Why Queen Elizabeth did her own make-up for the Coronation

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh wave to the crowd from the Buckingham Palace balcony on the day of their coronation
Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh wave to the crowd from the Buckingham Palace balcony on the day of their coronation - Print Collector/Hulton Archive

Queen Elizabeth II did not want her personal beauty adviser to make up her face for the Coronation but she did ask her to go to Buckingham Palace early that morning “in case anything goes wrong”.

The rare insight into her state of mind on the historic day has emerged through the recollections of Merlin Holland, the grandson of Oscar Wilde, about his mother, Thelma Holland (née Besant), who was beautician to the monarch as well as to some of her ladies-in-waiting.

He said: “When the Queen was crowned in 1953, she asked my mother if she would go to the palace in the morning. She said, ‘I don’t want you to make me up. It’s a big day for me. I want to be alone with my thoughts on this day. But I’d like you to be there in case anything goes wrong’.”

His comments can be heard in a new podcast, in which he is interviewed by Gyles Brandreth, the writer, broadcaster and former MP, whose books include an acclaimed biography of Queen Elizabeth II.

The podcast’s release this weekend marks the birthday of the late Queen, who was born on April 21 1926.

Queen Elizabeth on her Coronation Day in 1953
Queen Elizabeth on her Coronation Day in 1953

Mr Holland’s Australian-born mother received the royal engagement when she was running a beauty salon in London for Cyclax, a British cosmetics company.

Her clients included ladies-in-waiting and, in the podcast, her son says that she received a summons to the palace after she admired a photograph of the then Princess Elizabeth in a magazine: “My mother said to one of the ladies-in-waiting, ‘I think the Princess with that beautiful skin needs some advice for the future’. One thing led to another…The lady-in-waiting goes back to the palace and says, ‘this very nice lady, Thelma Besant, who does my face, thinks she could be helpful to Princess Elizabeth’.”

He added: “My mother would go to the palace and… give her a face treatment and – whenever [the Queen] went away… on tour – she would be put in touch with [fashion designer] Norman Hartnell, who was preparing the dresses. My mother would have samples of all the dresses and have to match up the lipsticks and the powders and the foundations and the rest.”

Merlin Holland's mother, Thelma, was Queen Elizabeth's beauty adviser
Merlin Holland's mother, Thelma, was Queen Elizabeth's beauty adviser - Merlin Holland Archive

Mr Holland told The Telegraph: “The Queen did her own make up [for the Coronation]. That was never known about. I didn’t know about it until… I was going through my mother’s unpublished papers. My mother left an unpublished memoir about it. She wrote about the lead up to the Coronation. She went off to [tailors] Ede & Ravenscroft to get a sample of the Coronation robe because the lipstick [and makeup needed to match. The Queen] went to the Abbey in bright red and she was then crowned and came out of the Abbey in Imperial purple, so there had to be a lipstick which didn’t clash with either…. I still have a sample of the Coronation robe.”

He also recalled that, when the then Prince Charles was a toddler, Thelma sent him a birthday present of a xylophone. The Queen wrote a thank-you letter, which Mr Holland shared with The Telegraph on Saturday: “I know he will greatly enjoy banging on the xylophone, for he already prefers noisy things to woolly things!”

Thelma Holland was one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting
Thelma Holland was one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting - Merlin Holland Archive

Mr Holland is one of the foremost experts on Wilde, the Irish wit and author of The Importance of Being Earnest, among other masterpieces, who was hounded from England following his notorious trial for gross indecency and imprisonment. Wilde died in abject poverty in France in 1900, aged 46.

So great was the scandal that Wilde’s wife, Constance, fled with their sons Vyvyan and Cyril to Europe, changing their surname to Holland, an ancestral family name.

In the podcast, Mr Holland discusses the toll it took on his father Vyvyan and uncle Cyril: “They were sent to separate boarding schools, so that they couldn’t talk to one another and reveal who they were.”

He said that Cyril, who was killed in the First World War in 1915, had always been terrified that people would discover who his father was: “He thought it would ruin his army career… as indeed it might have done…

“Cyril wrote to my father… in about 1912, when he was sent to India with his battalion – and said, you know, it’s been my task all these years to wipe away the stain on the family honour… He felt his father had ruined the family name.”

Even at Mr Holland’s kindergarten in Chelsea in the late 1940s, there was nervousness about Wilde, he recalls in the podcast: “The son of my godfather was at the same school and when we were… walking down the street, I put my arm through his or round his shoulders…. Apparently, we were broken up, so to speak, because… with my antecedents, was I likely to become gay?… I was five or six years of age. It’s extraordinary.”

Mr Brandreth, who is president of the Oscar Wilde Society, hosts a series of podcasts called “Rosebud”, which focus particularly on early memories and formative experiences of remarkable people. The title comes from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.