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The stories behind 100 years of iconic royal photographs revealed in new exhibition at The King’s Gallery

Release date: Friday 17 May 2024

Antony Armstrong-Jones, Group of royal mothers with their babies, 1965 Photograph: Snowdon.

An unseen family photograph marking the birth of four royal babies; The Queen Mother’s personal copy of her daughter’s Coronation portrait; and the earliest surviving colour photographic print of a member of the Royal Family are among the highlights of the new exhibition Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography, opening today, Friday, 17 May at The King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition charts the evolution of royal portrait photography from the 1920s to the present day through more than 150 items from the Royal Collection and Royal Archives. The photographs presented in the exhibition are vintage prints – the original works produced by the photographer – most of which are on display for the first time.

Alessandro Nasini, curator of Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography, said, ‘The Royal Collection holds some of the most enduring photographs ever taken of the Royal Family, captured by the most celebrated portrait photographers of the past hundred years – from Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton to Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, and Rankin.

‘Alongside these beautiful vintage prints, which cannot be on permanent display for conservation reasons, we are excited to share archival correspondence and never-before-seen proofs that will give visitors a behind-the-scenes insight into the process of creating such unforgettable royal portraits.’

Along with portraits marking official occasions such as Beaton’s official photographs for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953, will be pictures capturing more intimate family moments.

These include a never-before-seen image of four royal mothers – Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra and The Duchess of Kent – holding their newborn babies. It was taken by Princess Margaret’s photographer husband Lord Snowdon as a thank you for Sir John Peel, the royal obstetrician who delivered all four babies within two months in 1964.

Photographs taken during sittings to mark royal birthdays through the decades will be among the highlights of the exhibition. These include Cecil Beaton’s charming 25th-birthday portrait of Princess Margaret, dressed in an evening gown with her dog Pippin in her lap.

Paolo Roversi’s memorable 40th-birthday portrait of The Princess of Wales, in which Her Royal Highness’s dress and pose bear a striking visual resemblance to an 1864 portrait of Alexandra, Princess of Wales by Franz Xaver Winterhalter from the Royal Collection, will hang together.

Visitors will also see the earliest surviving colour photographic print of a member of the Royal Family showing Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, and how wartime images by Beaton were used by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to give a sense of stability and hope.

The exhibition’s free multimedia guide, narrated by Dame Joanna Lumley, features contributions from royal photographers Hugo Burnand, Rankin and John Swannell. Visitors will hear Burnand’s behind-the-scenes account of taking the official Coronation portraits of Their Majesties The King and Queen on 6 May 2023, such as cycling to and from the Palace to avoid roadblocks and getting soaked in the rain in the process. 

Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography
An exhibition exploring the evolution of royal portrait photography from the 1920s to the present day.

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.