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The Stories behind 100 Years of Iconic Royal Photographs

On the royal exhibition in Buckingham Palace


Heading to London soon? Then this exhibition should be on your must-see list!

Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography opened last Friday May 17 at the King’s Gallery in 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.

Among the many stand-out works, 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 color photographic print of a member of the Royal Family.

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.’

Visitors will see the earliest surviving photographic print of a member of the Royal Family produced in color. It shows Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (sister-in-law to King George VI and Edward VIII) on her wedding day. The photograph was taken in 1935 by Madame Yevonde, a pioneer of color photography and champion of women photographers.

Unreleased wartime images by Cecil Beaton will be on display for the first time, demonstrating how King George VI and Queen Elizabeth used photography to project a sense of stability and hope for the nation. A photograph of the royal couple inspecting bomb damage at Buckingham Palace in 1940 shows them smiling comfortingly at each other amidst the debris.

Alongside portraits marking official occasions will be pictures capturing more intimate family moments, including 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 personal token of thanks 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, including a previously unseen contact sheet by Norman Parkinson showing the late Queen and Princess Margaret laughing and talking together during a sitting to mark their mother’s 80th birthday.

Visitors will also see 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, which will hang nearby.

Innovations in color and digital photography between the 1980s and 2020s revolutionised the medium, ushering in a new sense of experimentation and playfulness. Bold and colorful examples on show will include Polly Borland’s Golden Jubilee portrait of the late Queen set against a glittering gold backdrop; and Andy Warhol’s 1985 portrait of Her late Majesty, sprinkled with diamond dust to make it sparkle in the light.


The exhibition offers a free multimedia guide, narrated by Dame Joanna Lumley, features contributions from royal photographers Hugo Burnand, Rankin and John Swannell.

Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography is at The King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 17 May to 6 October 2024.

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