The Queen’s life in postcards

The Queen is the most visually represented non-divine person in human history. Her whole life has been hungrily and lovingly documented in photographs, many of them published in newspapers and magazines. Ordinary citizens the world over have their own images of her, captured on everything from box Brownies to camera phones. There have been commemorative mugs, calendars, biscuit tins, posters, rugs, tea towels, you name it. And then, of course, there are postage stamps – billions of them over the decades, every one displaying the Queen in profile. Since 1964 that image has remained unchanged because that is what she wished. So the Arnold Machin bust, made when she was not yet 40, is the most pervasive if least-studied representation, a statement that her majesty is not withered by age.

On her engagement to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1946

And is there anybody else whose life story can be so well told in postcards? Especially in the first half of the last century, from her birth in April 1926 to her accession to the throne 60 years ago, they were the popular medium of choice for those who wished to express their interest, affection or loyalty. Cheap to buy either for posting or to keep, picture postcards were one of the best ways for people to enjoy the nation’s most famous baby, little girl, teenager, bride. Every royal photograph of any interest (or even of no great interest) was speedily taken up by the handful of publishers whose business it was to supply a willing market. Very often one photo shoot would produce a whole series of postcards, only very subtly different from each other.

My late wife Mary Dunkin was born in 1948, within two months of Prince Charles. She bought her first royal postcard when she was 11. It was a celebration of the birth of Prince Andrew, a Cecil Beaton picture of the Queen holding the baby, Prince Philip with his hand on the young Charles’s shoulder and Anne standing beside her mother in a party dress. They looked not unlike many a middle-class British family, though the Queen had better pearls. For Mary, that was the start of a new pursuit.

Though enthusiasm for the Beatles soon kicked in – she was at their Christmas show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1964, probably screaming – Mary’s passion for royal postcards survived. As well as buying new issues, she found old ones in markets and junk shops and later at the postcard sales she visited on many weekends over the years. Gradually it approached the point where the whole story was taking shape in postable pictures, and any gaps had to be filled. And though filled they mostly were, it would be foolish to suggest her collection was definitive: she wasn’t enough of an anorak for that.

For the FT Weekend Magazine’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee we have harvested from her collection covering the years that preceded the Coronation. Though filtered through the lenses of hand-picked photographers, then filtered again by postcard publishers, they still seem to give an authentic account of the growing girl who would quite soon be Queen. Not that the little Elizabeth had any sense of what was to come. Until she was 10 and her uncle David abdicated his role as Edward VIII she was simply Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York.

It wasn’t a particular obsession with royalty that caused my wife to gather several hundred cards. She had other collections too, with very different iconic qualities – dozens of 3D postcards on religious themes, 1930s American matchbooks advertising restaurants and businesses in California and Florida and more than 100 classic glass contour Coca-Cola bottles, still unopened decades on, each from a different country. She had studied graphic design and designers do tend to like those kinds of things, though as far as I know she was on her own with the Coca-Cola bottles, and indeed the Queen.

Certainly she felt affection for the royals but I think what intrigued her most was the way these pictures resembled an ordinary family album and yet were not ordinary at all. On the one hand you have Elizabeth and her sister Margaret on a rocking horse or playing in the garden like any other children; then you have them at their father’s Coronation wearing little gold crowns like princesses in a story book. She liked that strange conjunction but most of all she loved photography. In her forties she embarked on a new career as a professional photographer. Her speciality was families and young children.

Marcus Adams, who photographed Elizabeth before her first birthday and took many of the most charming pictures of her as a young girl, was already a well-known children’s photographer in Mayfair. He worked to his own strict ground rules, among them that he never photographed anyone over 16 except with a child. Possibly uniquely, he began a long relationship with the family by refusing a request. When the Countess of Strathmore asked him to take a portrait of her daughter Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon he said he wouldn’t because she was too old but would be happy to after she married and had children. When she wed the future king and had a daughter he duly did.

Adams worked almost exclusively at his Children’s Studio in Dover Street. Even the royal family, whom he photographed for three decades and two generations, usually went to him, rather than he to them. It was worth it. He housed his large-format camera in a specially constructed box so that it wasn’t distracting or frightening, and operated it remotely while he talked and played with the children. As a result he produced images that were far more relaxed than previous royal portraits. You would need a heart of steel not to be touched by the soft, lovely pictures he took of Elizabeth as a small child. The Queen has many assets, not least that she has always been extremely photogenic and, in her youth, had a very winning smile.

Lisa Sheridan, another favourite photographer, knew the family for nearly 40 years. Her mother happened to be a friend of the housekeeper at 145 Piccadilly where they lived until events moved them across Green Park to Buckingham Palace. She described visiting the house in the late 1920s and seeing the little princess “with a pretty doll-like face … framed in soft silky curls.” Working under the name Studio Lisa she often photographed Elizabeth and her sister Margaret having fun outdoors or sometimes in Y Bwthyn Bach – the Little House – the thatched cottage presented to Elizabeth on her sixth birthday by the people of Wales, two-thirds natural size, perfect in every detail inside and out and equipped with everything a house should have. Sheridan also took the photographs for the book Our Princesses and Their Dogs, published in 1936, dedicated to All Children Who Love Dogs. Prime ministers come and go, empires collapse but corgis go on for ever.

In 1951; on her Coronation, June 2 1953

As young girls the two princesses were often photographed together and this was a fair reflection of how they lived, educated at home, seeing relatively few other children, feeling quite cut off from the rest of the world. When she was sitting for the portrait painter Pietro Annigoni in the 1950s Elizabeth told him that as a child she spent hours looking out of the windows of Buckingham Palace: “I loved watching the people and the cars there in the Mall. They all seemed so busy. I used to wonder what they were doing and where they were going and what they thought about outside.” They had moved there when her father became king and she became Heiress Presumptive (not Heiress Apparent because her mother was in her mid-thirties and might still have a son).

According to her maternal grandmother, when Elizabeth heard her father was to be king she “was ardently praying for a brother”. But the idea that one day she would be monarch was soon widely accepted. Margaret told a royal historian that when George came to the throne she asked her sister, “Does that mean you’re going to become Queen?”

“Yes, I suppose it does,” said Elizabeth. According to Margaret it was never mentioned again. The two girls spent the war at Windsor Castle, even more removed from everyday life and company. They were often photographed together and generally they wore identical outfits. They regarded it as a sort of princess uniform.

Elizabeth started to take on some grown-up royal duties. Early in 1942 she became honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards and in May 1944 she made a speech in public for the first time at a children’s hospital in Hackney. The two girls had grown into very different characters. Elizabeth was serious, diligent and equable. Margaret was wilful, volatile and full of jokes and naughtiness.

Some people are surprised at how often Princess Elizabeth was photographed – and how informally. Not every photograph became a postcard, though there are enough of those to make a fine family album, free of the botched, overexposed efforts most families lived with before digital cameras. Nobody then studied the nuances of body language in these pictures as they would today but even if they had they would have found no disturbing symptoms. None of the many biographies suggest there were ever any doubts about Elizabeth’s personality or temperament or abilities. She always had the steadiness and sense of duty to help her through what is already the second longest of all British reigns.

Her wedding in 1947 brought some joy to the nation in what was a hellish winter of shortages and extreme cold. There had been fierce political argument about how much it was appropriate to spend on the event but according to one enthusiastic American observer, it turned out to be “a movie premiere, an election, a World Series and Guy Fawkes Night all rolled into one.” Her accession to the throne less than five years later, age 25, brought a surge of excitement – it was billed as the birth of a “new Elizabethan age.” If only life were so simple.

Many people believe Elizabeth is the last of her kind. They predict the monarchy will never again command the respect she has won for it. Such things have been said before and not turned out to be true. One thing is certain: none of her successors will compete with her in postcards.

Picture credits: Getty; Camera Press; Illustrated London News; Royal Collection; Hulton Archive; Topical Press Agency; Beagles; Photocrom; Studio Lisa; Tuck; Baron; Cecil Beaton; Valentine; King & Wilson; Bassano; Finlay Colour; Marcus Adams; Dorothy Wilding

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the photographs. Should there be any omissions in this respect, we apologise

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