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The Queen’s 90th Birthday – The Past and Present of Royal Photography



The relationship between photographers and the royal family is likely both older and friendlier than you think it is. For more than 150 years, officially sanctioned royal photographers have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship with the family that has endured for more than a century, and have captured some fantastic images in the process.

In celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday, we take a look back at how royal photography started, and what it looks like today.




The history of the Royal Collection, which includes some 450,000 photographs, notes that Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, was one of the first supporters and patrons of British photography.

Both he and Victoria were interested in the new art form – the Queen’s personal collection was estimated to number more than 20,000 prints, and when she died, among the items she was buried with were a handful of photographic prints. The two of them weren’t shy about posing for photographs either, as you can see in this fascinating album.

As the art proliferated those close to the royal family would frequently turn into celebrated snappers. Queen Alexandra, consort to King Edward VII, was one of the most celebrated, her photographs providing a fascinating timeline of the lives of royals in Britain and beyond, throughout the First World War and the early 20th century.


On this day in 1900 Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was born.  Here she is photographed with her daughters Princess Elizabeth (The future Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret in 1939. Following the outbreak of war in 1939, there was some suggestion that the Queen and her daughters should evacuate to North America or Canada. To this the Queen made her famous reply: “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Thus throughout the Second World War the Queen and her children shared the dangers and difficulties of the rest of the nation. She was in Buckingham Palace when it was bombed in September 1940. She and the King visited badly damaged areas throughout the country after the air-raids, and toured Britain visiting hospitals, factories and troops. Her Majesty was Patron or President of some 350 organisations. She was Commandant-in-Chief of the Army and Air Force Women’s Services, and for Women in the Royal Navy, and held other Service appointments. For many years she was President of the British Red Cross Society, and she was Commandant-in-Chief of the Nursing Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade. She was also Colonel-in-Chief or Honorary Colonel of many UK and overseas regiments, and Commandant-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force Central Flying School. And on her 100th birthday Her Majesty received, like other centenarians, a message of congratulations from The Queen. Image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust. #OnthisDay #TheQueenMother #TheQueen

A photo posted by The British Monarchy (@the_british_monarchy) on


A recent auction of images from 1926-56 also showed off some of the portraiture of the time by royal photographer Marcus Adams, from images of Queen Elizabeth II as a baby to her as a fresh-faced young bride holding baby Charles in 1949. In just a shade over 100 years the royals went from being champions of a new and uncertain art form to spending their entire lives in front of cameras.



Royal photography today

Today of course photography is everywhere, and the royals are no exception. Most of the images illustrating this article are taken from the royal family’s official Instagram page, an idea which would have gotten you laughed out of Buckingham Palace had you tried to suggest it even a few years ago.


President Barack Obama, in a personal birthday message to Her Majesty, has said: “I’m glad to be the very first President of the United States to wish Her Majesty a happy 90th birthday. For nine decades Her Majesty has been a source of strength and inspiration, not only for the people of Britain, but for millions of people around the world. And when The Queen hosted Michelle and me at Buckingham Palace we saw the same grace and good humour, that generous human touch, that the people of the United Kingdom have loved for generations. My girls were especially excited to receive a guided tour of the Palace when they visited on Sasha’s own birthday. We often speak of the deep and enduring partnership between our two countries. It is indeed a special relationship. And Her Majesty has been a vital part of what keeps our relationship so special. The United States is extremely grateful for her steady and energetic leadership and we look forward to Her Majesty’s continued service in the years to come. Happy birthday, your Majesty.”

A photo posted by The British Monarchy (@the_british_monarchy) on


The images on this page and others mostly come from the working photographers who surround the royals. The job these days has gone beyond stiffly posed portraits – that charge has now been returned to the painting community. Now, the task of the royal photographer is to capture moments and give insights into the lives of their subjects. We were interested to know what this is like, so we scoured the Big Fixation Contacts Book and caught up with working royal photographer John Stillwell to find out a little more about what the job is like.

“The real big one is when you’re first on your own with the royal family,” John says. “That’s the real nerve-wracking one. Quite a lot of jobs they just turn up and walk into a building, a palace or a church, something like that. But when you’re on your own with them, that’s different. Of course I’ve done it so many times I don’t really notice any more!”



As John has been working with the royals since the mid-90s, following a career with Press Association that began in the darkroom, it’s not too much of a surprise that these days he’s unflappable. Still, that doesn’t mean you can get lazy.

“When you’re around the royal family you have to be careful,” he says. “Don’t get in the way, don’t make a fool of yourself.”



Still, such responsibilities come with great opportunity, and John’s been lucky enough to see some amazing places, including even a brief stint inside the Oval Office at the White House in the week following the Royal Wedding.

“I could never say I know [the royals] really well,” John says. “It’s always a working relationship. There are some members of the family that are easier to get on with than others, some members that are more hard-working than others. But I get on with them all.”

Today, John will be at Windsor with many other royal photographers, helping document the celebrations as Queen Elizabeth II turns 90. Happy birthday!


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