There are some moments in life when it is best to stand back and soak it all in. Moments when you discreetly pinch your arm to check that this is really happening. That’s how I found myself standing beneath the Dale Chihuly’s dazzling glass chandelier that forms the focal piece of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s grand dome; champagne flute in hand and gazing up and around in awe.
The space was softly lit, a live jazz band played and people were mingling and sipping on elegant cocktails. Damask draped tables were topped with glass candelabras and extravagant white flower arrangements competed to steal the limelight from this most majestic of settings.
To my right, I could see a tantalising peek of the museum’s medieval and renaissance galleries. To my left was the purpose of the visit: Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration.
The event had been organised by Mastercard UK, as part of their Priceless London programme. Through the scheme, Mastercard customers are able to sign up to receive exclusive experiences and access to some of London’s greatest cultural events and locations.
They’ve linked with organisations including the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Southbank Centre to offer customers once in a lifetime experiences.
On this occasion, the hosts had arranged a cocktail and canapé reception, a talk from exhibition curator Susanna Brown, a private view of the Cecil Beaton exhibition and an opportunity to pose for vintage style photographs in a Beaton inspired studio.
After polishing off my rather delicious drink and a handful of dainty morsels, it was time to explore the exhibition. The introduction from Susanna Brown helped to enhance the context and chronology of the exhibition. He insider view identified the story behind some of the pictures.
The exhibition began with Beaton’s early portraits of the Queen Mother, all bearing the trademark extravagant gowns and flamboyant backdrops. The Queen Mother’s love of fashion shone through, as did a subtle suggestion that she was a lady who enjoyed a dose of fun and frivolity.
Early pictures of Princesses Elizabeth and Margret captured a certain sort of awkward elegance. Their young faces looked earnestly to the distance, whilst their dresses and the backdrops declared opulence. Throughout the exhibition, it became clear the Beaton’s royal subject rarely looked directly at the lens. Rather her strong gaze was directed diagonally to the right of the frame – creating a distance between the monarch and the viewer.
Through wartime austerity and the birth of Prince Charles and Princess Anne, Beaton captured the events that defined the British monarchy. The elaborate painted backgrounds were replaced by the equally elaborate rooms and corridors of the Royal Palaces. All of the pictures in the exhibition are black and white, up until the images from one day in June 1953.
The coronation was captured in blazing colour, with the rich robes and regal shades of red, purple and gold jumping from the pictures. The images have something of a fairytale quality, yet also feel startlingly real; no more so than when Queen Elizabeth’s piercing blue eyes are fixed firmly forwards.
This surreal and archaic atmosphere is punctuated by amusing glimpses of the Royal family at their most relaxed. Previously unseen contact sheets show the pictures that went ever so slightly wrong: a goofy looking young prince, a young Queen smiling ever so slightly too much or a Queen Mother bursting into laughter at the antics of her grandchildren.
These unseen contact sheets show a relatable, flawed and natural side to the monarchy that has been kept hidden from view. These pictures serve to highlight the complexities of maintaining a private and public persona. Beaton’s portraits allowed Queen Elizabeth II to tightly manage her public image. They were a form of armour that also served to create a timeless representation of British royalty.
The Queen’s final sitting with Beaton in 1968, embodies this notion of picture as armour. During the curator talk, Susanna Brown had explained how this shoot had been fraught with problems and a conflict of the photographer and subject’s personal tastes, yet the images give little clue of the chaos behind the camera. The most striking image is of the Queen wearing the Admiral’s Boat Cloak, set against a polarised blue sky. She is strong and untouchable, her eyes epitomising that detached resolve and the cloak serving to protect and highlight her power.
The private view of the exhibition gave time to ponder the images and walk through at a relaxed pace. Returning to the dome and sipping on a glass of white wine, I sat back and felt like royalty. Stepping out onto Cromwell Street in the cool of an early spring evening, I knew that I’d had a night that I would never forget. And that feeling was, indeed, priceless.
Mastercard customers can register online for exclusive access to the very best of London.
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration is at the V&A until 22 April 2012. Tickets can be booked online.
Jen Evans is a journalist specialising in culture. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Bookish Brunette.
Images by James Carnegie Photography
Queen Elizabeth Coronation Image © V&A images