Drawings and legal documents that once belonged to the Queen’s former dressmaker Sir Norman Hartnell have revealed details of a row that rocked the House of Windsor and his own illustrious fashion house 60 years ago.
A rediscovered bundle of private papers and scrapbooks, to be auctioned next month, also includes previously unseen designs by Hartnell created for Princess Anne. “The colours are amazing and very evocative of the era,” said vintage fashion specialist Susan Orringe.
Hartnell, who died in 1979, hit the headlines in 1960 when news broke of an alleged company decision to take out cancellation insurance on the upcoming wedding of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, to Antony Armstrong-Jones. True or untrue, it was a damaging allegation and private legal letters flew. Hartnell had designed the wedding dress, as he had the Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and her coronation gown in 1953. Margaret’s wedding dress was his last commission for a full state occasion, although when Princess Beatrice married last summer she wore a modified Hartnell dress loaned by her grandmother.
A week before the royal wedding in early May 1960 the Daily Express ran an article claiming Hartnell’s company had taken out a £10,000 insurance policy against cancellation of the wedding. The story caused a scandal and put Hartnell’s coveted royal warrant in jeopardy.
Among papers to be sold next month by Ewbank’s auction house are Hartnell’s personal denial of the claim and an explanation of his previous dealings with the journalist concerned, Peter Baker, in February 1960. “This would have been an extremely shocking claim at the time,” said auctioneer Andrew Ewbank.
“To make such a claim about any royal wedding would have caused huge distress and embarrassment, but after the scandal and fallout of the Townsend affair that had kept Princess Margaret in the headlines for much of the early to mid -1950s, this would have been seen as a particularly vicious attack and one that would undoubtedly have put Hartnell’s business and royal warrants at considerable risk.”
Another document from George Mitchison, the general manager of Hartnell’s firm, claims that Baker had “hounded” him at his office and made multiple threatening phone calls regarding the claim.
In fact, the letters of proof given as evidence by Mitchison reveal the company had indeed asked for a quotation for insurance. However, this was argued to be “in accordance with the usual practice obtaining on such occasions”, rather than because of any doubts over the princess.
Princess Anne at the Bath and West show with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1969. Photograph: Jeremy Fletcher/Getty Images
The drawings and papers have been in private hands since a subsequent owner of the company gave them as a gift. Many of the 35 watercolour drawings are of classic 1960s and 70s designs made for Princess Anne. One of two original 1970s illustrations marked “HRH Princess Anne” is an embellished evening dress in turquoise and white, while the other is an A-line dress in lemon with a matching coat. Other Hartnell designs are currently on display in Kensington Palace as part of the exhibition Royal Style in the Making. It was this show that prompted the owners to consider putting the bundle up for sale.
Other designs include smart daywear and costumes for race meetings and formal evenings. “These were the inspirational creations of one of the leading lights of fashion design at the time and it is easy to see why they captured the imagination of society women,” said Orringe. “To see them looking as fresh today as they would have looked 50 years ago is a thrill, and I expect them to create quite a stir.”
Hartnell, whose parents owned a London pub, came to fashion after making costumes for the Cambridge Footlights performances while an undergraduate. He first gained a royal warrant as dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1940 and became dressmaker to the Queen in 1957.
The sale consignment, which includes two scrapbooks of international press cuttings, also features a sketchbook file full of complete and incomplete designs from the 1960s painted in watercolour, as well as fabric swatches and multiple pages of handwritten notes.