In 1950 the great American fashion photographer Irving Penn wrote to Cecil Beaton, for whom he had recently sat, praising his ‘vague clairvoyance, the gentleness of not meeting the subject too head-on’. Beaton himself put it more vividly: ‘I coo like a bloody dove.’ It required a particular quality of cooing to coax from his royal clientele the florid, uptight, boring, outlandish and occasionally wonderful images in the V&A’s exhibition of his royal portraits (until 22 April). The Windsors seem to have cooed back at Beaton a little. They almost seem to have realised that he was the one photographer of the last century who could make this remarkably unphotogenic family look halfway interesting.

By the time he was first invited to Buckingham Palace in 1939, Beaton had already made his best photographs. They divide easily between the sleek and the frothy. On the one hand, the portraits of his sister Baba, or of Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa Maury, all svelte metallic limbs and robotic headgear, hardly distinguishable at times from their silvered backdrops. On the other, the bubbling fantasias of flowers, balloons and jewels: photographs schooled on painterly composition (Fragonard, Gainsborough) and threatening to swamp their subjects in blowsy ephemera. Both tendencies confect an excitable but winsome take on surrealism and a modernism easily adapted to the pages of Vogue or the demands of a sitter used to flattery.

Both styles are at work, predictably attenuated, in the photographs Beaton took of the royal family for the next 30 years. At first, froth dominates. Here is the queen mother, from that first session in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, tricked out in lacy Edwardiana that practically glows. Beaton often pictured her literally radiant: photographed with her daughters three years later, she’s backlit by a halo (frankly enhanced in the darkroom) of comic intensity, but which is also of a piece with the photographer’s interest in extreme lighting. In the 1940s, it’s the princesses who get the baroque-deco treatment: Elizabeth and Margaret half-drowned in sudsy blossom, or the future queen in three-quarter-length profile and spangled dress, a mere formal excuse for an assemblage of gleaming furniture and gilt picture frames.

In 1953, Beaton fretted in his diary that he might be frozen out of the coronation hoo-hah. But to his great relief the call came, and he trotted to Westminster Abbey with his top hat full of sandwiches and drawing materials. (He gushed in his diary: ‘The peeresses en bloc the most ravishing sight – like a bed of auricula-eyed sweet william.’) The photographs he took later that day at the palace include some stiff and unsurprising tableaux involving queen and consort, assorted cousins and ladies-in-waiting. But there are echoes of the early work’s graphic brio: Princess Anne, nearly three, lost in thought against a black fabric backdrop, or Margaret and the queen mother – tea-towel and Bacofoil by Norman Hartnell – at the apex of a jagged arrangement of ermine trains that takes up most of the picture.

The portraits of the new queen most obviously recall Beaton’s more adventurous work of the 1920s and 1930s, however. In black and white, she is seated against a backdrop depicting the abbey interior; the Star of Africa diamond glows on her sceptre, and draped in all those stones and furs she looks like something (actually, like both principals at once) out of Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête. Among Beaton’s photographs, the precursors are his sister Nancy, got up as a shooting star for a Galaxy Ball in 1929, and Tallulah Bankhead considering her own reflection in a black balloon as if it were a royal orb. But it’s the colour pictures for the coronation sitting that really transport Elizabeth back into the prewar English almost avant-garde. With her gold and ermine and intense red mouth, she might have been captured by the semi-surrealist pioneer of colour Madame Yevonde.

The brilliance of Beaton’s early royal photographs, especially the coronation pictures, consists in their more or less open acknowledgment that the whole thing is an absurd sham. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, Roy Strong – who is keen to remind us that he curated the first major Beaton retrospective, at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968 – tells us that Beaton was ‘an ambitious, complex, vain, observant and deeply patriotic man’. The last quality, if that is what it is, did not stop Beaton from dramatising just how the royal trick was pulled, even as he fell for it. (‘Serene, magnetic, meltingly sympathetic,’ he wrote in his diary of the queen.)

Strong also claims that in front of Beaton’s camera ‘even the plainest and dullest members of the family were endowed with a certain aura and mysterious glamour.’ Well, not exactly. The allure always looks superadded – that’s what gives the best of the royal work its campy strangeness. The queen’s goofy charm as a girl notwithstanding, glamour was precisely what the Windsors lacked. So when Beaton tried in the 1950s and 1960s to ape the intimate emptiness with which Penn and Richard Avedon surrounded their portrait sitters, the results were simply dull: the vacancy of the setting gives the photographer nothing to do but simper at the royals’ awkward approximations of normal family life.

It was only in 1968, while preparing for the NPG show, that Beaton again photographed the queen in the kind of bravura pose he had managed for her coronation. He requested that she be dressed in an admiral’s boat cloak; the result is a starker take on a more familiar image of her starred and robed in the Order of the Garter (that photograph in turn modelled on Pietro Annigoni’s painting of 1954). Again, Penn’s influence is clear: the empty blue backdrop, the cloak a solid pillar of black with gold buttons, the hair a dark and slightly bouffant helmet. It’s the one moment of authentic glamour in the V&A exhibition, and surely among Beaton’s best photographs. It resembles nothing so much as his 1927 portrait of the dandy Stephen Tennant in a fur-collared coat against a silver ground. At last, in his final session with her, Beaton had cajoled (or contrived) into view Her Maj’s inner aesthete.

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