The photographer invited into the Royal Family fold
- 30 September 2011
- From the section Tayside and Central Scotland
"Happily summoned to the palace to take the first long awaited photographs of the heir to the throne. Prince Charles, as he is to be named, was an obedient sitter.
"He interrupted a long, contented sleep to do my bidding and open his blue eyes to stare long and wonderfully into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty."
So wrote Cecil Beaton in his diary in 1948, after his latest royal photoshoot, with an infant prince Charles. He would return to the palace to photograph each of the four royal babies as part of a relationship with the royal family which lasted four decades.
It was the Queen Mother who first overturned convention and invited Beaton into the palace, rather than taking the teenage princesses into his studio.
"Beaton was given access no other photographer got," says Anna Robertson, curator at the McManus Gallery where 60 of Beaton's most extraordinary photos have just gone on display.
"He was invited right into the palace and while studio sessions would have lasted 20 minutes, he was given anything up to three hours to take his picture."
Beaton made the most of the invite, bringing a huge entourage who dressed the set and the sitters. Elaborate backdrops were commissioned, just like the film backdrops of the time.
And the teenage princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were carefully lit to give the same halo effect used on Hollywood film stars of the day.
Beaton, of course, was no stranger to Hollywood, having designed the costumes for the film version of My Fair Lady. He was a painter, photographer, designer - and by all accounts a flamboyant character who charmed everyone.
Asked how he put people at ease, he said once: "I coo like a dove."
The Queen Mother, then Queen Elizabeth, invited him to photograph a bomb-damaged Buckingham palace in the 1940s. It's unclear whether the photos were ever released - just the contact sheet is on display.
Many of the photos being exhibited in Dundee were not sanctioned for use at the time and are being seen for the first time now.
Among the most illuminating, the series Beaton shot behind the scenes on the morning of the Coronation. Like a modern day bridal party, the royals are pictured preparing for the event.
They don't look sombre, despite the circumstances, and there's humour as a young Princess Anne is snapped standing on her mother's train.
Then there are the family photos - each of the four babies in turn. Here it's a proud mum, not a monarch, who beams at the camera.
The style changes a decade later with the birth of Princes Andrew and Edward, who're now photographed against a clean white backdrop. Everything has come full circle, with Beaton recreating a studio space inside the palace.
And in 1968, everything came to an end. The last photoshoot, he admitted later, was tense and difficult. The Queen, in long cloak and frown, is in marked contrast to the proud new mum offering her toddler son a piggy back.
Perhaps Beaton had fallen out of fashion? Or such photoshoots were deemed too fickle for a monarch?
Whatever the reason, despite working right up until his death in 1980, Cecil Beaton didn't receive another Royal Summons.
'Vote of confidence'
The photos on display are a mere fraction of the 18,000 items in the Beaton archive, which is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That, in turn, is a mere fraction of the V&A collection, which boasts one of the largest and most important design collections in the world.
In 2015, it'll open a new museum in Dundee and this exhibition is a taste of things to come.
"It's a huge vote of confidence for this exhibition to open here first," says Philip Long, director of the Dundee V&A.
"It's also the first of a series of exhibitions which we'll be staging in Dundee, in partnership with the McManus Galleries, in the lead-up to the opening.
"We'll stage an exhibition each year, probably about this time. I can't give much away at this moment, but I can promise they will be inspirational."