Royal portraits: Photos at the palace

royal portraits
Princess Margaret by Cecil Beaton, 1949. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2024

A new exhibition at Buckingham Palace reveals the stories behind some of the most iconic photographic royal portraits ever taken

Words by Rose Shepherd

Photographic royal portraits

In March 2024 a storm blew up in a teacup when it emerged that the Princess of Wales had edited a Mother’s Day photograph of herself and her children. The Princess was obliged to apologise for tweaking the happy snap, but the outrage and intrigue around the picture seems absurd when you reflect that British royals have always controlled and curated their image.

royal portraits
Their Royal Highnesses Prince Charles and Princess Anne by Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1956. Credit: Antony Armstrong-Jones/Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Royal portraits have changed since the days when Henry VIII summoned Hans Holbein to court to paint him in all his swaggering magnificence. Since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became the first royals to pose for the camera, the rapport between monarchy and the public has deepened. But, just as in Tudor times, royal portraits play a role in managing perceptions.  

Now, a new exhibition at the King’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace explores the royal family’s evolving relationship with the camera lens and the individuals behind it. Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography brings together more than 150 photographs and documents, allowing the visitor to contemplate not just how photography has progressed, but how royalty has modernised, presenting a more approachable aspect.

Cecil Beaton

royal portraits
Beaton’s Queen Elizabeth, 1939. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024

There are royal portraits by such luminaries as Cecil Beaton, Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, and, of course, Antony Armstrong-Jones, who would become Lord Snowdon upon his marriage to Princess Margaret in 1960. If Snowdon’s is the first name that springs to mind when we talk of royal portraits, the second is surely that of Beaton (1904-1980), who captured images of three generations over more than four decades. On display are his ethereal 1939 royal portraits of Elizabeth, Queen Consort of George VI, in her white Normal Hartnell gowns (‘garden-party clothes’, she called them), in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

Beaton had been surprised to receive a call from a lady-in-waiting saying, “The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” Two years earlier he had been called to France to take flattering pictures of the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, which so pleased Wallis and Edward VIII, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, that they appointed him to cover their wedding in June 1937. Given the abdication crisis and the animosity between the Palace and the exiles, Beaton might have expected to be blacklisted, but not a bit of it.

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The Royal Family at Royal Lodge by Beaton, 1943. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Viewed through the lens of hindsight, those pictures of sun-dappled gardens take on a particular poignancy: war was imminent; this was the summer before the dark. However, they served to boost the standing of the House of Windsor. Years later, the Queen Mother would thank Sir Cecil for presenting the family as “really quite nice and real people”.

The crowning honour, literally, for Beaton, was as official photographer for the Coronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. Racked with nerves, he had drunk too much the night before and woken with a hangover. When he reported for duty, it was with sandwiches and barley sugar under his top hat.

royal portraits
Snowdon, Princess Margaret, 1967
Credit: Photograph: Snowdon/Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Witty and waspish, in his diaries Beaton was not always polite. The Duke of Windsor had “common hands”; George VI had no “mystery or magic”; Princess Margaret wore her hair “scraped back like a seaside landlady”. The Queen Mother was miffed by a comment about her teeth. Still, this was tame stuff from a man who described Winston Churchill staring into the camera “like some sort of an animal gazing from across the back of its sty”, and he was complimentary, too, delighting in photographing an infant Prince Charles. “He interrupted a long, contented sleep to do my bidding and open his blue eyes to stare long and wonderingly into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty.”

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Snowdon’s Group of royal mothers with their babies, 1964. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/His Majesty King Charles III 2024/Snowdon/Camera Press

Elizabeth II sat one last time for Beaton in 1968, ahead of his forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Meanwhile, there were many other gifted photographers working with the Palace.

Norman Parkinson

Flamboyant Norman Parkinson (1913-1990) received his first commission for a royal portrait in 1969, as photographer at the investiture of the Prince of Wales, and shot a Polaroid as a flustered Grace Coddington, Vogue junior fashion editor, powdered the royal nose. “If you stole that picture, I bet you could make yourself a fortune,” joked Prince Charles.

In 1975, Parkinson was appointed court photographer. It is rumoured that he found the Queen a nervous, difficult sitter, but he was enamoured of the Queen Mother (“She’s so adorable, she’s a cliché”), while his favourite was Princess Anne. In his 21st-birthday royal portraits of her for Vogue, we see a beautiful young woman, far removed from the no-nonsense working royal of popular imagination. “Princess Anne would be a formidable girl even if she were Miss Joan Smith of Chipping Sodbury,” Parkinson averred.

royal portraits
Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2024. Credit: Cecil Beaton, Princess Elizabeth, 1942.

Jane Bown

Jane Bown (1925-2014), aged 81, photographed the Queen preparing for her 80th birthday. Shooting in black and white (colour was “too noisy”), she used only natural light. “I’m not an artist, I’m just a hack,” she told the monarch, yet the image she captured is ineffably tender and affecting.

Annie Leibovitz and David Bailey

“Jane Bown came all by herself. I helped her move the furniture,” the Queen told Annie Leibovitz, the first American to be invited to take her royal portrait, in 2007. That sitting was a little fraught. The Queen arrived late, Leibovitz was given just 25 minutes, and when she asked Her Majesty to remove her tiara, to appear “less dressy”, she responded, “Less dressy? What do you think this is?” She did not, however, storm out in a huff, as was implied in documentary footage, for which the BBC was forced to apologise, and the remark was made with customary humour.

Dorothy Wilding, Queen Elizabeth II, 1952. Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Clearly Elizabeth II could take a joke. When East End maverick David Bailey photographed her on her 88th birthday, he asked her if her jewels were real, remarking “I bet they cost a few bob, girl”. “It just came out,” he confessed afterwards. “I call everyone ‘girl’. But she was girlish. Made a real effort. We had a laugh.”

Two years later, Leibovitz was invited back, to take a series of shots at Windsor Castle in honour of the Queen’s 90th birthday. Among three posted on Facebook, in the modern manner, one portrays the matriarch with her two youngest grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Squirmy 11-month-old Princess Charlotte sits on the Queen’s lap. Mia Tindall, aged two, has been cajoled into the shot, clutching Granny’s handbag. Royal or not, kids will be kids.

A second shot shows Elizabeth II on the steps to the East Terrace with her beloved corgis, while, in a third, she and the Princess Royal sit close together on a sofa in the White Drawing Room, a loving mother and daughter.

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The Princess of Wales, when The Duchess of Cambridge, Paolo Roversi, 2021. Credit: Royal collection trust/paolo roversi

Yes, indeed, they look “really quite nice, and real people”, and, truly, they are. But royalty is symbolic, and portraits are rarely unchoreographed. The backdrops, lighting, clothes, pose, all are thought through, designed to win hearts and minds. So, what of a few little Photoshop tweaks? When it comes to photography, a sense of perspective is always needed.

Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography is at the King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 6 October.

Read more in the July/August 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 7 June. 

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