Why JFK Gave Queen Elizabeth a Modest Gift the Only Time They Met
A full, formal state visit was expected to follow, but JFK’s assassination two years later in 1963 meant that it never took place. Now the portrait, which JFK signed, “To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with appreciation and highest esteem, John F. Kennedy,” is on display for the first time at the annual Buckingham Palace summer exhibition. This year’s exhibit focuses on the more than 250 gifts presented to the Queen during her record-breaking 65 years on the throne.
The gifts on display range from grand (the gilded Australian State Coach, which was given in 1988) to quirky (a bag of salt from the British Virgin Islands, where one of the islands historically paid the British monarch an annual rent of a pound of salt).
Among the most eye-catching gifts is the Vessel of Friendship, a model of the treasure ship sailed by navigator and diplomat Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty, presented by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his state visit in 2015 (when Prince William and Princess Kate made their dazzling debut at a state banquet.)
Kennedy’s gift, in comparison, was much less lavish—with good reason. “Because Kennedy came to dinner and not on a state visit, that would be the level of gift that would have been considered appropriate,” Sally Goodsir, curator of the new exhibit and assistant curator of decorative arts at the Royal Collection, tells PEOPLE.
More recently, when President Barack Obama visited in 2016, he brought a set of bits, used in carriage driving, as a present for avid driver Prince Philip. “The shape is known as a Liverpool bit, and the white part has the Presidential seal and it would sit on the horse’s cheek,” explains Goodsir. “They were the same as those used by a successful American team. Sometimes they will be a gift for both the Queen and the Duke, and occasionally gifts might be given to reflect their interests or two halves of a pair.”
The finest piece must be The Queen’s Cup, made by Steuben Glass, which was given to Elizabeth by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on her first visit to the U.S. as Queen in October 1957. It is decorated with an engraving of the native flora and fauna of America, including tulips, daylily, arbutus, bluebells, violets, Joe Pye weed, tobacco, maize, sumac, pine, holly, chestnut, magnolia, hickory and elm. There are also several animals amongst the plants, including a pheasant, a fox, a racoon and a white-tailed deer.
“It is nearly [15 inches] tall — taller than most people would expect,” says Goodsir. “It is a real combination of skills – the fluid glass to the top, and the four [spiral] feet and then the hard precision of the engraving on the body is really beautifully outlined. To be able to tell what these plants and flowers are and look that real in that scale is really remarkable.”
Tickets for the summer opening and Royal Gifts exhibit can be purchased via the Royal Collection.