‘Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography’
An employee from Royal Collection Trust poses as she views ‘Prince Charles and Princess Anne’ by Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1956, which forms part of the new exhibition ‘Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography’ at The King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in London, on May 16, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

London: A new exhibition opens this week tracing a century of British royal portrait photography, from the official coronation image of King Charles III to an intimate portrait of his late aunt Princess Margaret.

"Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography" is the first exhibition in the newly reopened King's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which was previously known as the Queen's Gallery.

Displaying 150 photos by 40 photographers, the exhibition brings together works by renowned photographers including Cecil Beaton, who captured the royal family across four decades.

The photographs are all drawn from the Royal Collection - one of the largest art collections in the world - and includes portraits by Dorothy Wilding, Princess Margaret's husband Lord Snowdon, and Annie Leibovitz.

Century of change

Starting from the 1920s, the exhibit charts royal portraiture from its beginnings in black-and-white photography, to colourful, modern depictions in the 21st century.

The exhibition opens with a small but imposing blue room, with just two photos: one marking the engagement of Prince Albert and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon - the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth - in 1923.

The other is their grandson King Charles III's official coronation portrait in 2023.

Taken 100 years apart, curator Alessandro Nasini said one was a private commission, while the other was distributed across the world in seconds.

One photo by Snowdon of four royal mothers with their newborn babies in 1964 is on public display for the first time.

"Royal Portraits" also displays many iconic photos of the late Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September 2022, including her coronation portrait by Cecil Beaton.

The black-and-white photo shows the queen in full regalia in the Green Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, in front of a painted backdrop of Westminster Abbey.

On show too are Andy Warhol's 1985 screenprint based on Peter Grugeon's original portrait of the Queen, and Jamie Reid's controversial 1977 cover picture for the Sex Pistols' punk single "God Save the Queen".

The song and cover were seen as an attack on the monarchy, and the song was banned by most radio stations at the time.

Modern age

Photography has been an important way for the British royal family to project a careful public image while also appearing accessible.

According to curator Nasini, royal portrait photography can uniquely "maintain the historical role and function of a royal portrait while placing the royal family firmly in the modern age".

In the digital age, where images are shared globally in seconds and accessible by millions, royal photos may have lost some of their ability to control the perception of the royal family.

But Nasini wants visitors to pay attention to the value of the original portraits and to "appreciate their materiality and beauty".

"It's so important to look closely at those prints and take your time, especially today when images are consumed so quickly through the smartphone", Nasini told AFP.

Asked about his favourite shot in the collection, Nasini pointed to a 1968 portrait of the late Queen taken by Cecil Beaton.

The photo shows Queen Elizabeth II wearing a simple black cape, against a stark white backdrop.

He said it "shows the queen, perhaps more as a woman, as the person who came up behind the monarchy" - and reminded him of a letter her mother, Queen Elizabeth, wrote to Beaton in 1963.

"She writes, and I quote, 'I feel that as a family we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us as really quite nice and real people.'," he said.

The exhibition opens on Friday and runs until October 6.