Beaton images helped unravel Queen Elizabeth enigma

LONDON (Reuters) - Among the standout images at an exhibition of portraits of Queen Elizabeth taken by society photographer Cecil Beaton is a picture of the monarch carrying her eldest son Charles on her shoulders.

The moment of light-hearted intimacy taken in the 1950s was the kind of picture the royal family wanted the public to see, and Beaton was instrumental in shaping the monarchy’s image for nearly three decades.

“Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration” runs from February 8-April 22 at the Victoria and Albert and features about 100 pictures from Beaton’s huge archive of 18,000 photographs owned by the museum.

During World War Two, pictures of the royal family inspecting bomb damage to Buckingham Palace signaled that they, like everyone else in Britain, were feeling the effects of the conflict directly.

At Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, the focus was on color, pomp and pageantry to underline Elizabeth’s credentials as new head of the royal family.

The show, which opened to the press on Monday as the monarch celebrated 60 years on the throne, opens with portraits of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and her princess daughters Elizabeth and Margaret taken in 1939.

At the time, Beaton, an avid diarist, wrote: “In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation ... my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”

The resulting photographs, which drew inspiration from artists including Thomas Gainsborough, were partly designed to project the monarchy as unshakeable at the outbreak of the war.

They also signaled that the family had moved on from the crisis triggered by Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Beaton’s style became more austere as World War Two progressed, and the exhibition includes a contact sheet featuring photographs of the king and queen surveying the damage Buckingham Palace suffered during the Blitz.

It also displays a portrait of the future queen wearing the insignia of the Grenadier Guards after she became their first female Colonel-in-Chief aged only 16.

In 1948, Beaton was invited to photograph the then princess with her newborn son Prince Charles, and again with the birth of Anne in 1950, Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964.

The often tender portraits include Charles riding “piggyback” on his mother’s shoulders and the prince as a young boy bending over to kiss his sister Anne.

“It reminded me of the great moment in The Sleeping Beauty,” Beaton wrote, and the Queen Mother later said in a letter to Beaton: “As a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people!”

The coronation section of the exhibition documents Beaton’s attendance at Westminster Abbey, where he made ink drawings that were published in Vogue accompanied by his words.

After the ceremony, he was charged with taking the official photographs in the Green Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.

One picture never seen in public before captures two of the queen’s maids of honor adjusting her robe.

Jane Rayne, one of the maids of honor, wrote: “Cecil Beaton was most particular about placing the six of us Maids of Honour around the Queen. She seemed very tiny and fragile but rose to the occasion magnificently.”

In 1968 the queen sat for Beaton for the last time, after the photographer approached the monarch to create a new portrait for his retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery.

Underlining his anxiety despite a long history of photographing the queen, he wrote of the session: “Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part.”

Reporting by Mike Collett-White