How the Royal Family Uses Photography to Connect With the Public

An exhibition at Kensington Palace features images from the 19th century through today, including a never-before-seen portrait of Princess Diana

Two curators hanging up black and white portrait featuring profile of Princess Diana
Historic Royal Palaces conservators hang a portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken in 1988 by photographer David Bailey and commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.  Yui Mok / PA Images via Getty Images

Photographers have been snapping pictures of British royalty for nearly 200 years, providing an up-close-and-personal view of the country’s monarchs. Now, a new exhibition at Kensington Palace explores the royal family’s relationship with the camera from the 19th century to the present day.

Titled “Life Through a Royal Lens,” the show features work from amateur and professional photographers alike. Per a statement from Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), the independent charity that cares for Kensington and five other unoccupied British palaces, images captured by renowned photographers Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Annie Leibovitz and Rankin appear alongside photos submitted by members of the public. The exhibition is on view through October 30.

Imbued with symbolic power rather than political power, members of the royal family—a constitutional monarchy—have historically used photography as a tool for connecting with British citizens via a carefully crafted public image, Kensington Palace curator Claudia Acott Williams tells Marie Claire’s Iris Goldsztajn.

“Their power is vested in their image, and photography became a really important way of democratizing the royal image,” says Acott Williams. “… [I]t created a really important bond between monarchy and subjects and, at a time when monarchies around Europe were starting to go into decline and to crumble, in the 19th and early 20th century. Photography gave them a more democratic tool to show themselves to the public.”

Following a January call for submissions, members of the public sent in some 1,000 images for potential inclusion in the show. Of these, 50 will appear on a revolving digital display at the palace, reports Allegra Goodwin for CNN. Organizers shared some of the photos online before the exhibition opened, including a candid shot of Elizabeth II and her late husband, Prince Philip, at a Badminton horse competition in 1980. Fittingly, a woman named Elizabeth snapped the picture of the two royals smiling.

“My boyfriend and I were two American teenagers studying in London,” says Elizabeth in a separate HRP statement quoted by CNN. “We were hitchhiking outside of Bath and were picked up by a couple going to the horse trials, and they ended up taking us with them! It was 42 years ago and still one of the best days of my life.”

Palace visitors can also admire a never-before-seen, black-and-white portrait of then-27-year-old Princess Diana, taken by David Bailey in 1988. The striking image was unique for Diana, known as “the people’s princess,” because she was typically shown looking warmly into the camera, Acott Williams tells Town & Country’s Victoria Murphy. Diana died from injuries sustained in a car accident in August 1997.

“This for me is the most powerful,” says Acott Williams. “It shows her in a completely different light. ... In a way, her retreating from the camera a bit and showing something that’s a bit more stoic was actually her doing something completely different.”

The show also features several photos taken by members of the royal family, including Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Middleton, who wrote her university thesis about author Lewis Carroll’s pictures of children, attributes her love of photography to her grandfather, reports Richard Palmer for the Daily Express.

The 40-year-old Middleton selected one image of each of her three children with Prince William—Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis—for the exhibition.

“Her grandfather was a very good photographer,” Acott Williams tells the Daily Express. “When she was a child, he would show her his slides. It was him who taught her how to take photographs.”

Life Through a Royal Lens” is on view at Kensington Palace in London through October 30, 2022.

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