Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton is the latest photographic show to arrive from the archives of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to Dundee, in celebration of the Diamond Jubilee. As one of the most famous fashion photographers of the twentieth century, Beaton’s work shows the Queen as princess, queen and mother.

Consisting of black and white photos framed on white walls, this exhibition is simultaneously simplistic and informative. There is one video projected in each room; besides that, the rooms are quiet, bare and without distraction. There are enough plaques and descriptions to make even an ignorant American like me feel knowledgeable.

The first type of photograph displayed is what you’d expect of the royal family – glamorous shots of the family sitting straight-backed and elegant, unsmiling but not unkind. A young Elizabeth poses in front of painted backdrops in sparkling gowns with halos of light enveloping her head and shoulders.

The exhibition focuses on these works as being photographs, not paintings. Whilst classic in appearance, they were circulated in newspapers and distributed by the royal family to friends and diplomats. Though possessing an old-world charm, they remind you of the era’s changing face of royalty, assuming their new status as celebrities, instead of untouchable aristocrats.

Other photographs exemplify the royal family’s attempt at branding themselves as ordinary citizens, during the late 1930 and early 1940s. Family photographs consist of simple clothes with neither jewels nor crowns. There are photos of Elizabeth II with her young children, of Prince Charles fawning over his infant siblings, of freshly dressed youths running around on Coronation Day. Images of a bombed Buckingham Palace are augmented by stories of rationing and Eleanor Roosevelt’s retelling of crummy plumbing, whilst visiting a damaged palace.

Finally came the most candid shots, those that were not released to the public. Though the gossipmonger will be disappointed by the lack of scandal or deep revelation, these portraits were my favorite. There are shots of Elizabeth having her jewels adjusted for her Coronation photographs. A few frames hold a series of originals; photographs of the same scene are shown, with barely distinguishable changes in pose, as Beaton sought to capture the perfect angle for the nation’s stamps and publicly distributed pictures.

I did have one problem with the exhibit. I stepped into one room with a projected video of Elizabeth II’s coronation as it appeared on television in 1952, and was hit by the grating voice of Cecil Beaton from a video to my right. Between the portraits of Elizabeth and her young children was an entire wall of images Beaton had created of himself and his friends, an annoying disruption to the continuity of the exhibition, which was overall, very enjoyable.

Visit the Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton exhibition at The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum until 8th January 2011. Admission: Free. For more information, visit The McManus website.

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