Queen’s reign through lens of Cecil Beaton
09:52 17 July 2012
There is a royal audience at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery — thanks to a Diamond Jubilee display of Cecil Beaton’s striking portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. IAN COLLINS reports.
In the summer of 1939 a fashionable photographer - a young man very much in Vogue - took a call from Buckingham Palace inviting him to bring along his camera on the following afternoon.
Cecil Beaton had received a summons from Queen Elizabeth to take a portrait snap or two, and the successful session would launch him on the longest and crowning glory in his career as one of the 20th century’s most stylish lensmen.
In his diary he celebrated a “daring innovation”. And he added: “It was inconceivable that her predecessor would have summoned me - my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”
The artful consort of George VI loved artists, buying works by major talents from Monet to Paul Nash and remaining at the centre of a wide circle of arty friends.
She also knew the value of art. The warm images from that first meeting with dear Mr Beaton were published that chill November - two months into the Second World War.
The message of calm continuity was very clear. But in case of any lingering doubt the Queen was swift to scotch the rumour that the king would be following a fashion and evacuating his family to Canada.
Seventy years ago Cecil Beaton - ultimately to be knighted primarily for his services to royal portraiture - snapped a first likeness of Princess Elizabeth.
And the radiant results of that ensuing association can now be savoured in Norwich Castle Museum’s Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton - A Diamond Jubilee Celebration.
Here, at least at the outset, was propaganda at its purest. Photographs from 1942 - when Beaton was also deep into his work with the British Ministry of Information - show the heir to the throne as part of an ordinary family, subject to rationing and collecting clothing coupons like everyone else.
But in February of that year, her father had bestowed on her the extraordinary role of Colonel-in-Chief of the Grenadier Guards. The badge seen in the 16-year-old’s cap is an emblematic grenade and the diamond brooch on her lapel the regimental insignia.
The same symbols wowed and further fortified America when a Beaton portrait graced the cover of Life magazine the following February.
Cecil Beaton was also busy recording some for the nine direct hits on Buckingham Palace during the Blitz, and the corresponding evolution of a warrior princess who, from February 1945, trained with the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a mechanic and driver, reaching the rank of Junior Commander.
At the same time he was charting an image of youthful innocence growing into adult maturity. As he was to write:
“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.”
Despite all that had gone between, the image of the then Queen from 1939, and that of her 18-year-old daughter in March 1945, were strikingly and deliberately similar.
Both are pictured in flowery arbours – the snapper’s favourite cascading arrangements of roses, carnations, lilies and hydrangeas contrived with blooms from his own garden – against a painted backdrop of blue sky and bubbling cloud.
They are separated by five-and-half years of a war in which Britain, and civilisation itself, had been fighting for survival.
In the spring of 1945 Hitler may have been retreating into his bunker – having concluded that the British Queen was “the most dangerous woman in Europe” – but the real clouds of the moment over London could still yield showers of V2 bombs.
In December 1948 Beaton photographed the Princess with her first-born baby, Prince Charles, two days before the christening. He was to do the same for her three ensuing children, but that month’s session saw a hugely symbolic shift from black and white to colour.
It was as if the curtain was lifting on a new age of peaceful possibility and marking the end an era of grim sacrifice and grey restriction. Pensive pictures gave way to smiles and even to broad grins though to the end all would convey the portraitist’s utter belief in the perfect romance of monarchy.
An explosion of colour for what was instantly termed the new Elizabethan age was best captured by Cecil Beaton in his consummate coronation photographs of 1953 – truly his crowning triumph (noted in a Hollywood which soon enlisted him to design the movie My Fair Lady).
He was one of 8,000 guests at the Westminster Abbey ceremony and he recorded in notes and sketches his impressions from the fine vantage point of a seat in a balcony.
After the pomp and pageantry he returned to the palace to make final preparations for the official portrait in which a regal chair was set before a light-filled image of the abbey interior.
In this most glittering portrait – for which sitting he was allotted only a few minutes — the Queen wears the imperial state crown, a replica of that made for Queen Victoria’s coronation.
The monarch 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. Golden bracelets on both wrists signify sincerity and wisdom.
In the pictures of the Queen’s four infant children taken between 1948 and 1964 we can see the approach to royal portraiture changing dramatically. Informality of mood and a focus on the sitters was the key as intimacy came to reign and Rococo-inspired backdrops gave way to stark white backgrounds.
In the summer of 1968 Beaton photographed the Queen for what he hoped would be the final image in his pending exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
Anxious about the sitting, he wrote 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.”
He chose stark blue and white backdrops and the Queen was to be dressed in a majestic black cloak with gold fittings. Sitter and snapper strove to find the right pose – and then, as Sir Cecil later recorded:
“Suddenly she turned to the left and the head tilted, and this was the clue to the whole sitting – the tilt. I kept up a running conversation, trying to be funny, trying to keep the mirth light...
“By now I felt I had started to get something and was busy duplicating this one pose that I felt had provided the afternoon’s solution.”
How right he was.
In the often wretched business of royal portraiture, with dud works ranging from the obsequious to the odious, and so often leaving even the mildest of monarchs surely wishing for the return of a traitors’ scaffold on Tower Hill, Beaton finally matched in a photograph the feat of Pietro Annigoni in a painting.
And for all that had gone before, from 1942, his was the greatest achievement of all — eclipsing even the recent record of Mario Testino in depicting the Prince and Princess of Wales and their children.
That 1968 session was Sir Cecil Beaton’s last working appointment with the monarch, though he continued to photograph other members of the royal family until 1979, the year before his death.
And to the end he remained a member of the Queen Mother’s circle of quick-witted and creative friends along with the likes of ballet’s Frederick Ashton and theatre’s Noel Coward.
■ Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton – A Diamond Jubilee Celebration is at Norwich Castle until September 30, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm, special admission ticket £3.50 (£3 cons), under-16s £2.60, under-4s free, 01603 495897, www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk