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Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits explores the glamorous world of regal portraiture

This sumptuous new coffee table book celebrates the life and imagery of the renowned photographer

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.

Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace, 19 July 1951. V&A Cecil Beaton Royal Portraits Collection. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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. 

Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, with Prince Charles at Clarence House, 14 September 1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
Princess Margaret at Clarence House, released for publication on 13 September 1956 in connection with a tour of South Africa. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
A playful portrait of George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and their corgis at Windsor Castle, 1943. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret at Windsor Castle, November 1943. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.” 

Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits - Discover The New BookPin
Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, 16 October 1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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 - Discover The New BookPin
Princess Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, 9 March 1945. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 ‘Cecil Beaton: The Royal Portraits’ (£35, Thames & Hudson), is out now
thamesandhudson.com

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