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Congratulations Ma’am: 60 years of Royal photography

— March 2012

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Cecil Beaton, Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes, June 1953

‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration’

Rosalind Ormiston looks back at the reign of Elizabeth II through the lens of The Queen’s favourite photographer

In the week that Her Majesty The Queen commemorated the 60th year of her accession to the throne on 6 February 1952, her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, by the opening of a stunning exhibition of photography and film. ‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration’, will remain on display until 22 April 2012.

The exhibition is the V&A’s contribution to the celebration of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year.  It looks at the life of Queen Elizabeth II through the lens of royal photographer Cecil Beaton (1904–80), from his early portraits of The Queen when she was a teenage princess to his last portrait of her taken in 1968. His photographs of the Royal Family defined their public persona and were among the most widely published photographs of the 20th century. 

The V&A owns the Cecil Beaton Collection, bequeathed to the museum in 1987, which contains 18,000 of Beaton’s original prints, transparencies and negatives dating from the early 1930s until 1979, the year before his death. It includes 45 volumes of Beaton’s press cuttings, some of which are highlights of this display. Susanna Brown, Curator of Photographs at the V&A, is curator of this exhibition and author of its accompanying book Queen Elizabeth II: Portraits by Cecil Beaton (2011). She has chosen around 100 photographs to accompany extracts from Beaton’s diaries and pages from his press cuttings books, interwoven with audio recordings, archival films and royal memorabilia. The show explores Beaton’s depictions of The Queen in her roles of princess, monarch and mother.

The exhibition, in five parts, opens with ‘Princess Elizabeth and the portrait tradition’, an introduction to Beaton in 1942 as photographer to Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) and King George VI.  It explores the beginning of his professional relationship with Princess Elizabeth, taking informal solo portrait photographs of her; and family photographs with her mother and sister. As her mother’s preferred choice of photographer, Beaton was commissioned to photograph Princess Elizabeth wearing the insignia of the Grenadier Guards, acknowledging her first official role as their Colonel-in-Chief at the age of sixteen. 

For many visitors to this exhibition, fascination will lie in looking at Beaton’s contact sheets of royal photographs. Beaton was fiercely protective of his images. A selection of original contact prints, from which the Royal Family approved their choice, reveals Beaton’s instructions for cropping images, and for press embargoes. Extracts from his private diaries and letters relate his personal conversations with The Queen; and reveal the intense preparation that took place before a royal photographic portrait sitting.

A highlight of Cecil Beaton’s professional career was the commission to take The Queen’s official Coronation photographs on 2 June 1953. In a curtained-off interior space within the V&A exhibition gallery, ‘The Coronation’ display includes a short movie reel of colour film, focusing on the crowning moment of The Queen’s Coronation – television coverage of the event in 1953 was transmitted in black and white images – and here are Beaton’s celebrated Coronation photographs of Her Majesty, taken in colour, in the Green Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Alongside are monochrome photographs of The Queen with her Maids of Honour; and of the Queen Mother with the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. They capture a unique moment in the children’s lives.

Here too is Beaton’s diary; his entry for the day is open on the first double-page spread of his 11-page entry, entitled ‘Coronation’. During the ceremony he was positioned on a balcony in Westminster Abbey. He recalls the pageantry; and his fears for the day with his part as the official portrait photographer. As a personal record he created many black ink drawings during the ceremony. They document important moments in the ceremony and many of the honoured guests; his sketches were later published in a copy of Vogue magazine in 1955 (also on display).

What is noticeable in the section that follows, titled ‘The next generation’, is Beaton’s change in style of photography. From the flowery settings of his earlier photographs of Princess Elizabeth, the official photographs of The Queen and the infant Charles, and Anne, capture an informal mood, to reveal her as a monarch and a mother. This technique was quite perfected in his later 1960s portraiture of The Queen with the infant Prince Andrew, and then Prince Edward.

In the 1960s Beaton had reacted to and embraced – as Sir Roy Strong puts it in his Foreword to Queen Elizabeth II: Portraits by Cecil Beaton ‘...the era of “in your face” photography of the David Bailey kind.’ Beaton created a modern contemporary image of The Queen as mother to her family. Not to be missed in this section is a four-page handwritten letter to Cecil Beaton, from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, thanking him for the copy of his book of royal portraits, published in 1963. She keenly observes, ‘ a family, we must be deeply grateful to you, for producing us, as really quite nice and real people!’ (The underling is by the Queen Mother.)

A particularly pleasing part of this exhibition is the section dedicated to Beaton himself. In ‘A premier portrait photographer’ we meet Beaton in a series of short film clips. We hear and see him in conversation with David Bailey whilst having his photograph taken; in a film clip of him taking David Hockney’s portrait; and on film discussing how he became a photographer. This section is a special highlight. Beaton’s ‘Visitors Book’ is opened at a name-dropping page that includes the signatures of the artists Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, choreographer Frederick Ashton and actress Margaret Lockwood. With photographic portraits of him taken by other photographers, including Irving Penn and David Bailey, it succinctly reveals the lifestyle of a photographer at the centre of a cultural elite. 

The final chapter of Beaton’s life as royal photographer is retold through his last portraits of The Queen, taken in 1968 for a significant exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Beaton Portraits 1928–68. The contact sheets are on display too. It is often claimed that Beaton, through his intimate portraits of the Royal Family, saved the monarchy after the abdication of King Edward VII in 1936. This exhibition visually reveals why, in the years following, he became an internationally renowned photographer with an exceptional ability to create strikingly beautiful and memorable images, particularly of his favourite subject, Her Majesty The Queen.


Rosalind Ormiston
Art historian. Rosalind Ormiston is Cassone's Royal Correspondent for this very special year, in which the UK & Commonwealth celebrate 60 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Rosalind has been covering a number of events with a royal theme for Casson

Media credit: Photo copyright V&A images. Used with permission

Editor's notes

 ‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, Londonuntil 22 April 2012
Admission: £6.00
Open 10.00-17.45 daily, and until 22.00 every Friday,

A touring exhibition
In 2012 a touring version of this exhibition will visit Leeds City Museum, Norwich Castle Museum, and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle in England. It will travel internationally to the Art Gallery of Ballerat, Australia; and the Royal British Columbia Museum and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Canada.

Queen Elizabeth II: Portraits by Cecil Beaton by Susanna Brown, a book published by V&A Publishing, 2011, accompanies the V&A exhibition ‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration’.

Have you seen the catalogue for this show? What did you think of it? Was it good value for money? An enjoyable read? Let us know!

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