Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration
The photographs of the British royal family by Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) were central to shaping the monarchy's public image in the mid-20th century. her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was still a young princess when she first sat for Beaton in 1942. Over the next three decades he would be invited to photograph the Queen on many significant occasions, including her Coronation Day in 1953.
The most memorable of Beaton's images combine the splendour of historic royal portrait painting with an intimacy that only photography and film can convey. His detailed diary accounts reveal the complexities of each sitting, from the intense planning and excitement beforehand to the pressures of achieving the perfect shot.
Beaton bequeathed his archive of royal portraits to his devoted secretary Eileen Hose. In 1987 she, in turn, bequeathed the archive to the V&A. Photographs, diaries, personal letters and press cuttings combine to tell the fascinating story of a magnificent collaboration between crown and camera.
Princess Elizabeth and the Portrait Tradition
'The telephone rang. 'This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon' ... 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.'
Cecil Beaton's diary, July 1939
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.
The Next Generation
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.
The 1968 Sitting
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.