RepositoryUniversity of Roehampton: Whitelands College
Creator NameWhitelands College
TitleMay Monarch Collection
Extent5 linear metres plus around c. 100 costumes
DescriptionOriginal and reference material and artefacts relating to the Whitelands' May Day festival, including annual event files, individual May Monarch files, photographs, and May Monarch robes and crosses.
Administrative HistoryIn 1877, recently appointed Whitelands Principal, John Pincher Faunthorpe, enlisted the interest of John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and political economist, who proceeded to give numerous gifts of books, pictures and artefacts to the College. He also introduced William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the eminent Pre-Raphaelite artist, to Whitelands. Together they designed artefacts for the newly erected College Chapel, the most notable being the Burne-Jones stained glass windows and the William Morris reredos. In 1881 Ruskin, disliking the idea of a formal prize giving, inaugurated the annual May Day ceremonies. In response to a request from Faunthorpe that the next book gift from Ruskin be awarded as a prize, Ruskin had written: ‘Very thankfully I will give the annual “Proserpina” but not as a prize. I have a deep and increasing sense of the wrong of all prizes and of every stimulus of a competitive kind……. I believe the recognition of an uncontending and natural worth to be one of the most solemn duties alike of young and old. Suppose you made it a custom that the scholars should annually choose by ballot, with vowed secrecy, their Queen of May? And that the elected queen had, with other more important rights, that of giving the “Proserpina” to the girl she thought likeliest to use it with advantage?’ [Ruskin to Faunthorpe, 25.1.1881, quoted in Cole’s 1981, ‘May Queen Festival’]. He would also write that the students should elect 'the likeablest and the loveablest' of their number. Faunthorpe took up the suggestion, evolving the idea into a college holiday and festival. It became a huge success and the College benefitted from its association with the many distinguished women who came to the College every year to invest the new May Queen. Later bishops would perform the investitures. Ruskin’s first idea of donating one book to the girl elected queen grew into the presentation of a complete set of his works to be given away as presents. He also decided to give a gold cross, keen for each queen to have a permanent memento of her office. Designs, often featuring hawthorn, of early crosses were created by Arthur Severn, Joan Severn and Edward Burne-Jones. Later, plainer Latin crosses became the norm. Another notable feature of the festival was the dress with which newly elected queens were presented. In 1887 Ruskin asked Kate Greenaway to design a dress to be worn by elected May Queens. This was worn for four years and is the oldest dress in the College’s collection. The dresses and robes made for the May Monarchs over the years reflect changes in contemporary fashion and are a unique feature of the Whitelands May Monarch festival. These changes are visible when former May Monarchs return for a new investiture. Each dress can be regarded as a work of art and the College possesses a valuable collection of robes gifted by former May Monarchs. The dresses were originally made to fit any student since voting did not take place until May Day morning. Consequently, the robes tended to be flowing and loose-fitting garments with areas of intricate embroidery. A later development was to collect measurements from every girl eligible for election, to hold the election prior to May Day and then to make a dress specifically for the winner. Later still the result of the election was announced in advance thereby enabling the newly elected queen to choose the style of her own dress. Ruskin maintained an enduring interest in May Day and the May Queens, although he never attended a ceremony himself. The tradition has survived and each year the current students vote in their May Monarch, while many former monarchs return and process wearing their original outfits.
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