Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Royal Gift

As a craftsman in the 1970's and 1980's the idea of having an item commissioned as a gift to royalty was pretty special.

The first instance was for the 1973 visit to Prince Edward Island of Queen Elizabeth and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as part of the celebrations surrounding the centennial of the Island’s entry into Confederation.

Richard Whitlock, a designer had been given hired to compile a collection of PEI photographs and the project had evolved into hand binding a linen-covered album with handwoven PEI linen. Once completed they realized that the book which was larger than an encyclopedia volume needed a proper slip-case and I was approached to make a leather case for the massive book and attach an engraved silver plaque to the top. Never having made anything of this scale previously I was a bit intimated but figured that using techniques similar to that used on smaller items might work. I had also learned when ordering raw materials to order extras in case of an error.

I measured the book but was not allowed to keep in my workshop lest it be damaged and thus was relieved that the actual book fit the leather case when the designer arrived for pick-up a day or two before the presentation ceremony. Richard Whitlock as the designer was invited to be on hand when officials presented the gift, and while the Queen nodded approval with the gift it dawned on him that something was wrong at that point. The box had been designed to open on the right hand side as requested, but the book came out either upside down or backward when taken from the case since it really needed to open on the left side.

A call arrived from Richard shortly afterward wondering if I was available for a consultation. The gifts had become the property of the recipient, but he had convinced someone who was now responsible for caring for the items that the case and book needed to be "touched up" and would be returned to the staff traveling with the royal visitors before the entourage left the province the next day. The question was whether I could disassemble the case and remake it as a left opening case before their departure. Mission Impossible had been a popular TV show and there was both a clandestine aspect and a technical challenge that seemed familiar to the request as tearing it apart to salvage the silver plaque could have ruined the original case. It was something I couldn’t guarantee the results of but was prepared to try.

Luckily I had an extra hide of the special leather ordered for the project should it been needed, and thus began the process of taking apart the top of what was now royal property with the attached silver plaque and remaking a new top then reattaching the silver. The plaque was itself the work of a silversmith and the attachment process was unique as it was sewn onto the leather using silver wires which I made into silver thread. After making each thread I discovered that the only problem was that hand sewing with wire is not an easy process as it could twist and kink on each stitch. Taking the stitching apart was even worse.

Thus began a full night of work in the workshop - but come dawn the case was reconstructed and presented to Richard who quietly returned it to the staff responsible for safe keeping of the various royal gifts. No one was the wiser as to what had actually happened during the period of ‘touch up’ and I went off to get some much needed sleep.

The second time I was approached was in 1983 when the Prince of Wales and Princess of Wales, who had the year before become new parents were visiting. At that time there was an effort to ensure that there would be something of interest to a young child now that the family included one son. The choice was again something handcrafted being a set of pine toys made at the Toy Factory in Murray River operated by the Shumate family. Al Shumate with his long white beard was the quintessential Santa in his workshop for generations of visitors and his toys had a simple elegance. The set chosen included several toy vehicles selected by Henry Purdy, RCA who was head of the Holland College School of Visual Arts at the time, and my employer. He approached me to see if something could be made to enclose the set. The design we settled on included a leather cover that enclosed the set while being easily opened by children to play with the toys. The case was assembled without incident. Henry Purdy was very conscious of showing respect for craftspeople and although invitations to the royal garden party had already been finalized he made sure that two extra tickets were found for my wife, Daphne and myself to attend the event held on the grounds of Government House where the Prince and Princess were the guests of honour.

Having made many items that visitors to PEI have taken home to remember their visit here it was a special honour as a craftsman to be selected to create both these gifts.

Perhaps the story told by my wife Daphne from childhood shows the natural drive within humans to bestow gifts on others, especially upon special visitors. She was an eight year old who had received a set of what was labeled "international candies" a box of chocolates from her parents that had figures wrapped in foil for each nation. Somehow these international candies which represented the native dress of various countries were special for her and worthy of presenting to someone who had also come from afar. Thus during the 1959 visit to Charlottetown of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, this nine year old managed to deliver through the open window of the motorcade one of her treasured candies - her gift to the Queen whom she thought might enjoy one of her treasured chocolates. Not sure lobbing projectiles through open car windows met protocol then or now, or if melting chocolate is ever welcome landing on ones lap, but the intent of a child in sharing something special with others on the spur of the moment was genuine.