The idea for The Crown in Vogue sprung up, not at all fully formed, during the late spring of 2020 when access to Vogue’s archive of photographs – “the stuff of history”, as the magazine once called it – was difficult. Which was putting it mildly.
Tucked away round a corner in the basement of Vogue House in London’s West End, the Vogue archives are contained in two rather featureless rooms, low-ceilinged and airless. A clever system of sliding cabinets allows both a Tardis-like capacity for holding much more than they might seem capable of. Row upon row of old-fashioned filing cabinets, like sentries lined up, hold envelopes of prints. Most of these are impeccably marked up with names and dates – apart from Vogue’s royal archive which, as bad luck would have it, was scattered throughout – the stuff of history stuffed into large boxes. Together with scouring every issue of Vogue – it was launched in 1916 and for many years came out fortnightly – there was a good 18 months of study here, and it began in earnest. From time to time during those long months of research, I was one of only a small handful of people working in Vogue House, its seven floors eerily empty.
The boxes began to reveal their contents. If the volume was staggering, so, too, was the quality of it all. Cecil Beaton had been Vogue’s prized photographer, one that the magazine could genuinely call its own. Summoned to Buckingham Place in 1939 to take pictures of Queen Elizabeth, consort to the King, a rich and far-reaching career as a Photographer Royal began – and Vogue reaped the benefits. Here were his contacts sheets and rough un-retouched prints with “Do not publish these!” scrawled upon them. But we had his beautifully toned “finished” prints as well.
One glorious image of Queen Elizabeth sparkling in a Hartnell crinoline was signed by Beaton in blue and red crayon. I found his original large-format color transparencies of the Queen’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, together with their original sleeves. These were part of a set which marked the first time – it was 1948 – that a member of the royal family had been photographed in color in Vogue. Sadly, early Ektachrome tend to fade with time, but not these. They were pristine, the colors as rich as when Beaton had taken them all those years ago. Other treasures spilled out, unpublished portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales, when she was still Lady Diana Spencer, outtakes from her very first Vogue sitting, with Snowdon in 1981. There were little known but evocative black and white press prints, by unknown hands certainly, but no less impactful for showing royal life as it developed. King George VI and Roosevelt speeding by in an open-topped American car; the young Princess Elizabeth attending a Christmas pantomime, her mother the Queen in tow; four-year-old Prince Charles pulling faces at photographers in Windsor Great Park; poignant snapshots of the last summer the Duke of Kent spent with his wife Princess Marina and his children before he was killed in a wartime air crash.
It was an immense privilege to spend time looking through these extraordinary original images. If they were distressed, torn or marked up in crayon, then so much the more fascinating. These were historical objects, every tear and blemish a witness to the royal century.
The great moments of four reigns unfolded: Coronations and jubilees, weddings and births, one abdication and the death of two Kings; life during the urgency of war and in times of peace. All of this was recorded in Vogue‘s incomparable style. We hope that when we take you back in time over a century of the Crown in Vogue that you will delight in its history and recognize that the magic revealed by our royal family is the magic of our own lives, our own shared history.
Robin Muir is contributing editor at Vogue, where he first worked in 1985. He is co-author with Josephine Ross of the new book The Crown in Vogue, published by Conran Octopus and available at £30, or as a larger format limited edition at £150, that includes a print of Princess Elizabeth by Cecil Beaton from December 1948 – taken from the original transparency (B396-6) held in Vogue’s archives and never published by the magazine.
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk