Crowning Glory: The Story of Tiaras

Firle Place August 28 – October 25.


In 20th-century Britain, four coronations took place.  Henry Rainald, the sixth Viscount Gage, attended three of them.

That made him an expert in the intricate etiquette that surrounds the crowning of British sovereigns and a proud possessor of the ermine cape, crimson velvet robe and coronet, heavy with silver balls, known as pearls, to donate his rank – 16 in the case of a viscount.

As the queen’s crown was placed on her head and a cry of “Vivat Regina” filled the abbey, all the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons in attendance donned their coronets.

The peeresses had the added challenge of putting on their smaller coronets without dislodging their tiaras.

That gives tiaras an honourable claim to star in Firle Place’s latest, multi-layered exhibition in the year Queen Elizabeth has marked her platinum jubilee – or as one of the exhibition’s first illustrious visitors the Lord-Lieutenant of East Sussex Andrew Blackman put it: “I couldn’t think of a better fit”.

Firle Place and its Platinum Jubilee-coloured flower bed

The exhibition in the Sussex ancestral home of the Gage family is curated by Deborah Gage, a cousin of the current viscount, and Andrew Prince, who learnt his artistry from jewellery designer Elizabeth Gage, another of the viscount’s talented cousins.

While the Gage contributions are focused on precious stones, Prince delights in imitation and is renowned for creating costume jewellery for celebrities and for the television series and film Downton Abbey.

As a result, we can compare the dazzling tiara worn by Imogen, the sixth Viscountess Gage, married to Henry and mother of the current Viscount Gage, with for instance a Prince tiara set in zirconia, with cultured pearls, as worn by Maggie Smith as she acted out the role of the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

Standing in front of this cabinet of tiaras is Zack Pinsent of Pinsent Tailoring in Hove (dressed in Regency attire)
Standing in front of this cabinet of tiaras is Zack Pinsent of Pinsent Tailoring in Hove (dressed in Regency attire)

It’s as splendid in its way and a reminder that there is more to the world of jewellery than meets the eye.

Prince, who is giving a series of lectures to accompany the exhibition, tells that in the van Dyck portrait of the Count of Nassau-Siegen and his family, the stones worn by his wife, although apparently black are diamonds and, together with the natural pearls she is wearing must have been worth a fortune.

The painting is one of many brought to Firle by Viscount Gage’s marriage to Imogen, who inherited an extensive collection from her mother Lady Desborough (Ettie), who was a human jewel – a society beauty, who co-founded the intellectual group known as “The Souls” and was close to powerful leaders of the day as well as writers Wilde, Kipling, Wells, Yeats and Sassoon.

We cannot all be as luminous, but we can all dream in uncertain times when glittering distraction seems as necessary as when the queen was crowned and the nation was enduring austerity in the aftermath of World War.

Tiara on display in the long gallery
Tiara on display in the long gallery

In the spirit of lightening our mood, Firle ends its tour of noble headwear by allowing us all to try on a paste tiara and ponder the uneasy heads that have also worn crowns and coronets.

Barbara Lewis © 2022.