Cecil Beaton: royal photographer

The photographs of the British Royal family by Sir Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) were central to shaping the monarchy's public image in the mid 20th century.

Queen Elizabeth II was still a young princess when she first sat for Beaton, a successful fashion photographer, in 1942. Over the next three decades he would be invited to photograph the Queen on many significant occasions, including her Coronation Day in 1953. Beaton bequeathed his archive of royal portraits to his secretary Eileen Hose. In 1987 she, in turn, bequeathed the archive to the V&A.

Princess Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, Cecil Beaton, 1942, England. Museum no. Ph.289-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The most memorable of Beaton's images combine the splendour of historic royal portrait painting with an intimacy that only photography and film can convey. Detailed accounts from his personal diary reveal the complexities of each sitting, from the intense planning and excitement beforehand to the pressures of achieving the perfect shot.

A royal invitation

The telephone rang. "This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon" ... 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.

Cecil Beaton's diary, July 1939
Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace Garden, Cecil Beaton, 1938, England. Museum no. E.1374-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The opportunity to photograph Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort of King George VI, in 1939 was the high point of Beaton's career to date. Published two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, his images presented a sense of continuity with a magnificent pre-war Britain. Several wartime sittings of the Queen and her family would reinforce his vision of a seemingly unshakable monarchy and witness the transformation of Princess Elizabeth from girl to young woman.

Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1942, England. Museum no. Ph.677-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The flowers that appear in many of Beaton's portraits were often picked from his own garden. Cascading arrangements of roses, carnations, lilies and hydrangeas filled the space between a photographic backdrop and the sitter, and were an essential prop in the creation of his idealised pastoral scenes.

Princess Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1945, England. Museum no. E.1361-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The next generation

On 14 November 1948 Princess Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, Prince Charles Philip Arthur George. At her mother's suggestion, the Princess chose Beaton to photograph her newborn son. Beaton would go on to take photographs commemorating the births of her other children: Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Charles, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1948, England. Museum no. PH.218-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Coronation

On the morning of 2 June 1953, three million people lined the streets between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey to witness the process of the Gold State Coach. Millions more crowded around newly bought television sets to watch the investiture of Britain's youngest sovereign since Queen Victoria. For many, the Coronation represented the beginning of a new age. It was a time for optimism and innovation that the press termed 'the new Elizabethan era'.

Queen Elizabeth II, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1953, England. Museum no. PH.311-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cecil Beaton attended the ceremony, along with 8,000 other guests. He sat in a balcony close to the pipes of the great organ, recording his impression of the glorious pageant in animated prose and black ink sketches. After the ceremony he returned to the Palace to make final preparations for the official portrait sitting.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1953, England. Museum no. PH.1551-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In this glittering portrait, the Queen wears the imperial state crown, a replica of that made for Queen Victoria's Coronation. The Queen holds the sceptre with the cross in her right hand, balanced by the orb in her left. On her right hand she wears the coronation ring, a symbol that the sovereign is 'wedded' to the state. On both wrists are the armills, golden bracelets signifying sincerity and wisdom.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1953, England. Museum no. PH.1540-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beaton photographed the infant Prince Charles on 13 December 1948, two days before the Prince's christening. He commissioned a new backdrop for the occasion, which his assistants installed in the gold and ivory-coloured Music Room at Buckingham Palace. Beaton used a large 8 x 10 inch and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. He recalled that:

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

Cecil Beaton
Prince Charles and Princess Anne, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1950, England. Museum no. PH.642-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beaton's tender portraits depicted the Queen as a figure to whom any parent could relate. In contrast to the splendid Coronation images, these photographs capture a more intimate and relaxed side of royal family life.

In the decade between the births of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, Beaton's approach to royal portraiture changed dramatically. All attention was now focused on the sitters, a stark white background replacing the elaborate Rococo-inspired backdrops of earlier years.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Andrew, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1960, England. Museum no. PH.1806-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1968 sitting

In the summer of 1968, Beaton photographed the Queen in anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. He felt anxious before the sitting, writing in his diary:

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

Contact sheet of Queen Elizabeth II, Cecil Beaton, 1968, England. Museum no. E.1370-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beaton selected plain white and blue backgrounds, resolving to be "stark and clear and bold". The portraits were a triumph. They were the last photographs Beaton made of Elizabeth II, although he continued to photograph other members of the family until 1979.

Queen Elizabeth II, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1968, England. Museum no. PH.318-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The photograph of the Queen wearing the Admiral's Boat Cloak against a blue backdrop was powerful in its simplicity. Beaton eliminated the magnificent regalia and sparkling gowns seen in other portraits to produce a contemplative and timeless image of the monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1968, England. Museum no. PH.412-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Several photographers shared with Beaton the honour of being invited to photograph Elizabeth II, yet few had such an enduring relationship with the Royal household over such a long and transformative period.

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton

Contact sheet of Queen Elizabeth II, Cecil Beaton, 1968, England. Museum no. PH.2013-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This film features interviews with V&A Curator Susanna Brown, Robin Muir of Vogue and a very special discussion with two of Beaton's Coronation Day assistants, John Drysdale and Ray Harwood – together again for the first time in 60 years.

This film was made for the exhibition Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration, which ran at the V&A 8 February – 22 April 2012.

Find out more about Cecil Beaton.

Background image: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Andrew, Cecil Beaton, 1960, England. Museum no. PH.1806-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London