The Royals … as Cecil Beaton saw them

In addition to being a great and iconoclastic photographer, Cecil Beaton was an inveterate diarist. He was also, for forty years, the premier royal photographer, having cemented his friendship with Elizabeth, The Queen Mother at his very first sitting, which was supposed to last 20 minutes but lasted 3 hours.

He remembers his first call from the royal household in July 1939:

The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen [The Queen Mother] wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” At first, I thought it might be a practical joke — the sort of thing Oliver [Messel, his friend and rival] might do. but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. 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.

On his first visit, he wrote:

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.

Previously when he photographed The Duke of Windsor the day before the latter’s wedding to Mrs. Wallis Simpson, he showed his keen attention to detail and irreverence:

His expression, though intent, was essentially sad, tragic eyes belied by impertinent tilt of nose. He has common hands – like a little mechanic – weather-beaten and rather scaly and one thumb’nail is disfigured. His hair at 45 is as golden and thick as it was at 16. His eyes fiercely blue do not seem to focus properly — are bleary in spite of their brightness and one is much lower than another.

When Wallis appeared to be photographed, the Duke was busy looking for a crucifix to put on the improvised altar that had been set up for the next day’s ceremony. The Cockney maid telephoned to his room: ‘Is that your Royal Highness? Well, will you please come down right away?’ When he finally did appear, Wallis let him see she was annoyed. After a preliminary argument he apologized.

He first photographed Princess Elizabeth as a 16-year-old, and then to mark her 18th birthday. He remembers in a newspaper article on July 1 1951 entitled “What the Queen said to the Photographer”:

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….

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. Unlike other children, Royal and otherwise, by whom I have been victimized, they never showed signs of restlessness.

However, he was not really enthralled by the either princess: “[Elizabeth] would make an extremely good hospital nurse or nanny. Her smile is reserved,” he wrote, while [Margaret] wore her hair “scraped back like a seaside landlady”. Their father, George VI, was “without any mystery or magic whatsoever. One forgets after a few minutes that he is in the room.”

Beaton was also asked to photograph Princess Elizabeth’s first born son in December 1948:

Happily summoned to the Palace to take the first long-awaited photographs of the heir to the throne. Prince Charles, as he is to be named, 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…

His mother sat by the cot and, holding his hand, watched his movements with curiosity, pride and amusement.

Beaton went on to take the photographs commemorating the births of all of the Queen’s children, and documenting their childhoods. A particularly unpleasant experience with Princess Anne was recounted here:

She was a bossy, unattractive galumphing girl, When about 15, I photographed the family in a group, celebrating the birth of the latest addition [Prince Edward, 1964], she was not helpful … At the end of the sitting, a very unsatisfactory one, I cornered the girl and said, ‘I know you hate it, but let me take you hating it in this direction, now hate it in that direction, go on. Hate it! Hate it!’

The girl looked at me with a snarl. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a smile or a sign of trapped terror. The pictures were revolting.

But Beaton is best remembered today for his photos of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. That was an unexpected assignment:

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.”

[Sidenote: Stirling Henry Nahum, known simply as “Baron” (although his title was suspect), was an Italian Jew who took photos of  Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s wedding and their offsprings’ christenings. He died young and today best known as the man who coached Lord Snowdon’s early photography career. No wikepedia page exists for him].

Although he would go on to document the rest of the royal household until just before his death in 1980, his final shoot with the Queen came in 1968 (above). By this time, his relationship at the court was rocky at best:

The difficulties are great. Our point of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.”

A selection of his coronation photos are here. Read all of his diaries here. Next post: the Coronation, Revisited.

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