Three Queens in Mourning

King George VI died on the night of February 6, 1952. The funeral took place on a dreary winter day — an even grimmer occasion than the average royal funeral.

Ron Case, staffer for Keystone Press Agency, wasn’t initially assigned to cover the funeral, but at the last minute sent to Westminister. He didn’t have a pass or accreditation and only had to an ancient half plate camera (a former RAF aerial reconnaissance camera).

Upon arrival to at Palace Yard Westminster, he found his tripod mount was broken. He scored pile of beer crates from outside a nearby pub as a substitute and waited. As Princess Elizabeth (the new Queen) Queen Mary (the late king’s mother) and Queen Elizabeth (the late king’s consort) (l. to r.) made their way slowly into the chapel where the king’s body lay in state, he snapped a photo. He did not know that he had a great photo when he sent back the glass plates to the office by dispatch rider.

Case remembered the occasion:

The lens was mounted on to a piece of wood 20 inches long with a coffin-like box taped to the camera on the other end, 20 inches away. The camera had an old Thornton Pickard roller-blind shutter with the old-fashioned screen where one has to look down on to the glass in order to see the picture – upside-down.

I had no clear image of the shot in my mind. There wasn’t even time to look in the viewfinder. But I suddenly realised the significance of those three figures. I lifted the camera, took the shot, and hoped for the best. Then I sent the glass slide back to the office by messenger.

I got back to the office eventually on a bus. I walked into the office. It was going mad. It was chaos everywhere. So I went down to the caff for a cup of tea. And I’m sitting having a cup of tea in a caff in Fleet Street and a little boy comes in: ‘Mr. Case, the editor wants you.’

‘Hallo, what have I done?’

So I came back up there and of course into the offices and the editor said: ‘What do you want, the good news or the bad news first?’

I said: ‘I’m going to be fired, obviously.’

He said: ‘I’ll give you the good news first. All the world wants that picture. They’re calling it the Three Mourning Queens.’

It was then I realised the significance of that photograph, although I hadn’t seen the print yet. I completely forgot to ask about the bad news at that stage. But the editor told me anyway. ‘The bad news,’ he said, ‘is that we’ve just smashed the original glass negative.’ A pause. ‘But we’ve got copies of it.’

So really, there is no original negative of that picture at all. But if I had 10p for every time that picture has been used around the world, I wouldn’t be standing here, talking about it.”

The haunting picture made the front page of every national paper in the UK and many around the world. It came to be known as the ‘Three Queens in mourning’. All three grieving queens, representing three changing generations, were clearly seen through their veils. Although other photos of the trio together exist, they were nearly all official portraits, and Case’s informal initimate photo revealed the rarely seen aspect of the modern royalty.

Ron Case, however, didn’t make a single pence from his photo–the rights belonged to Ron’s employer.

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