The photographs of the British royal family by Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) were central to shaping the monarchy's public image in the mid-20th century. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was still a young princess when she first sat for Beaton in 1942. Over the next three decades he would be invited to photograph the Queen on many significant occasions, including her Coronation Day in 1953.
The most memorable of Beaton's images combine the splendour of historic royal portrait painting with an intimacy that only photography and film can convey. His detailed diary accounts reveal the complexities of each sitting, from the intense planning and excitement beforehand to the pressures of achieving the perfect shot.
Beaton bequeathed his archive of royal portraits to his devoted secretary Eileen Hose. In 1987 she, in turn, bequeathed the archive to the V&A. Photographs, diaries, personal letters and press cuttings combine to tell the fascinating story of a magnificent collaboration between crown and camera.
A Premier Portrait Photographer
Cecil Beaton began to pursue photography at a very early age. As a teenager he spent many hours attempting to recreate the look of glamorous society portraits using his sisters, Nancy and Baba, as models. His career took off in the mid 1920s, when he began to contribute photographs and illustrations to Vogue magazine. His first solo exhibition in London in 1927 established him as one of the leading fashion photographers and portraitists of his generation. Beaton became sought-after on both sides of the Atlantic, photographing famous faces from Hollywood, the theatre world and society. From the 1950s his set designs for theatre and films, such as My Fair Lady (1956), defined the glamorous look of the era. Candid snapshots and studio portraits of Beaton by his contemporaries display his sense of style, his charm, vanity and vivacious personality.
Princess Elizabeth and the Portrait Tradition
'The telephone rang. 'This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon' ... In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation. It is inconceivable that her predecessor would have summoned me - my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.' Cecil Beaton's diary, July 1939
The opportunity to photograph Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort of King George VI, was the high point of Beaton's career to date. Published two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, his images presented a sense of continuity with a magnificent pre-war Britain. Several wartime sittings of the Queen and her family would reinforce his vision of a seemingly unshakable monarchy and witness the transformation of her daughter Princess Elizabeth from girl to young woman. The flowers that appear in many of Beaton's portraits were often picked from his own garden. Cascading arrangements of roses, carnations, lilies and hydrangeas filled the space between a photographic backdrop and the sitter, and were an essential prop in the creation of his idealised Arcadian scenes.
On the morning of 2 June 1953, three million people lined the streets between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey to witness the process of the Gold State Coach. Millions more crowded around newly bought television sets to watch the investiture of Britain's youngest sovereign since Queen Victoria. For many, the Coronation represented the beginning of a new age. It was a time for optimism and innovation that the press termed 'the new Elizabethan era'. Cecil Beaton attended the ceremony, along with 8,000 other guests. He sat in a balcony close to the pipes of the great organ, recording his impression of the glorious pageant in animated prose and black ink sketches. After the ceremony he returned to the Palace to make final preparations for the official portrait sitting. In this glittering portrait, the Queen wears the imperial state crown, a replica of that made for Queen Victoria's Coronation. The Queen holds the sceptre with the cross in her right hand, balanced by the orb in her left. On her right hand she wears the coronation ring, a symbol that the sovereign is 'wedded' to the state. On both wrists are the armills, golden bracelets signifying sincerity and wisdom.
The Next Generation
On 14 November 1948 Princess Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. At her mother’s suggestion, the Princess chose Beaton to photograph her newborn son. Beaton would go on to take photographs commemorating the births of her other children: Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964. Beaton’s tender portraits depicted the Queen as a figure to whom any parent could relate. In contrast to the splendid Coronation images, these photographs capture a more intimate and relaxed side of family life. In the decade between the births of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, Beaton’s approach to royal portraiture changed dramatically. All attention was now focused on the sitters, a stark white background replacing the elaborate Rococo-inspired backdrops of earlier years. Beaton photographed Prince Charles on 13 December 1948, two days before the Prince's christening. He commissioned a new backdrop for the occasion, which his assistants installed in the gold and ivory-coloured Music Room at Buckingham Palace. Beaton used a large 8 x 10 inch and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. He recalled that, 'his mother sat by the cot and, holding his hand, watched his movements with curiosity, pride and amusement'.
The 1968 Sitting
In the summer of 1968, Beaton photographed the Queen in anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. He felt anxious before the sitting, writing in his diary: ‘The difficulties are great. Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.’ Beaton selected plain white and blue backgrounds, resolving to be ‘stark and clear and bold’. The portraits were a triumph. They were the last photographs Beaton made of Elizabeth II, although he continued to photograph other members of the family until 1979. Several photographers shared with Beaton the honour of being invited to photograph Elizabeth II, yet few had such an enduring relationship with the monarchy over such a long and transformative period. The photograph of the Queen wearing the Admiral's Boat Cloak against a blue backdrop was powerful in its simplicity. it was one of the highlights of over 500 photographs by Beaton exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. Beaton eliminated the magnificent regalia and sparkling gowns seen in other portraits to produce a contemplative and timeless image of the monarch. -----------------------
How Cecil Beaton helped save the Queen
Following a scandalous abdication, the Royal family needed a new image. Enter a photographer determined to restore the Windsors to their former glory – with a touch of realism.
By Roya Nikkhah in The Telegraph 07 Jan 2012 When Cecil Beaton received a call from Buckingham Palace in July 1939, nobody was more surprised than Beaton himself. A celebrated fashion photographer with a stellar career at Vogue, and a sought after portrait photographer on both sides of the Atlantic (with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich among his sitters), Beaton was by then more fashion and Hollywood royalty than the House of Windsor.
A prolific diarist, Beaton recorded his first Buckingham Palace call up: “The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” At first, I thought it might be a practical joke...but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation...my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”
Among his most famous work for Vogue in the 1930s was his coverage of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s wedding in France in 1937. Though Wallis Simpson and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother famously loathed each other, the photographs had caught the latter’s eye. The abdication crisis had rocked the nation and the monarchy alike, and while much of the public regarded Mrs Simpson as a hard, cold and manipulative woman who had ensnared the King, Beaton’s photographs of her wafting around the gardens of the Château Candé wearing billowing dresses and a wistful expression presented a softer image, boosting her public profile.
While previous royal photographers had presented the Queen Mother as demure and rather aloof, Beaton was determined to do something different, as another diary entry from the first sitting with her reveals: “When I entered the gates of Buckingham Palace for the first time...I was determined that my photographs should give some hint of the incandescent complexion, the brilliant thrush-like eyes and radiant smile, which are such important contributions to the dazzling effect she creates in life. I wanted so much that these should be different from the formal, somewhat anonymous-looking photographs...that had until then been taken of the Royal Family.”
Beaton was warned that the sitting would last no more than 20 minutes. Three hours later, he had captured more than 100 images of the Queen Mother in an array of exquisite Norman Hartnell gowns in the Palace gardens with her parasol and looking suitably regal in her tiara amid lavish backdrops of flowers in the State apartments.
Susanna Brown, the curator of photographs at the V&A, which is staging a major exhibition of Beaton’s royal portraits, describes the importance of the shoot: “After the huge crisis of the abdication, this was about reaffirming the position and continuity of the monarchy. He presents the Queen as an exquisite fairy-tale figure.” That first sitting with the Queen Mother, and the rapport between them, was crucial in establishing Beaton as a favoured royal photographer for the next 40 years. “They had an instant chemistry and she became his champion,” says Brown.
It was the Queen Mother who put Beaton’s name forward for key events, from the first pictures of Prince Charles as a baby in 1948 to the big one - the Coronation in 1953.
Sir John Smiley, Beaton’s nephew, recalls their “banter”: “They got on frightfully well because they were both so relaxed in each other’s company and each gave as good as they got.” The banter continued outside of professional sittings at Beaton’s country retreats in Wiltshire - Ashcombe and later Reddish House, where the Queen Mother was a guest. When we meet at the V&A, Sir John brings with him a prized possession - Beaton’s visitors’ book from both houses, where the Queen Mother’s signature is given its own page from a visit in 1955, and where Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon enjoyed Beaton’s legendary hospitality alongside the likes of Lucian Freud, Salvador Dali, Greta Garbo and Mick and Bianca Jagger.
Beaton first photographed the Queen as a fresh-faced 16-year-old princess in 1942, in a blue jacket and cap, wearing the insignia of the Grenadier Guards of which her father had made her Colonel. Photographing her again to mark her 18th birthday, Beaton wrote in his diary: “Princess Elizabeth’s easy charm, like her mother’s, does not carry across in her photographs, and each time one sees her one is delighted to find how much more serene, magnetic, and at the same time meltingly sympathetic she is than one had imagined...One misses, even in colour photographs, the effect of the dazzlingly fresh complexion, the clear regard from the glass-blue eyes, and the gentle, all pervading sweetness of her smile.”
He was equally impressed with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret’s lack of airs and graces: “I was always impressed by, and grateful for, the exceptionally charming manners that the young Princesses had in relation to the job of being photographed,” he wrote. “Unlike other children, Royal and otherwise, by whom I have been victimized, they never showed signs of restlessness.”
Beaton’s photographs of the Royal Family in the 20th century from the 1930s to the 1960s were intrinsic to the shaping of the monarchy’s public image. In the foreword to a book accompanying the exhibition, the art historian Sir Roy Strong, Beaton’s great friend, writes: “On the one occasion that I was taken out to lunch by a key figure who handled Honours, I said that Beaton should be knighted. The person concerned looked surprised and asked why. I said that Beaton’s work had contributed to saving the monarchy after the abdication by creating a new image for it. The knighthood followed.”
That “new image” evolved with the Queen’s role as both mother and monarch. The Queen chose Beaton to photograph her first born son, and the images he captured of her watching over Prince Charles’ cot in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace are perhaps the most tender and intimate royal portraits ever taken.
Beaton recorded the sitting in his diary in December 1948: “Happily summoned to the Palace to take the first long-awaited photographs of the heir to the throne. Prince Charles...was an obedient sitter: 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.
“I was astonished that a month-old baby should already have so much character...For so young a child he seemed to have a remarkable range of expression; and I was fascinated by the looks of surprise, disdain, defiance, anger and delight that ran across his minute face.”
Two years later, another shoot at Clarence House captured mother and toddler at play, with Prince Charles leaping off a window sill for a piggy back. Beaton went on to take the photographs commemorating the births of all of the Queen’s children: Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964. His tender portraits of the young royal family projected an image of an “ordinary” life and depicted the Queen as an accessible figure to whom any parent could relate.
In keeping with the Royal Family’s desire to project a more “accessible” modern image, Beaton took a new approach, abandoning his rococo settings for simple backgrounds. A sitting at Buckingham Palace in 1960 to mark the arrival of Prince Andrew showed the family chatting around his cot against a plain white backdrop, while another set of pictures depicts Prince Charles and Princess Anne admiring their new brother in the arms of Sister Rowe, or “Rowie” as she was affectionately known, the Queen’s midwife who attended the births of all four royal children. Hugo Vickers, Beaton’s biographer and literary executor, says: “Sister Rowe would always come to Cecil’s rescue. She would put a drop of glycerin on the baby’s tongue to make it smile. Cecil said she would have given it a brandy cocktail to get the right pose.”
Several of these intimate family images from Beaton’s contact sheets have not been on public display before. “She’s there just being mum and doing what comes naturally and he’s because she’s known him since she was a teenager, she trusts him and feels comfortable,” says Brown. “But the more “modern” image of the Royal Family is also key - the idea of them having very important public duties but also being a family perhaps not all that different to our own families, day to day. That is the message these photos project.”
The commission to take the Queen’s Coronation pictures in 1953 were perhaps the pinnacle of Beaton’s career, although it was not a commission he expected as a diary entry reveals: “Have been wondering if my day as photographer at the Palace is over: Baron, a most unexpected friend of Prince Philip’s, has been taking all the recent pictures, so the call saying the Queen wanted me to do her personal Coronation photographs came as an enormous relief. The same night...at a ball at the American Embassy, I saw the Queen for a brief moment and thanked her. “No, I’m very glad you’re going to take them,” she said. “But by the time we get through to the photographs, we’ll have circles down to here (to the eye), “then the court trains comes bundling up to here, and I’m out to here (sticks stomach out.) She spoke like a young, high-spirited girl.”
Beaton’s photographs were hailed by Buckingham Palace and around the world as a triumph, capturing both the majesty of the occasion and the new queen’s delicate beauty and youth. They secured his reputation as one of the leading photographers in the world, and Beaton continued to photograph the Royal Family until the year before his death in 1980, aged 76.
Sir John recalls his uncle’s enduring discretion throughout four decades of Royal commissions. “He must have been terribly proud to have done that [the Coronation] - it was the ultimate to have photographed them all. But when I would have lunch with him, he would never talk about them. I only remember him being very funny about the Coronation and Prince Charles running around under his mother’s skirt, but boast about his latest meetings with them? Never.”
Describing his relationship with photography in a 1933 article for Vogue, Beaton wrote: “A continuous battle wages between you and the camera as to who shall be the master...”, but Sir Roy insists that when it came to royal photography, nobody was the master like Beaton: “He had an ability that was to render him irreplaceable to members of the House of Windsor: No other photographer could wave a wand over even the most unpromising and unprepossessing of them with such magic, so that even the plainest and dullest members of the family were endowed with a certain aura and mysterious glamour.”
In 1963, Beaton published his first book of royal portraits. Upon receiving her copy, the Queen Mother wrote to him conveying her thanks: “My dear Mr Beaton...I feel that as a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people!”
'Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration', is at the V&A from February 8 until April 22.