Coronation of George V

Ahead of Charles III’s coronation this weekend, we look back at the first time cameras were allowed inside the Westminster Abbey


George V’s coronation in 1911 had several ‘firsts’: the first to use the newly developed processional route through the Mall and Whitehall; the first to be followed by a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral; the first with the iconic balcony appearance by the king — and most importantly, the first to be photographed from inside the abbey.

The honor fell to Sir John Benjamin Stone, a former MP and amateur photographer, who was earlier also entrusted by George V to photograph intimate portraits, such as his late father Edward VII’s coffin in the royal vault.

Despite the king’s wishes, Stone wasn’t welcomed by everybody. The illustrated news magazines of London dismissed his blurry photos of ceremony as inferior to sketches produced by their eyewitness artists, and the formidable Randall Davison, then in the seventh year of a tenure that would make him the longest serving Archbishop of Canterbury since the Reformation, insisted that the photographer and his camera be “in a position absolutely concealed”. As such, Stone’s photo of the king on the coronation chair (above) was almost blocked.

The royal couple both complained about the coronation. “The service in the Abbey was most beautiful, but it was a terrible ordeal,” wrote George V in his journal, while Queen Mary wrote to her aunt, “it was an awful ordeal for us both.”


In the front row of the Royal Box behind the king, from left to right, were four of his six children (1. Princess Mary; 2. Prince Albert, the future George VI; 3. Prince Henry, the future Duke of Gloucester; 4. Prince George, the future Duke of Kent), his sister (5. the then Princess Royal, Duchess of Fife), and three of his aunts, all daughters of Queen Victoria (6. Princess Christian of Scheswig-Holstein; 7. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll; 8. Princess Henry of Battenberg). The young princes would fight on the way back to the palace: the 11-year-old Henry wrestling the 8-year-old George, nearly knocking Princess Mary’s coronet out of their carriage.

Sitting behind the king’s children were the Connaughts and the Albanys — the wives and daughters of the king’s uncles. From left to right, 1. The Duchess of Connaught; 2. The Duchess of Albany; 3. Princess Patricia (a daughter of Duke of Connaught); and 4. Princess Alexander of Teck (a daughter of Duke of Albany and married to the Queen’s brother).

On the king’s right, four men carrying swords of state were visible. They were, left to right, 1. Field Marshal Lord Kitchner of Khartoum, carrying the sword of temporal justice; 2. Duke of Beaufort, bearing curtana (also known as the Sword of Mercy); 3. Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, former Commander-in-Chief of the Army, carrying the sword of spiritual justice; and bearing the unwieldy Sword of State, William Lygon, Lord Beauchamp (often thought to be the model for the character Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).

Visible behind Beauchamp in his military dress was Captain Charles Cust, equerry to the king, who would be a confidante of three kings.

Between the king and the queen were the other officials who held ceremonial roles. From left to right, 1. the Viscount Churchill, one of the bearers of the king’s train; 2. the Bishop of Bath and Wells; 3. the Earl of Carrington; and 4. the Bishop of Durham. On the other side of the queen was the Bishop of Petersborough. Behind the queen were the bearers of her six-yard long train, led by Evelyn Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire and Mistress of the Robes — the senior lady in the Royal Household.

Lord Carrington, the future Marquess of Lincolnshire, bore St Edward’s Staff and held the role of Lord Great Chamberlain. The role rotates with every change of reign between three families: the others being the Cholmondeleys and the Willoughby de Eresbys (the Earls of Ancaster). For Charles III’s coronation, it will be turn of another Carrington.

Bishops of Durham and Bath and Wells acted as Bishops Assistant to the King — a role that existed since the coronation of Edgar in 973, and had been carried out by the holders of those two bishoprics since the coronation of Richard I in 1189.

(You can compare Stone’s photos to the almost identical coronation painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon. Bacon was placed hidden from view behind the tombs of Aymer de Valence and Aveline of Lancaster, directly facing the Royal Box, and he used artistic licence to produce a clear view of the king in profile and the queen facing the viewer).

The Royals … as Cecil Beaton saw them

In addition to being a great and iconoclastic photographer, Cecil Beaton was an inveterate diarist. He was also, for forty years, the premier royal photographer, having cemented his friendship with Elizabeth, The Queen Mother at his very first sitting, which was supposed to last 20 minutes but lasted 3 hours.

He remembers his first call from the royal household in July 1939:

The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen [The Queen Mother] wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” At first, I thought it might be a practical joke — the sort of thing Oliver [Messel, his friend and rival] might do. but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. 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.

On his first visit, he wrote:

When I entered the gates of Buckingham Palace for the first time…I was determined that my photographs should give some hint of the incandescent complexion, the brilliant thrush-like eyes and radiant smile, which are such important contributions to the dazzling effect she creates in life. I wanted so much that these should be different from the formal, somewhat anonymous-looking photographs…that had until then been taken of the Royal Family.

Previously when he photographed The Duke of Windsor the day before the latter’s wedding to Mrs. Wallis Simpson, he showed his keen attention to detail and irreverence:

His expression, though intent, was essentially sad, tragic eyes belied by impertinent tilt of nose. He has common hands – like a little mechanic – weather-beaten and rather scaly and one thumb’nail is disfigured. His hair at 45 is as golden and thick as it was at 16. His eyes fiercely blue do not seem to focus properly — are bleary in spite of their brightness and one is much lower than another.

When Wallis appeared to be photographed, the Duke was busy looking for a crucifix to put on the improvised altar that had been set up for the next day’s ceremony. The Cockney maid telephoned to his room: ‘Is that your Royal Highness? Well, will you please come down right away?’ When he finally did appear, Wallis let him see she was annoyed. After a preliminary argument he apologized.

He first photographed Princess Elizabeth as a 16-year-old, and then to mark her 18th birthday. He remembers in a newspaper article on July 1 1951 entitled “What the Queen said to the Photographer”:

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….

I was always impressed by, and grateful for, the exceptionally charming manners that the young Princesses had in relation to the job of being photographed. Unlike other children, Royal and otherwise, by whom I have been victimized, they never showed signs of restlessness.

However, he was not really enthralled by the either princess: “[Elizabeth] would make an extremely good hospital nurse or nanny. Her smile is reserved,” he wrote, while [Margaret] wore her hair “scraped back like a seaside landlady”. Their father, George VI, was “without any mystery or magic whatsoever. One forgets after a few minutes that he is in the room.”

Beaton was also asked to photograph Princess Elizabeth’s first born son in December 1948:

Happily summoned to the Palace to take the first long-awaited photographs of the heir to the throne. Prince Charles, as he is to be named, was an obedient sitter: He interrupted a long, contented sleep to do my bidding and open his blue eyes to stare long and wonderingly into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty.

I was astonished that a month-old baby should already have so much character…For so young a child he seemed to have a remarkable range of expression; and I was fascinated by the looks of surprise, disdain, defiance, anger and delight that ran across his minute face…

His mother sat by the cot and, holding his hand, watched his movements with curiosity, pride and amusement.

Beaton went on to take the photographs commemorating the births of all of the Queen’s children, and documenting their childhoods. A particularly unpleasant experience with Princess Anne was recounted here:

She was a bossy, unattractive galumphing girl, When about 15, I photographed the family in a group, celebrating the birth of the latest addition [Prince Edward, 1964], she was not helpful … At the end of the sitting, a very unsatisfactory one, I cornered the girl and said, ‘I know you hate it, but let me take you hating it in this direction, now hate it in that direction, go on. Hate it! Hate it!’

The girl looked at me with a snarl. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a smile or a sign of trapped terror. The pictures were revolting.

But Beaton is best remembered today for his photos of the Queen’s coronation in 1953. That was an unexpected assignment:

Have been wondering if my day as photographer at the Palace is over: Baron, a most unexpected friend of Prince Philip’s, has been taking all the recent pictures, so the call saying the Queen wanted me to do her personal Coronation photographs came as an enormous relief. The same night…at a ball at the American Embassy, I saw the Queen for a brief moment and thanked her. “No, I’m very glad you’re going to take them,” she said. “But by the time we get through to the photographs, we’ll have circles down to here (to the eye), “then the court trains comes bundling up to here, and I’m out to here (sticks stomach out.) She spoke like a young, high-spirited girl.”

[Sidenote: Stirling Henry Nahum, known simply as “Baron” (although his title was suspect), was an Italian Jew who took photos of  Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s wedding and their offsprings’ christenings. He died young and today best known as the man who coached Lord Snowdon’s early photography career. No wikepedia page exists for him].

Although he would go on to document the rest of the royal household until just before his death in 1980, his final shoot with the Queen came in 1968 (above). By this time, his relationship at the court was rocky at best:

The difficulties are great. Our point of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.”

A selection of his coronation photos are here. Read all of his diaries here. Next post: the Coronation, Revisited.

Coronation of King George VI


Henri Cartier-Bresson took this picture in Trafalgar Square on King George VI’s coronation day on 12th May 1937. It was a difficult time for the British Public–the previous year saw the death of King George V and the abdication crisis of Edward VIII. The furore over Mrs. Wallis Simpson had settled down, but visible scars remained.

It was the occasion where Cartier-Bresson first made his name as a photojournalist. He covered the coronation for the French weekly Regard, which was displeased that ‘Cartier’ (his original nom de plume) did not take any picture of the king or the carriage. Instead, in above photo, Cartier-Bresson focused his photo not only on this jubilant public (who apparently left the discontent of last winter) but also on the sleeping man, who like many others above him had waited overnight, and was now missing the coronation procession. In this sense, Cartier-Bresson’s camera missed the carriage too, but for him, the importance lies not with the casket but with the people diverse, but united. It was his way of portraying history–mourning crowds, cheering mobs, frail old men, dancing girls–his lens saw the people who saw history.