Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes; June 1953 (detail) © V&A images

The Collaboration Of Crown & Camera

17th February 2012

The V&A’s new exhibition celebrates its unparalleled collection of royal portraits taken by photographer Cecil Beaton. Jill Glenn went to the launch, held – appropriately – 60 years to the day since the young Princess Elizabeth acceded to the throne…

By the time we reach the June Bank Holidays, there’s a strong chance we’ll all be ‘jubileed out’ – so fair play to the V&A for getting in ahead of the crowd, with its Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: a Diamond Jubilee. It’s an opportunity, as curator Susanna Brown puts it, to do something that is both ‘very special’ but also closely related to the V&A’s permanent collections. Almost all the photographs on display here are from their own amazing resource of almost 18,000 Beaton Royal Family images; what a challenge it was, she says, to select just a hundred or so from such a huge archive. This is, in her words, ‘the greatest hits’ of the Beaton V&A collection, providing a fascinating overview of his nearly 30 year-long relationship with the House of Windsor.

The first section – Princess Elizabeth and the Portrait Tradition – begins with shots of the present queen’s mother, wife of King George VI, who summoned Cecil Beaton (then 35) to take her photograph in the summer of 1939. The request was much to his surprise, given that his work was at the time considered, as he put it, ‘revolutionary and unconventional’.

Published in the autumn, just a couple of months after the outbreak of World War II , these were the first in a series of images taken by Beaton during the war years, which promoted the monarchy and created the persona of the royal family in the mind of the public at a difficult time in the country’s history. His somewhat romantic vision of the monarchy was informed by his work and interest in both theatre and fashion design, and he brought a painterly eye to the establishing of an artistic structure to the photo set. His theatrical sensibilities would later, of course, lend drama and gravitas to the iconic images of Coronation Day.

The Beaton pictures were published not only in the British press but all over the world, to the furthest reaches of the Empire, including India and Australia. Their primary purpose was as PR images. Susanna is at great pains to stress that these are not ‘family snapshots’, adding that Beaton was the world’s greatest royal photographer of his generation in terms of giving the monarchy ‘a wonderful PR boost’. The second section here includes family studies – the queen in her role as mother – which are very different, say, to the glittering and iconic Coronation Day pictures, but which are, nevertheless, still part of the monarchy’s constructed image of itself.

The range demonstrates Beaton’s great versatility: comfortable photographing the family and the children, but also able to rise to the challenges of occasions of state. His pictures of Coronation Day take centre stage here, accompanied by additional archival material such as his diaries and pages from some of his 45 cuttings books. To further demonstrate his capabilities Beaton also, from his seat in a balcony close to the organ pipes in Westminster Abbey, made pen-and-ink drawings of the key moments in the Coronation for Vogue.

Beaton’s notebooks (he was one of the 20th century’s most prolific diarists, leaving a staggering 145 volumes, now held by St John’s College, Cambridge) recount events in great detail; the entry for Coronation Day, for example, is 11 pages long. The extract on show here begins “Feeling very tensed and highly strung…”. As well as offering fascinating insights into the general process of royal photography, the diaries are a wonderful resource for historians and curators alike, recounting as they do every detail of every sitting, including his personal conversations with the queen. Beaton’s voice resonates throughout this V&A exhibition, with the diary extracts and quotations from letters both to and from him. There is, for example, a sweet – and carefully worded – letter from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, written on receiving a copy of Beaton’s 1963 book, Royal Portraits, in which she expresses her thanks to him: ‘I feel that, as a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people’ – although Susanna observes that there often isn’t anything very real about these portraits, especially the early studies of the Queen Mother, in which her image is strongly managed as she is shown gliding through gardens or in grand interiors. It’s quite refreshing to have a curator with a slightly cynical take on some of the material.

In these idealised fairytale scenes, Beaton was consciously replicating the work of earlier portrait painters such as Thomas Gainsborough, and often used flowers from his own gardens to provide the backdrop. Despite the artificiality of the end result, the sittings themselves are reported to have been entertaining and lively. The consort and the photographer had an instant rapport, and she entered enthusiastically into the spirit of the shoot, suggesting dresses or accessories that would create the right impression. And impression was everything. We’re prone to assume that image retouching is a contemporary issue, that Photoshop and its emulators have much to answer for in creating false gods. Not so. Just as he did for Vogue fashion shots, Beaton supervised the retouching of every single royal portrait, to define facial features and trim silhouettes.

The first picture of the present Queen shows her as a girl of 16, wearing a quite simple outfit, photographed with her mother and sister in October 1942. The intention was, perhaps, to show that the royals were participating in the wartime restrictions experienced by the rest of the country. On the same day, though, Beaton also shot her in her position as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards (the first woman in history to hold such a role) and the contrast between her young features and the military nature of her clothing is very moving. Beaton, one senses, was a little in love with the image of the young Princess Elizabeth (and with his power to manipulate it). In 1951 he was to remark upon ‘her dazzlingly fresh complexion, the clear regard from the glass-blue eyes, and the gentle, all-pervading sweetness of her smile.’

They look, these earlier pictures, a touch contrived, with Elizabeth pointed up as the herald of a new beginning against fanciful floral scenery – but they certainly reflected the mood of the times. By the 1960s Beaton’s backgrounds had become plainer, in order to create a more accessible, modern image. The Queen remained photogenic. From the final 1968 shoot there is an exceptionally lovely and evocative shot of her alone and distant amongst the columns of a balcony overlooking the inner courtyard of Buckingham Palace.

Photographers, media communication students and cynics alike will particularly enjoy the contact sheets from different shoots – the family grouping around newborn Prince Andrew, say, in the spring of 1960 – showing how Beaton controlled these occasions with certain subtle alterations in position or look. With ticks and crop marks, showing his preferences or further adjustments, they add thoroughness to the show, as does further technical information such as the camera used, or the position (up a ladder for a view of little Prince Edward in his crib, after which Beaton wrote that the baby was ‘alert, curious and already a character’.
Interspersed with the printed images are occasional short video extracts, such as the Pathé newsreel announcing the birth of Prince Charles in November 1948, which emphasises the high esteem in which the monarchy was held. All those hundreds of people milling about in the street outside Buckingham Palace, in respectful delight at the news…

Beaton, in his diary for the December day when he first captured the new baby prince on film, remarked that he had photographed him at ‘the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty’.

Although this is predominantly a showing of Beaton’s royal work, there’s also, rightly, a section devoted to the man himself. As Susanna Brown points out, he certainly wasn’t shy: “confident on both sides of the camera; he had a great personality… great ego…”.

There will be plenty of hyperbole this year in praise of Her Majesty, so it is a pleasure to see an acknowledgement of the Jubilee which is both restrained and straightforward. There is, actually, something of interest in Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: a Diamond Jubilee for both monarchists and non-monarchists. For loyalists and sceptics alike all the extra supporting information makes for fascinating reading, and you can have the choice of admiring the photography, the photographer or the subject. Or even all three…

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: a Diamond Jubilee continues at the V&A until 22 April.
See www.vam.ac.uk for times and ticket prices.

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