The MP3 above was produced on the 27th August 2016 from the aluminium EKCO disc entitled "King George Sixth" dated 12th May 1938. This disc is an original recording of a "live" radio broadcast made by King George VI to the Empire following his coronation earlier that day. With "The King's Speech" and "Ding! Dong! This is London!" this completes a trilogy concerning George VIs accession. Just over half his 8 minute speech was captured. As in "The King's Speech" about 30s lost as my grandfather swopped the sides of the disc.
The coronation introduced a number of firsts, both in protocol and in media coverage. The procession was the world's first outside event to be broadcast live by television. The coronation service in Westminster Abbey was the first to be broadcast live by radio. It was also the first to be filmed and shown later in cinema newsreels. Regarding protocol it was the first coronation to reflect the 1931 Statute of Westminster and the equality of law of the Dominions. This meant the King swore an oath to uphold Protestantism in the UK only.
It was also the first coronation to be attended by an already crowned Queen. This was Queen Mary the widow of George V. She did not relinquish her crown to the new Queen Elizabeth. Instead Elizabeth received a new crown, set with the Koh-I-Noor diamond taken from Mary's crown. During WW2 George VI would later add to the jewel's legend by hiding it at the bottom of a lake 20 miles from Windsor castle.
In other ways the coronation was similar to those for George V and Edward VII. BBC coverage focussed on the pageantry, inspiring patriotic feelings of pride, awe and adoration. So perhaps it was left to a young French magazine journalist to introduce the most significant first.
Henri Cartier-Bresson had become inspired by surrealism and adept at street photography. His aim was to reveal meaning in the reflexive acts of strangers. As the cavalcade came past he chose to point his camera away and take photographs of the public instead.
So rather than ordered and ornamental his pictures are organic and chaotic. There is humour as people flout social convention in need to pay homage. Old ladies are hoisted onto the shoulders of servicemen while others sit on the street munching their lunch. By comparison the Royal assembly gaze serenely, Gods from on top of Olympus.
Bresson is now recognised as the father of photo-journalism. Spontaneous photographs of ordinary strangers give visceral insight into world affairs. A naked girl runs screaming from a napalm attack. A drowned boy lies face down on a beach. A sailor kisses a nurse amongst a jubilant crowd. Emotionally exploitative? Courageously revealing? There is no denying their influence on public opinion.
Later Bresson would help establish a photo agency with the goal of providing photographs "in the service of humanity". Of course they would also serve the sales of magazines like LIFE and TIME. But perhaps his pictures remain the sincerest echo of that coronation, pulling aside the country's mask to reveal faces that would see hardship and loss in the years ahead.
Greenbank Records, Plymouth, England