A brief history of British royal coronation photographs

A brief history of British royal coronation photographs

Following King Charles' coronation on 6 May, Buckingham Palace this week released the official photographs of the new monarch and his wife Camilla, who was crowned alongside him.

While it was billed - by Charles himself - as a more ‘modern’ affair, the ceremony, held in London’s Westminster Abbey, was steeped in tradition and soundtracked by music performed in Latin. The photographs taken after the event don’t exactly scream ‘modern’ either - but they tell us a lot more about the royal family than previous images captured.

For centuries, Britain’s royal family has commissioned artists to paint newly crowned monarchs and the first ever official photograph was taken of Edward VII, who succeeded his long-reigning mother Queen Victoria and was crowned in 1902.

Hugo Burnand/Royal Household 2023 via AP
Ready to serve - King Charles and Queen Camilla - Hugo Burnand/Royal Household 2023 via AP

Thanks in part to the prevalence of social media, the majority of the world knows that the relationship between Charles’ youngest son Prince Harry and the rest of the family is somewhat strained and his absence in the photograph with the rest of the "working royals" is all too noticeable.

Harry did attend the coronation service – albeit without his wife Meghan, who stayed in their adopted home of California – but was said to have left immediately afterwards to head back to his two children.

On Friday 12 May, Buckingham Palace released a further photograph from the occasion, this one featuring Charles' older son William, who is now first in line to the throne, and his own son George, who will eventually take over the role of monarch from his father.

The AP
We three kings - Charles and his successors, son William and grandson George - The AP

Family drama notwithstanding, the photographs show off the royals in all their gilded greatness. They were taken by photographer Hugo Burnand, who has long been a favourite photographer of King Charles. He told the New York Times he wanted the images to feel intimate and as if everyone across the globe could feel as if they were “having maybe a one-to-one conversation” with the king.

Burnard also shot King Charles’ official 60th birthday photograph, as well as the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate. However, he almost missed the chance to have such a close working relationship with the royals.

In 2005, the now king and queen reached out to him to photograph their wedding, but he initially turned them down after being robbed during a trip to Bolivia. Burnard quickly changed his mind, and has said he’s grateful he did – as he has been in constant demand ever since.

Copyright Getty Images
The late Queen Elizabeth in her official coronation portrait by Cecil Beaton - Copyright Getty Images

While Charles’ was the first "social media coronation" in British history, its participants immortalised in spawning countless memes and photo edits, the late Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 made history as the first ever to be broadcast in full on television.

It was watched by 27 million people in the United Kingdom alone – many having bought televisions for the occasion – and millions more across the globe, making it the first "must watch" broadcast in history.

Queen Elizabeth’s now iconic official coronation portrait was taken by photographer Cecil Beaton, who was famous for shooting stars including Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor. The image is rather cinematic, and that’s not surprising, given that the late monarch was actually photographed in front of an artificial backdrop of Westminster Abbey rather than in the grand building itself.

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The late Queen poses with her consort Prince Philip - who wasn't crowned alongside her - Copyright Getty Images

While the session was a highlight of Beaton’s career, he wrote in his diary that the photo shoot was a challenge, given the pressure and time restraints, recalling that “I had only the foggiest notion of whether I was taking black and white, or colour, or giving the right exposures”.

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King George VI, who was crowned in May 1937 - Copyright Getty Images

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth’s father George VI took place on 12 May, 1937 and was the first coronation to be filmed at all, although none of the action inside Westminster Abbey itself was committed to film. In keeping with the technologies of the time, though, it was broadcast on radio and the photographs provided by Buckingham Palace were one of the only ways the general public was able to catch a glance of their new monarch and his family.

Copyright Bridgeman Images via Getty
King George VI with his wife Elizabeth and daughters Princesses Elizabeth - later Queen - and Margaret - Copyright Bridgeman Images via Getty

The photographs were taken by two artists, Dorothy Wilding and Hay Wrightson. After the event, Wilding explained that she had to stand some 6 metres away from the new king in order to get all of his outfit into the frame, as his robes were so vast. 

Copyright Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
King George VI's official coronation photograph with his extended family - Copyright Bettmann Archive via Getty Images