A century of royal portraits have gone on display at the King’s Gallery, showing how royal portraiture has changed in both style and technique.

The exhibition brings together 150 photos, some of which haven’t been seen before, from austere Edwardian family photos designed to show off the majesty of the royal family to more intimate family snaps. Many are by noted photographers of their time, and much of the exhibition is actually about the photographer than the photographed, broadly displaying the exhibition in a mix of chronological but also by the photographer.

From Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton to Annie Leibovitz, David Bailey, and Rankin, the exhibition opens in black and white and largely stays with it until the 1970s, when colour film was finally deemed good enough for the royal gaze.

There are some early experiments in colour though – such as the oldest dating from 1935, taken by Madame Yevonde, a pioneer of colour photography and champion of women photographers.

There’s a lot here of previously unreleased photography, from WWII images by Cecil Beaton to unused photos of the Coronation — including, if you squint a bit, Beaton’s accidental selfie when he was reflected in a golden orb.

More modern photos are more experimental, or playful, in tone – and yet still undeniably retain a slight air of them and us with the quality and polish that our photos could never achieve.

I was delighted to see they’ve included Queen Elizabeth II as a hologram. Not only does the 3D effect give it an otherworldly air, resembling the mystery of monarchy, but the simple choice of a fur shawl and coronet somehow looks plain, but it is also undeniably that of a Head of State. It’s a smaller version of the one that was originally presented, so it is easy to overlook but also worth seeking out.

As an exhibition of the Royal Family as a family, it feels both otherworldy representations of people so distant and elevated that most people only knew of them from the postage stamp and the coins they used—but it’s also a collection from a family album—albeit a family album of a quality that none of us could ever aspire to own.

There’s also an easy to miss side room as you come out, with a timeline of camera technologies, and a picture frame to have your own “royal portrait” taken.

The exhibition, Royal Portraits: A Century of Photography, is at the (renamed) King’s Gallery next to Buckingham Palace until early October 2024.

Tickets are best booked in advance from here, although you can buy on the day if there are spares.

A tip: If you print your ticket out before arriving, have it stamped to allow repeat visits for a year. This means you’ll be able to see their next exhibition, about the Italian Renaissance, for free as well.

There’s also a £1 price per person for anyone in a household where one member receives:

  • Universal Credit
  • Working Tax Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Pension Credit
  • Employment and Support Allowance
  • Income Support
  • Jobseeker’s Allowance

You can claim £1 tickets for up to six people per household. Only one person per household needs to show supporting documents.

You will need to visit before 8th July to claim the £1 offer – details here.


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