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Fake royal magic on show in palace photographs

Staged informality meets imperial majesty in a Kensington Palace exhibition – but it’s a great British royal lie

Julian Stallabrass
21 August 2022, 8.00am

'Equanimity / Queen Elizabeth II': image of hologram


Chris Levine (artist), Rob Munday (holographer) © Jersey Heritage Trust 2004

“Honours dishonour,” Gustave Flaubert once wrote, confronted with the fabulously pompous, corrupt and incompetent regime of the 19th-century Second French Empire. That succinct formulation may find an echo in our present, knee-deep as we are in newly minted lords, baronesses and knights, elevated mostly for their services to the Conservative Party.

What is a democrat to do with such titles? Tempting though it may be to wish them away (if I remember correctly, the Morning Star published a curt notice of the marriage of Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer), this is to deny them their undoubted power. It would be better, perhaps, to acknowledge their existence and their artificiality at once, to say ‘Baron’ Cruddas, ‘Lord’ Offord of Garvel or ‘Dame’ Andrea Leadsom.

For the artifice extends back from noble twig and aristocratic branch through royal bole and root. A display of photographs of the royal family now on show at their Kensington Palace in London gives a partial but telling view of the royals’ persistent visual allure.

We see a continual shuttling between grand assertions of rank and dignity – palaces, gilded carriages, fine horses and robes, crowns, furs and diamonds – and more casual moments in which they reveal their apparently more human side. We see the work of famed photographers who have heeded the royal summons; we might notice some uncomfortable matters discreetly passed over. We may perhaps see an institution that is running out of time, being overwhelmed by an image culture it has successfully exploited for over a century.

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Entrance to 'Life Through a Royal Lens' exhibition: a doorway surrounded by a frame resembling a camera lens mounting

Entering the mythic realm


Historic Royal Palaces. All rights reserved

Tiaras and titillation

Among the ‘human’ images you can see Princess Margaret wearing a tiara in the bath, taken by her husband, the professional photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was to become the Earl of Snowdon. Or, in an image by Matt Holyoak, the Queen and Prince Philip sharing a laugh. This image, we are informed – and if a caption could have hushed and reverent tones, this one would – has never been shown to the public before, and appears now thanks to the “gracious” permission of “Her Majesty”.

This is to give the game away a little. When the royals reveal themselves in this way – as they have since the reign of Victoria – it is only surprising when set against the backdrop of their presumedly God-given magnificence, dignity and majesty. Each time, the contrast discharges a small frisson – although it may be a diminishing one, as we shall see.

It is a lurid surfacing of the nation’s deferential id, bowing before the vision of greatness, yet set against the backdrop of fading global power

From under the vast weight of robes, palaces, traditions, duties and expectations, their humanity is briefly revealed. This occurs with great regularity, but amazement is expressed each time: “They are just people, after all!” or rather: “They are also people, after all!”

Even the photographers seem to find this remarkable, and they presumably know better. On the evidence of this exhibition, there is, for instance, a durable sub-genre of laughing royals: Lord Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin and another professional photographer, has the family gather before the camera and a television showing a Marx Brothers film so as to capture their laughter. A picture by John Swannell shows Diana laughing with her sons; and another by Mario Testino has Charles doing the same; Rankin gets a laugh out of the Queen, and so on it goes.

Photographic aristocracy

The exhibition’s title, ‘Life Through a Royal Lens’, at first sounds lazy – a lens that photographs royals is not itself royal – but the display shows us how often the royal family have taken up cameras, some of them with apparent seriousness. The Queen has regularly been seen wielding a Leica or a Rollei compact (gold-plated, naturally). And aside from Snowdon and Lichfield, we have Prince Alfred in the 1860s acting out roles in self-portraits, and more recently the Duchess of Cambridge, whose photographs have appeared in the press. Prince Andrew was once a keen photographer, and in 1985 even published a very dull book of his snaps, though that is naturally omitted.

It is unsurprising that such people, for well over a century immersed in an intensifying image-obsessed media culture and now rarely sure that they are not within the range of some lens, develop a fascination for the camera and seek to control it. Even when not behind the camera, they often instruct photographers and have firm ideas about how they should be seen. In a recent sitting for Annie Liebowitz, it was Elizabeth who decided that she should be pictured surrounded by grandchildren and corgis.

The family images are for the most part simply boring

Many famous photographers before Liebowitz have taken the royal commission: here we also have Roger Fenton, Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Rankin, among others. Surprisingly, the landscape photographer Nadev Kander, best known for his images of the Yangtze River and its polluted environment, offers a detailed and carefully lit image of Prince Charles which, according to the caption, shows something of the heir’s “vulnerability” (which is plausible) and “enduring majesty” (rather less so).

HRH Prince Charles I, Birkhall, Balmoral Estates, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 2013 by Nadav Kander

HRH Prince Charles I, Birkhall, Balmoral Estates, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 2013 by Nadav Kander


Nadav Kander. All rights reserved

Each of these photographic stars brings their signature style to the subject. Beaton took a lavish, accomplished portrait of the Queen for her coronation in 1953, and another, stripped-down and starkly monochrome, in the 1960s: they are recognisably Beatons of each era. The same could be said of Liebowitz or Rankin. That is the point: up-to-date photographic fashion keeps the royals ‘relevant’, adapting venerable constancy to contemporary flux, while some less prestigious images spice up majesty with a dash of informality.

‘The Enchanted Glass’

Each of these interplays points to the conundrum of the royals’ exceptional ordinariness. In his penetrating critique ‘The Enchanted Glass’, the political theorist Tom Nairn wrote of the emotional power of their being “ordinary in appearance but quite super-ordinary in significance”. They bind up the mundane world and a vast “national-spiritual sphere” of “mass adulation, the past, the State and familial morality”.

For Nairn, its clearest visual expression is Pietro Annigoni’s hugely popular and still famous 1955 painting of Elizabeth, a kitsch portrayal that unites the palace and the souvenir mug, in an image “magically acceptable both to the aristocracy and the unemployed”, to “Barbara Cartland readers and Academicians”.

We may add that Beaton did the same with his portrait of the Queen at the time of her coronation, arranging her robes with fashionable taste and using a photographic backdrop of Westminster Abbey rather than the building itself to give a dream-like aspect to the whole. It is a lurid surfacing of the nation’s deferential id, bowing before the vision of greatness, yet set against the backdrop of fading global power.

Above all, of course, these photographs propagandise the traditional nuclear family. And what a powerful photographic engine it still is, on the evidence of the Kensington Palace viewers (admittedly a biased bunch) that I saw cooing over many of the images as if they were of their own family.

'Life Through a Royal Lens' exhibition, Kensington Palace, 2022

Is this how your family photos look?


Historic Royal Palaces. All rights reserved

Invented traditions

Coincident with the rise of photography and the printed media through the later 19th century, a bourgeois monarchy was invented, a family set above the rest who would be seen both in spectacle manufactured for the camera and in equally staged personal moments. It is striking, for instance, that Victoria had made and published, a few months after her husband’s death, an at once formal and intimate portrait of herself and her children posing by his bust in mournful attitudes.

When I was a child, I visited an old lady who had once worked at my school. Her first memory, she told me, was of seeing Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession from her pram. Of course she remembered it, even in infancy: here is a photograph by Francis Frith showing the lavish royal carriage in that procession in 1897, and it is not hard to understand that a working-class kid of that time would never before have glimpsed anything to rival such gilded splendour.

That was the intention. The historian David Cannadine has shown how Victoria’s reign introduced a raft of invented traditions that were shamelessly presented as being of ancient lineage. The older spectacles had not been addressed to ordinary people – they were meant rather to bolster the links between the royals, the aristocracy and the Church. The new ones celebrated royalty and empire in a binge of confected ceremony, costume, processions and stirring music on occasions which previously had been either unmarked or private.

Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth colluded in this myth-faking in her coronation broadcast, saying: “The ceremonies you have seen today are ancient, and some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past.” The media still faithfully echoes that lie today.

The missing pictures

The images of royal spectacle depict a fantasy of deferential unity, spirited up before the lenses of the world’s media in carefully choreographed and colour-coordinated displays. The family images – if we forget, or don’t care, who the subjects are – are for the most part simply boring. While having Mario Testino snap your family pictures does confer on them a kudos that reinforces the super-ordinary effect, as modern cameras and phones automate ever more of the technical sheen of professional photography, that distinction fades.

More interesting photographs could have been included. We see little of the royals propagandising for the military and the Church, and nothing of their links with politics. It is fascinating that the Royals’ response to danger was in part to turn to photography. At the time of the crisis over the abdication of Edward VIII – not to mention his fascist sympathies, which indeed are not mentioned – fashion photographer Dorothy Wilding was enlisted to present a more informal and sympathetic view of the monarchy.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, being carried on thrones on Tuvalu, on a tour of the Far East and Pacific as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. 19 September 2012

It's such a burden


WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Empire also figures only lightly, aside from an image of the crowning of George V and Queen Mary as emperor and empress of India in 1911. Here the interpretative text cautiously takes a step back to ask the viewer what the composition of the photograph might suggest about empire, and whether such an image leaves anything out. Will and Kate’s unfortunate recent tour of the Caribbean is inadvertently invoked in a 1982 photograph of the Queen borne on a bier on the backs of Tuvalese people in ‘native’ dress; the couple had done the same thing in the same place in 2012.

“Bad optics,” a PR person might say, but it’s a fair comment on the whole exhibition. It is bad optics – and a bad reality that brings them to light – all the way down in this knot of hierarchy, exception, ordinariness, tradition, patriotism, militarism, empire and religion. The lack of seats in the exhibition implicated me in this too: to take notes I found myself periodically going down on one knee.

Fading power

Is the power of these optics waning? Aside from the recent Caribbean tour and its rocky reception in the region, there is evidence that many young British people would like to see an elected head of state, while many others care little about the royals one way or the other. This is perhaps a more noxious draught than outright opposition.

The defence of the traditional nuclear family and all that goes with it seem increasingly antiquarian. The royal immersion in media spectacle and attempts to control their own images are no longer exceptional but simply the lived experience of many of us through social media. We have become very used to the famous being ordinary. All of this tends to taint the enchanted glass.

The uncanny creepiness of the hologram meets that of the establishment

Two portraits haunt this exhibition of spectacles and banalities. One shows Prince Albert in a daguerreotype made for Victoria a few years after the invention of photography. A print from the faded and damaged original shows a face barely emerging from profound darkness. Although made for private use, it marks the stepping of the royals into what was to become a fierce and relentless visibility, which they would relentlessly exploit.

The other is a hologram, also monochrome, of the aged Queen Elizabeth in which her white hair meets fur and diamonds in silvery shades. The uncanny creepiness of the medium meets that of the establishment, as the image morphs with the viewer’s movement, coming in and out of focus and three-dimensional illusion.

In a passage in Amitav Ghosh’s remarkable novel ‘The Glass Palace’, a tentative friendship emerges between Dolly, who serves the exiled Burmese court, and Uma, the wife of an Indian district commissioner. When Uma comments on the killings committed by the Burmese monarch, Dolly replies:

“Every time I come to your house, I notice that picture you have hanging by your front door...” “Of Queen Victoria, you mean?” “Yes.” Uma was puzzled. “What about it?” “Don’t you sometimes wonder how many people have been killed in Queen Victoria’s name? It must be millions wouldn’t you say? I think I’d be frightened to live with one of those pictures.”

Uma takes the picture down. Elizabeth no longer commands a global regime of exploitation and violence as her ancestor did. Yet she is a steadfast prop of a repressive status quo that ruins millions of lives at home, and is still in thrall to its military, projecting deadly power at the behest of its global master across the Atlantic – with terrible consequences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. You might think that more of us would take those pictures down.

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