When I was growing up in Cobourg, Ont., an identical photograph of the Queen hung under the clock in every classroom of my small-town public school. Every morning after the bell we sang God Save the Queen followed by the national anthem and the Lord’s Prayer. While the monarch looked on serenely, there was no corresponding image of Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister at the time, or (the-only-slightly-less-legendarily-charismatic) God. The covert message we received as Canadian schoolchildren, rightly or wrongly, was that the Queen was a more interesting and enduring figure than either. And in many ways, I suppose this has proven true.
Like most of my contemporaries, I spent many dozens, if not hundreds of hours sitting at my desk contemplating the face of the young Elizabeth II. I don’t remember considering the political implications of living in a constitutional monarchy or whether it was dignified for a modern democracy to have an official head of state appointed in a faraway kingdom by a mystical force called “divine right.” As a nine-year-old girl, I had better stuff to think about, like, for instance, how amazing it was that the blue in her eyes perfectly matched the blue in her sash, whether her diamonds in her tiara were real (duh – she’s the Queen!) and how long I’d have to wait till my mother would let me wear the same shade of coral lipstick to school (five long years and by that time coral was out).
It was for this reason that I found myself happily distracted this week by a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: a Diamond Jubilee Celebration. Beaton, a set designer who later became the great society photographer of his age, was an unapologetic snob and social climber. He liked to tell the story of how, while at Oxford, he was advised not to worry about the future but instead to “just make friends with the Sitwells and see what happens.” He did, and the rest is history. The pinnacle of his career were his royal portraits, first of the Queen Mother, then of the young Elizabeth II, chronicling her evolution from juvenile wartime princess to wife, mother and eventually Queen.
The early sittings have a theatrical formality – the young princess in puffed-sleeved fairy dress in front of a faux wintry background, posed as the harbinger of spring, or looking peppy in military uniform and sailor’s cap during the war – an image that was used on the cover of Life magazine. But later the images become more minimal and intimate. We see Elizabeth at home in “simple dress” (a blouse and pearls) with her babies, looking more progressively relaxed with each one. Prince Charles is startlingly adorable as a tot. Beaton’s famous shot of him kissing the baby Princess Anne in her cradle may well be the most human and heartwarming image ever produced of the heir to the throne.
This is not a family album but a collection of celebrity stills intended to raise the Royal Family’s profile both at home and abroad. In this sense, Beaton functioned as an instinctive PR man. Even in her coronation robes and crown under the soaring arches of Westminster Abbey, there is an underlying humanity in Beaton’s Queen, a startled expectancy about the eyes. Perhaps she was actually fantasizing about the gin and tonic Philip will mix for her later (who knows?); the point is, Beaton was a master of suggestion.
Suggestion and projection, of course, is all we have when it comes to the Queen. It’s often remarked that her lifelong refusal to give an interview in combination with her ubiquitous image is what keeps her mystery alive. Like all great cultural enigmas, she is everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Nowhere is this sense of mystery more powerful than in Canada. In the U.K., I often find myself explaining to British friends why it is that Canadians, as a rule, tend to view the Queen with such unerring affection. (According to the last major poll by Angus Reid, while two-thirds of Canadians support a homegrown head of state, the overwhelming majority have only positive feelings for the Queen herself.)
The reason for this paradox is simple. The Queen – and the Royal Family by extension – is both our own and not our own. Somewhere along the way we took what we wanted from the royals and discarded the rest. We didn’t grow up with paparazzi photos of young princes stumbling out of nightclubs or shrieking tabloid polls on whether Camilla and Charles should marry. What we got instead was the Queen’s profile on our currency, the annual Christmas address on CBC Radio and official portraits under the classroom clock. In other words, we got Cecil Beaton’s Queen. And in the Diamond Jubilee year, we can all raise a gin and tonic to that.
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: a Diamond Jubilee Celebration runs till April 22 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.