Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Posted by Bethan Holt, Fashion Junior at Large

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne. For me, and for most of you reading, we've always known her as the head of the Royal Family and a stalwart of British life. I can't quite imagine life without her. But as a 24 year-old, I only know a few 'versions' of Her Majesty. Growing up in the 90s, she was just 'The Queen'- a distant, almost unreal figure. Later, I started reading my Mum's Hello! magazines and she became a matriarch, quietly looking over the dramas which were playing out in the lives of her children and grandchildren. Of course, the Queen is a real person with a real family, but hers is a unique situation because millions of people feel a kind of claim over her. This means that the Royals have to develop a way of communicating who they are, or who they should be, to the nation. Official photographs are a pretty key way of doing that, and tomorrow the Victoria and Albert Museum in London celebrates the Jubilee by opening the doors on Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton. 

The Official Photo released yesterday to mark the Diamond
 jubilee, by John Swanell (image from thediamondjubilee.org)
The image above is the 2012 way of doing an official portrait, but in the early years, Cecil Beaton was one of the family's favourites for that job.
Cecil Beaton by Curtis Moffat, 1930
The shows curator Susanna Brown splits the 100-image exhibit into several sections, and in so doing demonstrates how Beaton adapted his imagery from fantastical, fairytale portrayals of the young Princess to relatable, intimate images of the Queen as a Mother. These are yet more 'versions' of the Queen for us to compute. 

Brown pointed out that Beaton's images served a very particular purpose as 'great PR images' for the Royals. These are not simple photos like those that you and I might take to record the birth of a child or a special family occasion. No, these were published in papers to be be lapped up by a public who, in a pre-internet age, were made to get their fix from a few carefully selected portraits. There were no pap shots as there are now of Duchess Kate shopping on the King's Road or Harry on the lash. The Royal family had a great deal more control over how they came across. Although, the exhibition notes do mention that the press would often break the embargoes which they were given, such was the demand for a new picture of the Queen and her family. 

A proper Princess- The Queen at Buckingham
Palace, 1945, by Cecil Beaton (image courtesy of the V&A)
Beaton's talent as a photographer  was to 'rise to the occasion', as Brown puts it, knowing the appropriate mood for the sitting. Indeed, perhaps he knew what the public wanted from their royal family a little better than the family themselves. A letter from Queen  Elizabeth, The Queen Mother suggests that they were quite aware of that fact, 'as a family we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people'. I got the impression that the Queen Mother might have been the real driving force behind the Royal Family's relationship with Cecil Beaton. On the day of the coronation, Beaton wrote in his diary 'All at once and because of her, I was enjoying my work’. She was also the one who initially recruited him.
Beaton's cuttings book
In fashion, things move fast. Working with Vogue and Vanity Fair meant that Beaton was acutely aware of that. The exhibit describes how Beaton befriended David Bailey in the early 60s. That could be quite surprising given that by then, Beaton had a well-established style which now so beautifully recalls the fantasia and escapism of the post war period. The decadence and sweetness of his floral backdrops (put together with cuttings from his own garden) and demurely posed women in the most ostentatious of ball gowns became the antidote to real-life rationing and austerity. But Bailey called Beaton 'Rip Van With-it' because of his willingness to try a new way of doing things once the 60s ushered in a less stylised approach.
The Queen's coronation, June 1953, buy Cecil Beaton (image courtesy of the V&A)
Vogue's coronation special is on display at the exhibition
After the grandeur and obvious royal-ness of Beaton's portraits up to the coronation,  the images of Her Majesty with her two younger children, Edward and Andrew, highlight how Beaton responded to a new hunger for seeing the royals as real. They are more simple, allowing the emotion of the subjects to take centre stage rather than the paraphernalia of props and costumes.

The Queen with Prince Andrew in 1960 by Cecil Beaton (image courtesy of V&A)

Despite Beaton's apparent ability to move with the times, his relationship with the Queen seems to have come to an abrupt end. Before he took the iconic portrait of the Queen in the admiral's boat cloak in 1968, 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’. It seems like a sad end to a partnership which produced so many images which will become some of the most enduring of the 20th century.

Cecil Beaton's last portrait of the Queen, in 1968 (image courtesy of the V&A)

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton is on at the V&A from tomorrow, 8th February until 22nd April. It will also be touring to Leeds, Newcastle, Norwich and Dundee. Another 'version' of the exhibition is going to Australia and Canada

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