The story behind the portrait of the Queen the palace used to announce her death

The story behind the portrait of the Queen the palace used to announce her death

HM Queen Elizabeth II in her official 80th birthday photograph, 2006.

Guardian archive director Luke Dodd recalls the Observer photographer Jane Bown 80th birthday shoot with Queen Elizabeth II and what sparked that warm smile

Jane Bown’s first visit to the palace was to receive an MBE in 1985 and she found the experience so unsuited to her character – she was notoriously shy and self-effacing – that when she received a CBE a decade later she elected to have it conferred by her local Lord Lieutenant rather than return to Buckingham Palace. Pomp and formality were not really Jane’s thing – she was much happier behind than in front of a lens.

One of Jane Bown’s great advantages was that she rarely knew much, if anything, about her subject – something she could not count on with the Queen. Often, her best pictures were snatched from truly awful situations. Her justifiably famous portrait of Samuel Beckett was captured in 30 seconds in a dark alley in open defiance of the writer who famously hated to be photographed.

A photograph of the Queen on the occasion of her 80th birthday is a different matter altogether. While Jane was renowned for her no-nonsense approach, she still required a confluence of elements for her very particular alchemy to work best – a “spark” of recognition between her and the subject, good natural light, and as few people as possible in attendance.

The ability to take a photograph almost anywhere was one of the hallmarks of Jane’s technique. Forcing the unfamiliar to work to her advantage was her way of ensuring that her photographs were never complacent or smug. As she put it: “Usually one is going in on a wing and a prayer … Time and daylight are my enemies. But I don’t really like plain sailing, either. When it’s a bit agitated, there’s more hope of something different coming out.”

Jane worked quickly, quietly and unobtrusively. She had little concern for what a person did but was acutely interested in what they were like. Maintaining a seemingly innocuous banter peppered with gentle instructions – the tilt of the head, the position of a hand – she prolonged the all-important spontaneity of the initial encounter. Often the shoot was over before the sitter realised what had happened – 15 minutes was a good average – and Jane and her two 40-year-old 35mm OM1s were gone. This innate ability to put the sitter at ease was the key to Jane’s respectful and revealing portraits.

For the portrait of the Queen, to Jane’s great relief, there were to be few present. Jane always worked alone: “I couldn’t work with an assistant. I wouldn’t know what to tell them to do – I don’t know myself.” Breaking with tradition, Jane called the Queen’s wonderfully efficient press officer, Penny Russell-Smith, and arranged a recce. The portrait would be taken in the blue drawing room and, to ensure that all would go well on the day, Jane wanted to see the space, and more importantly see what the light was like.

On the day of the shoot, Jane arrived early and enlisted Penny’s help in preparing the scene. They moved a large, semi-elliptical, high-backed chair to the window. Being of diminutive stature, Jane employs many strategies to get her subjects at her own height so that they can look directly into the lens. The ever-patient Penny was further pressed into service as a stand-in so that the fall of the light could be gauged. The Queen arrived, pleasantries were exchanged and she sat down.

Under normal circumstances, Jane would issue instructions but this wasn’t really appropriate here. Instead, she circled the chair concentrating largely on three different poses, compositions and backgrounds. The Queen, herself a keen amateur photographer, was a more than willing subject, although being endlessly photographed is not necessarily the best training for a sitter.

In one of her characteristic, terse but revealing statements, Jane said: “Some photographers make pictures, but I try to find them.”

As Jane circled the Queen, the light kept coming and going as the sun disappeared behind clouds. A welcome diversion came when a lady-in-waiting arrived to ensure that Her Majesty’s hair was perfect. The Queen, who was perched formally toward the front of the chair, softened into a welcoming smile on seeing a familiar face, the light reappeared and the ever-vigilant Jane seized the moment. Looking at the contact sheet, there are several wonderful photos. Invariably with Jane, there was one that stood out, one that sparkled. More often than not, this would be a direct address to camera. In the present case, it was the deflected gaze, an introspective moment tinged with wry humour. It’s a classic Bown – a “jackpot” picture as she might put it herself – with all of her trademark features. Rich blacks, strong contrast and warm, gentle light washing across a face happy and at ease.

  • Luke Dodd is director of the Observer Archive which includes the Jane Bown Collection