When the young George III opened Parliament in 1762 when he drove to Westminster in the great gilded and painted coach which was then fresh from the builders and has been the focal point of most of the important royal processions ever since.
It was designed to take the place of an earlier coach built for Queen Anne, and the best talent of the (lay was employed in its making. There were various suggestions as to the precise form suitable for a vehicle intended solely for ceremonial occasions, and the duty of working out a dignified and impressive design from the several submitted was entrusted to young William (not yet Sir William) Chambers, who had been his Majesty's art instructor before his accession, and had recently been employed in designing various buildings (including the Pagoda) for the gardens at Kew, then the residence of the Dowager Princess of Wales.
It cost originally no less than £7587 19s 9 1/2 d. (the accounts were finally settled in 1765), of which sum the builder, Butler, was paid £1673 15s; Joseph Wilton, the carver, £2500 and Pujolas, the gilder, £931 14s.
The painted panels were carried out by G. B. Cipriani, the Italian artist who had come over to England a few years previously, and was soon to paint several ceilings, as well as the base of a clock by Vulliamy, in Buckingham Palace.
The coach has, of course, been overhauled on several occasions, often at considerable expense. In 1791 £648 7s. 10 1/4 d. was spent for re-upholstering and for renewing the leather braces, while in 1821 alterations and renewals cost the surprising sum of £3113 17s. 6d.
It was necessary to renew the glass panes after the opening of Parliament on Oct. 29, 1795, for the crowd got out of hand, insulted the King, and broke all the glass. Nevertheless, the coach remains substantially the same as when it first appeared upon the streets of London, and is the most splendid and interesting royal equipage remaining in Europe.
For the Coronation of Queen Victoria it was re-upholstered at a cost of £862 10s., and a new State hammercloth was made for it for £997 6s. This hammercloth and the box-seat were taken away at the accession of Edward VII., when the King felt that they interfered with the view of the public. From that time all eight horses have been postilion-driven before, a coachman drove three pairs, a postilion the leaders.
The coach is 24 ft. in length, 8 ft. in. wide, and 12 ft. high. The pole - which represents a bundle of lances - is 12 ft. long; the harness, for which Ringsted, Harness-maker to the Court, was paid £385 15s is of red morocco leather. The total weight is four tons.
The design and decorative details are wholly typical of the elaborate symbolism which was characteristic of eighteenth-century and, indeed, of all pageantry from the sixteenth century onwards. The roof is supported by eight palm-trees, of which the four at the corners are loaded with trophies. Four large Tritons support the body, the two in front blowing conch-shells to herald the approach of the Monarch of the Ocean - a flight of fancy which did not meet with the approval of the pernickety Horace Walpole, who wrote "palm trees are as little aquatic as Tritons are terrestrial"; but one could always depend upon Walpole to find fault with anything new, especially if Chambers had had a hand in it.
The roof is surmounted by the Imperial Crown, upheld by three boys, who hold in their hands the Sceptre, the Sword of State, and the Ensigns of Knighthood respectively. The wheels are imitations of those of an ancient Triumphal Chariot. The ingenious allegory of the paintings presumably owes much to the versatile Chambers: one can well imagine him suggesting subjects to the highly competent, but not very originally-minded, Cipriani.
It was not long since the conclusion of a victorious war, which added Canada to the British Empire, hence the subject of the front panel Victory presenting a garland of laurel to Britannia, who is seated on a throne holding a Staff of Liberty in her hand, attended by Religion, Justice, Wisdom, Valour, Fortitude, Commerce, and Plenty.
In the background are the Thames and St. Paul's. (Rather odd this last - one would have expected Westminster Abbey on a coach made expressly for royal ceremonial.)
Another allusion to the success of British Arms is to be seen on the lower back panel, in which Neptune and Amphi trite, attended by Winds, Rivers, Tritons, and Naiads, come out from their palace in a triumphal car, drawn by sea-horses, to bring the tribute of the world to these shores.
The other panels express slightly more modest sentiments - for example, History records the reports of Fame, Peace burns the implements of War, Industry and Ingenuity give a Cornucopia to the Genius of England, and Mars, Minerva, and Mercury support the Crown of Great Britain. On the upper back panel are the Royal Arms, beautifully ornamented with the Order of St. George, and entwined with the Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle.
The State Coach has been used at every Coronation since that of George IV. and the Sovereign drives in it to open Parliament. Queen Victoria, however, did not employ it after the Prince Consort's death; and King Edward VIII. used a car, owing to the bad weather, when he went from Buckingham Palace for his State opening of Parliament on November 3, 1936. The coach was not seen in public during the Great War, but, in 1921, King George V. again drove in it to Parliament in State.