Right Royal family photos in Cecil Beaton's Queen Elizabeth II at Victoria & Albert Museum

By Jennie Gillions | 14 February 2012
A photo of a Queen sitting on her throne
© V&A images
Exhibition: Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until April 22 2012

A collection of family photographs rarely proves more interesting than this. The V&A’s intimate exhibition space, though rather crowded, is the perfect home for nearly 30 years of beautiful portraits of the Queen and her family.

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) first photographed the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) during World War II; this exhibition charts the development of their relationship until 1968, when Beaton photographed her for the last time in anticipation of his show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Over the decades Beaton’s style changed with the times and to suit public opinion; his 1940s official portraits utilise elaborate backgrounds, reinforcing the distance between viewer and sitter and helping to reassure people of the monarchy’s security despite the War.

During the late 1940s and 1950s Beaton supported the Queen to cultivate the image of warmth and accessibility that post-war austerity Britain craved.

Anyone can relate to a portrait of a baby and its mother, even if that baby is the heir to the throne and its mother the monarch.

The photographs of Prince Charles and Princess Anne with the Queen are charming – simple, relaxed images of a loving family, with no obvious trappings of status.

Accompanying the photographs are some of Beaton’s cuttings books (he filled 45 in all) and extracts from his diaries.

The latter demonstrate that, despite his fundamental role in shaping the Family’s public persona, Beaton never lost sight of the great honour he had been afforded.

He admits to feeling tense and stressed before the Coronation – considering the pressure he was under this is hardly a surprise, but the photographs he produced were a triumph.

He chose appropriately glittering settings; in the official portrait the new Queen poses against a backdrop of Westminster Abbey’s interior, wearing the imperial state crown and official jewellery, and holding the sceptre.

In this series of photographs the Royal Family is remote, distant, stately – as the occasion befits. The V&A sensibly gives the Coronation a space of its own, rather than awkwardly juxtaposing it with the less formal family record, and includes the two precious Buckingham Palace passes that belonged to Beaton’s assistants.

During the 1950s and 1960s Beaton’s photographic style changed; these changes are obvious in his portraits of Princes Andrew and Edward as babies.

Gone are the fake, Rococo-style backdrops of his earlier pictures, replaced by pure white backgrounds which don’t distract from his sitters.

He retained this style for the 1968 series. The highlight of the series is an arresting, contemplative image of the Queen in a simple dark cloak against an equally simple blue background.

The Queen looks like an ordinary woman. Portraits of her posing in robes in luxurious Buckingham Palace rooms quickly dispel that idea, but Beaton has captured the image of a benevolent, thoughtful monarch in these deliberately bold prints.

Though other people were asked to photograph the Royal Family, few photographers enjoyed the same relationship with the monarchy as Cecil Beaton.

It was clearly a hugely successful relationship, but not always a simple one. Beaton’s diary entry prior to the 1968 sitting reads: “Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.”

Most visitors will agree that the fates performed their roles well.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Friday). Admission £5-£7 (family ticket £11-£17, free for under-12s and disabled visitors). Book online.

More pictures:

A photo of a sheet of black and white photos of royal figures
Contact sheet of The Royal Family, Buckingham Palace (October 1942)© V&A images
A photo of a Royal Queen standing upright in a long black coat against a blue backdrop
Queen Elizabeth II (1968)© V&A images
A black and white photo of a Queen in a white dress against a floral backdrop
Princess Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace (March 1945)© V&A images
A black and white photo of a Queen in a dress cradling a baby
Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Andrew (1960)© V&A images
A black and white photo of a young man leaning against a wall
Curtis Moffat, Cecil Beaton (circa 1930)© V&A images
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