Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Gum-tree leaf

This brief note was addressed from Government House in Sydney to my great-grandmother Sophie Pearson by Lady Mary Lygon (1869–1927), who was a lady of the bedchamber to H.R.H. The Duchess of Cornwall and York. In May 1901, the Duke and Duchess (the future King George V and Queen Mary, the present Queen’s grandparents) visited Australia to represent King Edward at the inauguration of the new federal Parliament in Melbourne, and soon afterwards the Duke visited Kilmany Park for some shooting. The royal excursion was dreamed up by my great-grandfather’s friend Chief Justice Sir John Madden, who was at that time acting governor of Victoria, and responsible therefore for all the local arrangements. Lady Mary’s note still lives in a little bundle that consists of Sir John’s increasingly restive letters from Melbourne to my great-grandfather in advance of the visit, seeking (inter alia) firm assurances that there would be enough game birds to keep the Duke fully occupied on his day at Kilmany, and that there would be sufficient traps and buggies to convey the royal party safely to and from the special train at Sale, etc. In the end everything went swimmingly, and the Duke spent the whole day slaughtering anything with a pulse that was not human, even during afternoon tea. Afterwards my great-grandmother must have written to thank the duchess for the signed photographs that the duke presented to her at the end of the day—I still have those—presumably enclosing the “painted Gum-tree leaf” to which Lady Mary refers. Some years ago I wondered if by any chance that whimsical gift, a thoughtful souvenir of East Gippsland, might still be preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor, and made a discreet inquiry to the excellent Pam Clark. Mindful of Queen Mary’s enthusiasm as a collector of objets d’art, I thought this distinctly possible although it is true that an East Gippsland gum-tree leaf might not have enjoyed the same prominence as, for example, a carefully selected miniature hardstone animal with ruby eyes from the House of Fabergé. Still, perhaps it could have been tucked away in a little cabinet containing various other intercolonial bits and bobs at White Lodge or Frogmore? Alas, there was at that time no discernible trace of it. However, I have an inkling that some day, perhaps decades or even centuries from now, some unsuspecting reader will open an exquisite volume bound in morocco leather, perhaps stamped with the Princess’s monogram, and out will fall that painted gum leaf, perfectly preserved—the ideal page marker. If that should happen, I fervently hope that Google will by then be so powerful, even omniscient, that the responsible librarian will without a moment’s delay find her way to this page and simply join the dots. The notepaper is edged in black, of course, because the Court and therefore all vice-regal households throughout the empire were still in deep mourning for Queen Victoria.

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