Operatic Entrance

As Paris feted Queen Elizabeth II, photographer Bert Hardy found a circumstance to match her pomp

Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

The sun was setting on their empires, but neither the British nor the French were going quietly. The two powers, not always the closest of allies, had just tried to thwart Egypt's plans to nationalize the Suez Canal. The two nations were suffering the consequences: tension with the United States, opprobrium in the Arab world, a dawning recognition that the Americans and the Soviets would eclipse them on the global stage.

What better time for a royal visit?

On April 8, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II arrived for a three-day sojourn in Paris—the first English queen to visit France since Victoria, in 1855. After a state dinner that evening ("You were the cradle of our kings," she told her hosts, alluding to William the Conqueror's Norman heritage), she swept into the Paris Opera for a performance of the ballet Le Chevalier et la Demoiselle.

Photographer Bert Hardy, who had slipped through security, was already shooting, precisely and surreptitiously. Because his 50-millimeter lens could take in only a fraction of the scene before him, he shot 20 frames in all, 15 of which were painstakingly joined, by hand, to compose the image you see here. Diplomatic amity notwithstanding, the British photojournalist was quietly scoring a scoop for his magazine, Picture Post, then the Life magazine of the United Kingdom.

"Paris Match was very much our competition," Hardy told me in 1981. The press pool for the evening was limited to two French and two British media, and Picture Post was not on the list. "But the French newsmen were above the rules," he said. "They had 20 [journalists], we would have 2, and the French police were making sure that's all we had."

Hardy hid his Leica under a borrowed and oversize dinner jacket and reported to the opera house. "I waited till a herd of French dignitaries arrived," he said. "They were terribly courteous, and I went in with them."

Anxious that his brown shoes would stand out amid a sea of formal clothes, he positioned himself with a view of the stairs and started shooting. He could n0t be haphazard about it: the frames had to overlap just so, because the edges of each one, distorted by his lens, would be discarded during printing, when the frames would be assembled in a montage, or "join-up."

Then Elizabeth entered, escorted by French president René Coty. She wore an emerald-and-diamond tiara and a Hartnell dress encrusted with pearls, topaz and gold. Across its ivory satin lay the French Legion of Honor's bold red sash. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Hardy had his pièce de résistance.

Dispatching his film for developing, he phoned a Post staffer to tell her what he had done, and what remained to be done. A diagram illustrating how the frames were joined looks like one of those charts you'd see in a French butcher shop showing where various cuts of meat come from, but the result in Picture Post's special April 20 souvenir edition was spectacular. (About the only clue that the image is a montage is that the guards' swords to Her Majesty's left aren't yet raised.) "I got a double-page spread," Hardy boasted, and "the French didn't get anything."

He came from humble East End origins—his father was a carpenter, his mother a charwoman. Born in 1913, he left school at 14 to process film and largely taught himself how to shoot pictures. He worked for the General Photographic Agency, then for himself, before shooting for Picture Post. He also served in the Royal Army Photographic Unit from 1942 to 1946, covering the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Paris, the Allies crossing the Rhine and the suffering of freed concentration camp inmates.

Back with Picture Post, Hardy covered the Korean War and U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1956 reelection campaign. But whatever joy he took in his success at the Paris Opera was short-lived: in a harbinger of Life's fate, Picture Post folded just six weeks after publishing its souvenir edition, a victim of declining circulation. Hardy became one of Britain's best-known commercial photographers before retiring to a Surrey farm in the late 1960s. He died in 1995, at age 82.

After her night at the opera, Elizabeth spent her time in Paris chatting with French veterans at the Arc de Triomphe, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, sailing the Seine at night and generally inciting the French into a Union Jack-waving frenzy. After visiting Versailles and touring around Lille in the north of France, she returned to home and throne. And to her long reign.

David J. Marcou, a Wisconsin-based writer, met Bert Hardy as a student in 1981.

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