some State Openings the crown has been carried in front of the monarch to the Chamber, where it was placed on a table by their side.

After the monarch has made their speech, they return to the Robing Room by the same route, and then leave Parliament by carriage. From start to finish the ceremony lasts about half an hour.

Side view of a person wearing a ceremonial red and gold jacket and holding a small red pillow. On top of the pillow sits the Imperial Crown. The crown has purple velvet interior surrounded by diamonds and large coloured precious stones which are green and blue. The base of the crown is lined with white fur. The top of the crown features a glittering sphere with a flat silver square on top with another large stone set in it. The person carrying the cushion is wearing white gloves. Their red jacket has gold details including golden embroidery and large gold button and the cuff. On the shoulder, there is an epaulette with the letters 'E R' embroidered. Golden ropes are held up over the person's shoulder by the epaulette. The background shows us a stone wall and stone steps.

Q: There must be a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make the State Opening happen and run smoothly…

Carved gilt chair with X-frame base. Upholstered with red velvet and gold berry head nails. The chair’s uprights are topped with lions heads, with closed mouths, small ears and curly manes. The uprights and legs are carved with leaf ornaments, the front and back seat rails with rich foliage. A central octagonal stretcher has carved chevrons on both sides.
Historic Chairs by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin and John Webb © Historic Furniture POW 08034

MJT: Yes, our preparations start well in advance, checking collection items to make sure everything is in good condition. Then we begin planning with colleagues around six weeks before the ceremony. The week to 10 days before a State Opening is very busy. Full rehearsals take place the day before – inside the Houses of Parliament and also on the surrounding streets, which are closed to traffic and the courtyard inside the Palace covered in sand for the horses.

Unlike the Commons Chamber where everything is fixed, in the Lords Chamber almost everything is movable. We move furniture, such as the Woolsack, Clerk’s Table and the benches, to bring in more seating and make space for as many people as possible. We remove all tables and X frame chairs from the Royal Gallery and the Prince’s Chamber, to make room for terrace seating.

We install frontals in the Royal Gallery. These are beautiful blue and gold lengths of fabric that are used as a kind of barrier, behind which is the raked seating for guests. The frontals were originally made for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in Westminster Abbey. They’re now in our collection and are used for every State Opening.

We lay a blue and gold carpet in the Royal Gallery especially for the State Opening, to match the carpet in the Robing Room and the Prince’s Chamber. This creates a continuous length of carpet along the Royal party’s route from the Robing Room to the Chamber. Blue is the Royal colour, while the Lord’s is red and the Commons green.

Q: It must be all hands on deck?

Large rectangular seat covered in red felt. An upholstered backrest is sunk into the centre. Each corner is trimmed with a red felt flower and below it is a short red rope. Two speakers are sunk into the centre of the seat. It is pictured in situ in the Lords Chamber, on a blue carpet with pale yellow quatrefoil pattern.
Woolsacks by Unknown © Historic Furniture POW 10177

MJT: Absolutely! In my team, four people will be moving the thrones. We work alongside many other colleagues from the Craft team and Crown staff to prepare the Chamber and other spaces on the processional route. We also repurpose other areas for members of the Lords to robe up, and we provide rooms with the necessary furniture, which is all historic.

The House of Lords sits for its first session about two hours after the monarch departs. So we have to get the Chamber back into an operational state quickly. The Prince’s Chamber, which is a working space, also needs to be put back in that time. It’s a very busy day!

Q: Do you attend the ceremony?

MJT: I don’t actually attend the ceremony, but I’m on hand in the Palace in case anything goes wrong, and to deal with last minute changes. During one opening I did stand at the ceremonial door, at the bottom of the great staircase. That was exciting. You see the carriages arrive and the crown, which comes through first. Then the monarch and other members of the royal family arrive through that door.

Q: What is your favourite collection item that is involved in the State Opening?

MJT: I have to say the Robing Room Throne Chair. We did some extensive conservation treatment on it recently, so I feel like I know it very well. We undertook in-depth research, for example, into the treatments it has had in the past. And we did lots of work to reinstate its original appearance, working with some wonderful freelance conservators.

Q: What are the challenges of caring for such objects?

MJT: One challenge is looking after objects that are permanently on display, such as the Sovereign’s Throne. Because it’s always in situ it can be hard to find a suitable time to work on an item . While we carried out conservation work on the Throne seat, the Throne itself stayed in place, but we replaced the seat with a replica. Working in conservation, you have to come up with solutions like that.

Q: Do you have a personal highlight from a State Opening?

MJT: When the Imperial State Crown is brought into Parliament, it’s taken to a room to be checked by the royal jeweller. Once, I was in that room, with the crown, really quite close to it. And it is spectacular. It was a real privilege to see it so close.