If there is an individual state more maddening than being badly misunderstood, it is to be understood quite well. I felt the pain of insight most recently when Crikey’s correspondent-at-large, Guy Rundle, returned from one of his Europe Goes Fascist tours with a gift: a book containing Cecil Beaton’s glorious portraits of Her Majesty. “How did you know?” I said, elated and embarrassed by the pleasure. “That you would enjoy images of the British monarchy captured by a queer modernist? Because I’ve actually met you.”
It’s true. I am mad for the object of Elizabeth, most particularly as it was offered to us by Beaton from the time before her accession to the day Princess Margaret married that hack Snowdon, who joined the Royal Family with a box brownie and immediately claimed official portrait duties. Snowdon snapped pretty pictures; notably of his wife. But what he did not do was painstakingly tailor an image of a family in tatters to a public ready, following the abdication of Edward VIII, to tear the whole fiction apart.
Now, let it be known: I would have been all in favour of an abolition of monarchy at that time, or any other. My family is Irish Catholic all the way up, and in the last 150 years, socialism skipped just a single generation. It is not possible to be Marxist in the streets and royalist in the sheets. However, I find it impossible not to admire how Beaton and Buckingham Palace collaborated to restore an institution that then seemed beyond repair and, following the end of Elizabeth’s reign, will forever be in ruins.
In the 1960s, the Queen Mother wrote to Beaton to thank him for his work. “I feel that, as a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people!” During the abdication crisis, Beaton had resolved to capture the “incandescent complexion” of the Queen Mother on film as it appeared to him in real life and in return, this woman, a great friend to gay men expert in flattery, recognised him as the Palace’s most valuable public relations asset.
Beaton took pictures that appeased the burgeoning mass appetite for the real, releasing images of the young Queen actually appearing to care for her children. Visible here was a new feminised nobility, hovering somewhere between depictions of the Virgin Mary and Vogue. Elizabeth was not a sombre, masculine figure in portrait, as previous female monarch had been, but Beaton managed to retain for her the royal myth of divine empowerment.
Without Beaton, and without the Queen Mother’s trust in a queer aesthetic, we Australians may well have shrugged off the old yoke of monarchy decades ago. You might despise the artist, who set in train decades of deceptively humanising royal portraits, for this result. What you may not malign is the eye that persuasively figured a naïve and unprepared young woman as both the traditional vessel of god in Britain and an “ordinary”, if extraordinarily pretty, mother.
There are no longer Beatons nor Royals to persuade us. Instead of a magical Queen, we have an unconvincing overlord of Wales whom no photographer has been able to depict as an adult looking like anything other than the homeopathic bore he likely is. And, those Cambridges. The Duchess’s greatest value to the culture is likely to be a salon spray tan colour named in her honour, and nobody was buying those “everyday” pictures of the couple motoring back to Kensington unassisted but for a baby capsule with a male infant who is third in line to the throne. These future monarchs will be but celebrities to the British, if they do not soon become catalysts for class consciousness.
It would take a visual genius that exceeded even Beaton’s to save the British monarchy now. Not only does the devious Diana continue to undo what remains of the family’s divinity from her island grave, but it seems the Queen herself is preparing to appoint her naturopathic son as Prince Regent. Neither Gordon Rayner, chief Royal correspondent for The Telegraph, nor the BBC has reported on the matter, and these are the sources to watch. But, Her Majesty is, at 91, of a vintage that appeals to republican Malcolm Turnbull.
I cannot say that I will be sad to watch the regal disarray, deferred close to a century ago by Beaton, unfold in coming years. But, it will be a bit miserable to know that there will never again be images of women, even royal ones, that expressly convey the impossible. Beaton gave us a Queen whose every ordinary act was imbued with myth. Soon, all we will have to look at is a bunch of ordinary sods failing to look as humble as their advisers had instructed.
Of course, a monarchy is ridiculous. But the woman who managed to embody it as sublime, even when her subjects knew it was a crock, is to be admired for her performance. If we cannot uphold cynical affection for a myth of the past as we did in the 20th century, I’m not sure how any utopian hopes for the 21st century can take root.
Then again, I might just like the gorgeous pictures.