When you think of the most iconic royal portraits, there’s only one name that comes to mind: Cecil Beaton. The celebrated snapper was appointed as the court photographer for the Royal Family in 1937 and captured over three generations of monarchs with his lens, creating some of the most iconic images of the late Queen, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. Now the legendary photographer is being celebrated in a must-have new coffee table book, Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits.
The book has been put together by Claudia Acott Williams, curator of Kensington Palace, to celebrate the rich heritage of Cecil Beaton’s most emblematic works. Acott Williams was approached by the V&A Museum, who own Beaton’s archive, following an exhibition of his work there in 2021, and spent over a year digging through archives of Beaton’s prints and negatives to unearth treasured gems. Born to middle class parents in Hampstead in 1904 and originally intent on becoming a theatre designer, the book pays homage to Beaton’s unusual perspective and the way he created narrative, almost cinematic images to tell the story of Britain’s monarchy.
Many of the photographer’s most famous images appear in the book, including those of Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, Princess Margaret looking resplendent in Dior’s New Look on her 21st birthday and the Queen Mother sat beneath a portrait of Queen Charlotte. But there are plenty of lesser-known photographs to discover too, as well as some that have never been published before. Stand-out shots include an image of the then-Princess Elizabeth giving Prince Charles a piggyback at Clarence House in 1950, a playful portrait of George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and their corgis at Windsor Castle in 1943, and a pared-back, close-up shot of Princess Margaret taken in 1956.
The book revolves around the way in which Beaton was able to shape the creation of the Royal Family’s public image, exploring not only the finished photographs but also the sittings in which they were made. Organised chronologically, from the 1930s to the 1970s, it offers a fascinating insight into the ways in which Beaton collaborated with his subjects, using contact sheets, sketches, letters and journals to build a detailed picture of his working methods, as well as the relationships he developed with his sitters and how the eventual portraits were received.
One of the loveliest recollections comes when Beaton was invited to Buckingham Palace in 1939 to capture Queen Elizabeth’s now iconic ‘White Wardrobe’, designed by Norman Hartnell. It was, he wrote in his diary, “a great thrill for me to go into the Palace for the first time… It was one of the rare times that of late I have been deeply thrilled, and as I walked behind a scarlet liveried page down miles of dark red carpeted corridors I was walking on air.”
Full of captivating fresh insights, it’s a must-read not only for those interested in the legendary photographer and his work, but also for anyone who finds the distinction between the private world and the public face of the Royal Family an ongoing source of fascination. In today’s access-all-areas world, where royals now bare all in everything from Netflix documentaries to TikTok videos, it feels more timely than ever.
‘Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits’ (£35, Thames & Hudson), is out now