The enduring image

Monday, 4 June, 2012

ER In the year 1968, the world was in “a terrible state o’ chassis” as Captain Boyle says in Sean O’Casey’s drama,Juno and the Paycock. Student unrest was widespread on both sides of the Atlantic, war was raging in Vietnam and the Soviet Empire was making increasingly threatening noises about the Prague Spring of political liberalization. Against this troubled background, Cecil Beaton made his way to Buckingham Palace for what would be his final photographic session with Queen Elizabeth II. Concerned about his waning relationship with the monarch, he confided in his diary: “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.”

For the man who was the principal royal photographer, this was indeed a sombre observation. Beaton first photographed Princess Elizabeth as a 16-year-old in 1942 and he later looked back fondly at those early days when Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, had been his subjects. “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.” At the height of creative power and influence, the artist Beaton was so confident of his role in the establishment that he was not above making the odd patronizing remark: “Elizabeth would make an extremely good hospital nurse or nanny. Her smile is reserved,” he wrote. Margaret, meanwhile, wore her hair “scraped back like a seaside landlady.”

The Cecil Beaton who approached his portraiture task in 1968 was a more philosophical individual and in keeping with his mood he decided to avoid the gloss and glamour that had been so much part of his earlier studies of the British ruler. As a result, his study of the Queen wearing the Admiral’s Boat Cloak against a blue backdrop is timeless in its dignity and authority.

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton — A Diamond Jubilee celebration” is on exhibition at Leeds City Museum until 24 June.

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