Long Live the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch today. It was an awkward journey for her.


In 1953, when it was being discussed to televise her coronation, the Queen was reluctant. She was a shy, private girl: no cameras were allowed inside the Westminster Abbey for her wedding. She was equally unenthused about having her Christmas message to the nation or her Trooping the Colour ceremonies televised. The BBC was ordered not to let camera lenses linger on her face too long.

These stories make it all the more ironic that hers is now the most famous face in the world. During her sixty plus years on the thrones – changes have been swift and transformative. Many a political entity which sent delegations to her coronation – the Soudan, the Gold Coast, Malaya, Somaliland, Tanganyika, North Borneo, Basutoland, Aden Colony, the Gilberts, the Ellices, British Honduras, Condominium of the New Hebrides, British Solomon Islands – left the empire and are now defunct. Age of television has given way to age of internet.

Elizabeth received these changes with equanimity, if not affection. Increasingly junior members of the royal family were dispatched for the former colonies’ independence (The Prince of Wales proved to be a notoriously unwilling attendant, especially after an awning fell onto his head during the Bahamas’). She was also more modern than her stiff exterior suggested: her favorite prime minister was said to be anti-establishment Harold Wilson. Long before she gamely allowed herself to be filmed for a skit during London 2012 Opening Ceremonies, she welcomed television cameras inside the Buckingham Palace for an awkward documentary. The Buck House itself was opened for the public in 1993.

The Queen truly belonged to another age, something which didn’t endear her to her subjects as she grew older. She showed more emotion on a fire at Windsor than at the death of her wayward daughter-in-law. Power too was elusive: on rare occasions when she made political noises – as during last year’s Scottish independence referendum and during Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership – she was criticized, albeit reverentially.

Yet she soldiers on. Today, she is the longest reigning monarch in British history. For me, the best moment that encapsulated her reign was fifteen years ago, on the millennium night. Her social awkwardness was in full swing as she held hands with enthusiastically populist Tony Blair to greet the New Year at the millennium dome. Wearing a faint look of disdain, she halfheartedly sang Auld Lang Syne, drank champagne, and looked positively discomfited throughout the evening.

That made my millennium night; long an anti-monarchist, I cheered, “Long Live the Queen” for the first time that night. It seems all those hearty proclamations have been answered.

When the Queen went to the Opera

Perhaps such a state visit would be unthinkable today: When Queen Elizabeth paid France her first state visit in 1957, the manifestly  Republican country welcomed her lavishly. Ceremonial parades lined up; the Royal Standard flew from the Elysees Palace. The choir of Notre Dame sang to her from the banks of the Seine as she sailed down it. Abandoning all diplomatic protocol, President Rene Coty planted a kiss on the Queen, Paris March reported. The Queen was feted in the Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles and in the Louvre.

Her enthusiastic host at the latter occasion was the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, who the previous year had suggested to his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, that Britain and France should considered a “union” with the Queen as its head. When Eden rejected the idea, Mollet broached the possibility of the French joining the Commonwealth when Eden visited Paris a fortnight later.

After telling her hosts, “You were the cradle of our kings,” the Queen (it wasn’t clear whether she was informed of Mr. Mollet’s royalist bent, but the appalled Cabinet definitely was) went to the Paris Opera for the ballet Le Chevalier et la Demoiselle, where 5,000 Parisians cheered, “Long Live the Queen.”  In Bert Hardy: My Life, the photographer then working for Picture Post remembers how difficult it was to cover this occasion:

Paris Match was very much our competition, and there was a rota system in effect. Only two Frenchmen and two of us were allowed to go in; but the French newsmen were above the rules. They had twenty, we would have two, and the French police were making sure that’s all we had.

The Queen was due to visit the Paris Opera, and I wanted to be there to take some pictures, although officially I wasn’t supposed to be. The French Press had been cheating like mad (on the rota system), I knew. I decided that it was about time the British Press did a bit of cheating.

I had my usual difficulty getting hold of a dinner jacket. The only one I was able to borrow was several sizes too big, but that suited me: I was able to hide my Leica inside it. As for my brown shoes, I just hoped that no one would look down that far. The next little difficulty was getting into the Opera. I didn’t have a permit, so I waited outside on the pavement until a group of French dignitaries wearing grand plumed hats, who had got out of various cars, came towards the entrance. I sidled up and joined them. I was appearing to get on fairly well with my few words of French, when they all moved to go inside. I moved with them. The police saluted, and everybody bowed (I hoped they didn’t notice my shoes), and I was in.

I quickly looked for the best vantage point to get a good picture of the Queen coming in. I went up the magnificent staircase, and found a little box by the side where the occupants made room for me, thinking I was an official Press man. It was a fabulous panorama, and I began to realise that the scene was just too large for a standard lens to take in. The only thing to do was make a massive ‘join-up.’ Before the Queen actually entered, I started taking shots of the vast entrance hall, working slowly from left to right, and from top to bottom, and making sure that the edges of each shot coincided as far as possible with some feature like the edge of a balcony or pillar. In all I took about twenty separate shots, and the last shot of all showed the Queen climbing the stairs. After I sent the film back, I telephoned Sheila (his soon-to-be-wife) to explain to her what I had done, so she could tell the make-up man how to piece the jigsaw together. The finished picture was the most ambitious example ever of the technique I had learned from William Davis, and was published on 20 April 1957.

Fifteen of Hardy’s photos were painstakingly joined, by hand in those days before easy photoshop, to compose the one of the largest montages (or ‘join-up’ as they called it back then). The only clue that the image is a montage is in the guards’ unrisen swords to Her Majesty’s left. Picture Post’s special April 20 souvenir edition was a last hurrah for the magazine; six weeks later, it closed down.

Ironically, the photo was also published in Paris Match issue of the same date; the French magazine actually devoted 27 spreads to the Queen’s visit.

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.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth’s portrait graced the currencies of 33 different countries, more than that of any other individual. Canada was the first, in 1935, when it printed the 9-year-old Princess Elizabeth on its $20 notes. Mother England was slower to adapt. Only in 1960, the Bank England issued a new note which was the first to have the Queen’s image. Five different portraits of the Queen have been used on banknotes since: (above, l. to r.) Robert Austin (1960), Reynolds Stone (1963), Harry Ecclestone (1970 and 1971) and Roger Withington (1990). Over the years, 26 different portraits — most commissioned with the sole purpose of putting them on banknotes — have been used in the U.K. and its current and former colonies, dominions and territories, not without some controversy. While many countries update their currencies to reflect the Queen’s advancing age, others kept her young.

Shortly after Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, she sat for a single portrait session with Dorothy Wilding, the first woman to be awarded a Royal Warrant to be an official royal photographer. Appearing on magazine covers, banknotes, stamps and coins in slightly different forms, photos taken during that session became some of the most frequently reproduced images in the world. (In the above photo, the Queen was wearing the George IV State Diadem and the necklace presented for her wedding by Nizam of Hyderabad).

On the stamps, Wilding image was used until a second series was made in 1967. John Hedgecoe took a series of profile shots of the Queen in 1966 after being commissioned by the Postmaster General. Once the Queen had selected her favourite, the sculptor Arnold Machin made it up into a plaster relief, which Hedgecoe then photographed. It is this shot which has since been reproduced on some 200 billion (and counting) stamps, making Hedgecoe and Machin most copied artists in history. The image was also put on a banknote; when Bermuda decided to redesign its currency in 2009, it somehow decided to use this portrait which was already 40 years old!.

Professor Hedgecoe died 3rd June 2010.

Her Majesty marked her 84th official birthday yesterday.

Happy Birthday, Ma’am!

Three Queens in Mourning

King George VI died on the night of February 6, 1952. The funeral took place on a dreary winter day — an even grimmer occasion than the average royal funeral. Photographer Ron Case (of Keystone Press Agency), who was with a group of other press photographers outside St George’s Chapel, Windsor, had only RAF aerial reconnaissance camera. With that old wartime equipment he took the photo of Princess Elizabeth (the new Queen); Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) (l. to r.) making their way slowly into the chapel where the king’s body lay in state.

The picture, which came to be known as the ‘Three Queens in mourning’, is a truly haunting image. All three grieving queens, representing three changing generations, were clearly seen through their veils. Although other photos of three queens altogether exist, they were nearly all official portraits, and Case’s informal photo revealed the rarely seen aspect of the modern royalty: trained from birth to repress their emotions, they were still capable of humane emotions. The next day, the photo also made the front pages of every single national paper, and subsequently become one of the most widely distributed British photographs of the 20th century.

Ron Case, however, didn’t make a single pence from his photo–the rights belonged to Ron’s employer, the Pinkerton Press Agency.