12 September 2020

A Flower Basket Brooch Mystery!

The Queen wears the Flower Basket Brooch (Rebecca Naden - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

If you're like me -- and if you're here, you probably are! -- there are few things you love more than new and exciting provenance information about a piece of royal jewelry. So I've got a big treat for you today: a new jewelry mystery, this time about one of the Queen's most sentimental jewels, the Flower Basket Brooch.

The Flower Basket Brooch (DOMINIC LIPINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Much of the provenance information we have had up to now about the Flower Basket Brooch comes from Leslie Field's The Queen's Jewels. In her book, Field describes the brooch as "naturalistic" in design, with a "simple garden-basket shape and spray of ruby, diamond and sapphire flowers."

The Queen wears the Flower Basket Brooch in Prince Charles's first official photograph, 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)

Field also writes that the Flower Basket Brooch "was given to the Queen in November 1948 by her parents to mark the birth of Prince Charles," adding that "she wore it a month later for his first official photograph." That image is the portrait above, with the brooch clearly visible.

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret arrive at Waterloo Station, May 1939

But I received an email recently from one of our lovely readers, Aquamarine, that casts doubt on that provenance -- or at least on the accepted timeline. While watching a new television documentary about the Windsors, she noticed something odd in newsreel footage included in one episode. I tracked down the footage, and she's right: there's something unusual here. The film documents the departure of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on their official tour of Canada on May 6, 1939. It shows the royal couple traveling in a carriage with their daughters, thirteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth and eight-year-old Princess Margaret, from Buckingham Palace to Waterloo Station.

Princess Elizabeth wears the Flower Basket Brooch at Waterloo Station, May 1939

As the King and Queen prepare to board a train that will take them to Portsmouth, the camera shows various members of the royal family saying their farewells. And when the camera rests on Princess Elizabeth, we can see something unexpected pinned to her jacket: the Flower Basket Brooch.

Princess Elizabeth wears the Flower Basket Brooch at Waterloo Station, May 1939

Here's a still image taken from the footage. The shape of the brooch is distinctive, especially the looping handle at the top of the diamond basket. All of this, then, raises one serious question: if Elizabeth didn't receive the brooch until November 1948, why was she wearing it in public in May 1939, almost a full decade earlier?

Princess Elizabeth wears the Flower Basket Brooch at Waterloo Station, May 1939

There are, of course, various possibilities. The brooch could have originally belonged to the Queen Mother, who loaned it to her daughter for this 1939 occasion, and then gave it to her outright in 1948. Another possible answer is that Field is simply wrong about the date/celebration, and Elizabeth received the brooch at some point before May 1939. (The intrepid Aquamarine suggested the possibility of a thirteenth-birthday present, in April 1939, in our correspondence.) I'm not yet aware of other photographs of the Queen wearing the brooch between 1939 and 1948 -- but, as World War II broke out only a few months after these images were captured, it's perhaps not surprising that she wouldn't have had many opportunities to wear it in public anyway during part of that period.

The Queen wears the brooch for her Christmas Message in December 2013 (JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images)

One thing is for certain: the brooch remains an important and sentimental piece to the Queen, regardless of its provenance or origin. But it's fascinating to learn that the previously-established history of the brooch may be at least partly incorrect. I'm so grateful to Aquamarine for sharing her discovery with all of us! Don't you just love a royal jewel mystery?!?