Princess Elizabeth by Cecil Beaton, Gelatin silver print, Buckingham Palace, March 1945,
Museum no. E.1361-2010
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, 2 June 1953, Museum no. PH.311-1987
On the morning of 2 June 1953, 3 million people lined the streets between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey to witness the process of the Gold State Coach. Millions more crowded around newly bought television sets to watch the investiture of Britain's youngest sovereign since Queen Victoria. For many, the Coronation represented the beginning of a new age. It was a time for optimism and innovation that the press termed 'the new Elizabethan era'.
Cecil Beaton attended the ceremony, along with 8,000 other guests. He sat in a balcony close to the pipes of the great organ, recording his impression of the glorious pageant in animated prose and black ink sketches. After the ceremony he returned to the Palace to make final preparations for the official portrait sitting.
In this glittering portrait, the Queen wears the imperial state crown, a replica of that made for Queen Victoria's Coronation. The Queen 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. On both wrists are the armills, golden bracelets signifying sincerity and wisdom.
The Next Generation
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Charles by Cecil Beaton, Gelatin silver print, December 1948, Buckingham Palace, Museum no. PH.218-1987
On 14 November 1948 Princess Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. At her mother’s suggestion, the Princess chose Beaton to photograph her newborn son. Beaton would go on to take photographs commemorating the births of her other children: Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.
Beaton’s tender portraits depicted the Queen as a figure to whom any parent could relate. In contrast to the splendid Coronation images, these photographs capture a more intimate and relaxed side of family life.
In the decade between the births of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, Beaton’s approach to royal portraiture changed dramatically. All attention was now focused on the sitters, a stark white background replacing the elaborate Rococo-inspired backdrops of earlier years.
Beaton photographed Princes Charles on 13 December 1948, two days before the Prince's christening. He commissioned a new backdrop for the occasion, which his assistants installed in the gold and ivory-coloured Music Room at Buckingham Palace. Beaton used a large 8 x 10 inch and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. He recalled that, 'his mother sat by the cot and, holding his hand, watched his movements with curiosity, pride and amusement'.
The 1968 Sitting
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, Gelatin silver print, Buckingham Palace, 1968, Museum no. PH.318-1987
In the summer of 1968, Beaton photographed the Queen in anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. He felt anxious before the sitting, writing 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.’
Beaton selected plain white and blue backgrounds, resolving to be ‘stark and clear and bold’. The portraits were a triumph. They were the last photographs Beaton made of Elizabeth II, although he continued to photograph other members of the family until 1979.
Several photographers shared with Beaton the honour of being invited to photograph Elizabeth II, yet few had such an enduring relationship with the monarchy over such a long and transformative period.
The photograph of the Queen wearing the Admiral's Boat Cloak against a blue backdrop was powerful in its simplicity. it was one of the highlights of over 500 photographs by Beaton exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. Beaton eliminated the magnificent regalia and sparkling gowns seen in other portraits to produce a contemplative and timeless image of the monarch.
A Premier Portrait Photographer
Cecil Beaton by Curtis Moffat, Gelatin silver print, about 1930, Museum no. E.1557-2007, Gift of Penelope Small
Cecil Beaton began to pursue photography at a very early age. As a teenager he spent many hours attempting to recreate the look of glamorous society portraits using his sisters, Nancy and Baba, as models.
His career took off in the mid 1920s, when he began to contribute photographs and illustrations to Vogue magazine. His first solo exhibition in London in 1927 established him as one of the leading fashion photographers and portraitists of his generation.
Beaton became sought-after on both sides of the Atlantic, photographing famous faces from Hollywood, the theatre world and society. From the 1950s his set designs for theatre and films, such as My Fair Lady (1956), defined the glamorous look of the era. Candid snapshots and studio portraits of Beaton by his contemporaries display his sense of style, his charm, vanity and vivacious personality.
With thanks to Garrard