Photographer’s hungover secrets behind iconic Coronation pictures

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony in 1953

After a lengthy Coronation ceremony and a five-mile procession around central London, Queen Elizabeth II returned to Buckingham Palace — where photographer Cecil Beaton was waiting to take the official portrait.

He had not expected to take the official Coronation photographs, primarily because Prince Philip’s friend Sterling Henry Nahum, known professionally as Baron, had been taking all the recent royal photographs.

When, in May 1953, Beaton learned the once-in-a-lifetime job was going to be his, he felt an “enormous relief.

But the photographer admitted that, on the night before, nerves had gotten the better of him. He recorded in his diary that he was so anxious that he drank heavily at dinner and woke up hungover.

Beaton made it to the Coronation service with a supply of sandwiches stashed inside his top hat and a supply of barley sugars.

After sitting in Westminster Abbey for three hours, he rushed home for a nap and a “fistful of aspirins” before heading to the Palace to take the official pictures.

While Beaton was sleeping, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had been riding in the Gold State Coach, slowly and steadily, on a circuitous route back to the Palace.

The photographer recalled her arrival: “In came the Queen,” he wrote, “cool, smiling, sovereign of the situation.”

He noted: “The Queen looked extremely minute under her robes and Crown, her nose and hands chilled and her eyes tired.”

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When he came to capture the Queen, he felt the lighting was wrong but didn’t have time to change anything. “I was banging away and getting pictures at a great rate,” he wrote. “I had only the foggiest notion of whether I was taking black and white, or colour, or giving the right exposures.”

Then, he was tasked with photographing the family. He recalled Prince Charles and Princess Anne, aged four and two, “buzzing about in the wildest excitement and would not keep still for a moment”.

Meanwhile, their father Prince Philip was proving to be a difficult subject. “The Duke of Edinburgh stood by making wry jokes, his lips pursed in a smile that put the fear of God into me. I believe he doesn’t like or approve of me,” Beaton wrote. “This is a pity because, although I’m not one for ‘Navy-type’ jokes, and obviously have nothing in common with him, I admire him enormously, and think he is absolutely first-rate at this job of making things comparatively lively and putting people at their ease.

“Perhaps he was disappointed that his friend, Baron, was not doing this job today; whatever the reason he was definitely adopting a rather ragging attitude towards the proceedings.”

At one point, the photographer snapped at the Duke, telling him: “Sir, if you would like to take the photographs, please do.”

But amongst all the chaos, he found comfort in the Queen Mother, who made sure Beaton took the official Coronation pictures in the first place. Her “rollicking spirits” soon dispelled all his “anxieties and fears”.

“The Queen Mother, by being so basically human and understanding, gives out to us a feeling of reassurance,” Beaton recalled. “The great mother figure and nannie to us all, through the warmth of her sympathy bathes us and wraps us in a counterpane by the fireside. Suddenly I had this wonderful accomplice – someone who would help me through everything.

“All at once, and because of her, I was enjoying my work. Prince Charles and Princess Anne were buzzing about in the wildest excitement and would not keep still for a moment. The Queen Mother anchored them in her arms, put her head down to kiss Prince Charles’s hair, and made a terrific picture.”

He concluded, at the end of the day, the only time he’d felt “airborne” was when photographing “the Queen Mother and her grandchildren”.

Having endured a tense night as the negatives went off to be processed, he was pleasantly “surprised” when he arrived at the studio the next day “to find that so many of the pictures were excellent”.

Beaton’s photographs stood in contrast to those taken for the Coronations in 1911 and 1937. He rejected the stiff line-ups for members of the Royal Family, standing before the formal backdrop of Buckingham Palace.

Instead, he favoured something more dramatic and added theatrical flair to the young Queen’s portrait by photographing Her Majesty against a painted backdrop of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in the Abbey.

The Queen can be seen holding the orb and sceptre, and wearing the Imperial State Crown, Coronation Robes and the Coronation Gown designed by Norman Hartnell.

Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister at the time of the Coronation, said the portraits showed the Queen as “the gleaming figure whom Providence has brought to us in times when the present is hard and the future veiled”.

Beaton went on to become one of the Queen’s favourite photographers and he built a strong relationship with both her and the Windsors.

Speaking of the monarch in the June 1953 Coronation Issue of Vogue, he said: “Her unique legacy has made her a person apart, and the training to play the role of sovereign is today evident in the increasing authority of her personality. She is benevolent; her regard is unhurried and gentle, filled with human understanding and kindness; she is meek but not shy; assured and even proud – proud of her heritage. She has the strong and forthright virtues of Queen Victoria, and her reign may well become as famous.”

The famous portrait is in the V&A collection, you can view it here. 

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