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The Portraits of a King
Forever in front of a camera, King Charles III finally ascends to the British throne.
After taking the first official photos of Queen Elizabeth with her infant son in 1948, famed Royal photographer Cecil Beaton wrote in his diary that the future King of England stared “long and wonderingly into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty.”
Indeed, there are millions of photographs of Prince, now King, Charles. But portraits are something else altogether — an intimate exchange, a collaboration between photographer and sitter. Portraits are, mostly, meticulously planned and carefully crafted. The results are deliberate, intentional.
Quick side note before going down the Royal rabbit hole: Beaton’s photo reminds me of Ed Clark’s magical image of President Kennedy gazing lovingly at his daughter Caroline in 1958. Beyond the obvious “shining Camelot” reference, the eye contact, or lack thereof, is remarkable.
There’s a lot to unpack in Norman Parkinson’s 1969 portrait of Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales. When I first saw this photo I thought the caption was mistaken, it hardly looks like Charles. Aside from the unflattering light that Parkinson threw behind him, there was something off about it. Yet British Vogue and The Telegraph published it illustrating stories on the upcoming coronation.
Then I realized, it’s flipped. In news photographs from that day Charles is holding the ceremonial sword and wearing a ring on his left hand. And look at the part in his hair. Of course! Here’s the correct version:
The photograph of Charles outside of Caernarfon Castle, while a little stiff, is much more regal.
According to Hello! fashion icon and former Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington touched up Charles’ face before the shoot. “It was quite a moment for me to be that close to the future King of England and be powdering his nose,” Coddington said.
In 1975, master portraitist Yousuf Karsh photographed Charles during a visit to Canada. The lighting is legendary, dignified. And the pinstripes — an early sign of Charles’ keen fashion sense.
Carole Cuttner was only 25 when she met the young King in 1978 at her daughter’s school. Cuttner told The Jewish Chronicle that she approached the King’s personal secretary and said Charles was “far better-looking than all previous photos” she’d seen. Buckingham Palace invited Cuttner to show her portfolio to Charles who then agreed to a portrait.
“I asked him if we could do the shoot outside in the palace gardens,” Cuttner recalled. “I used just one camera, a Hasselblad, no lights, and I asked him to stand next to a tree.”
In 1981 Lord Snowdon made this portrait of Charles for British Vogue before his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer. Snowdon, the “first royal rebel,” was the first husband of Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen. The black and white portrait was part of a cover story for British Vogue. Charles appears lost in the background, doubtful. The color images Snowdon shot that day are worth seeing.
Another photographer in the Royal family, Patrick Lichfield (cousin to Queen Elizabeth II), had exclusive access to Charles and Princess Diana following their wedding July 29, 1981.
I was hesitant to include this 1991 family photo by Snowdon. There’s something incredibly sad and manufactured about it, given everything that happened afterwards.
In the book Charles III: The Making Of A King, National Portrait Gallery Chief Curator Alison Smith panned the image, writing, “With hindsight the sheer contrivance and artificiality of the composition serves to underscore the pretence of harmonious family life at a time when the relationship between the couple was under strain.”
That being said, Harry looks genuinely happy next to that little horse.
On the other hand, Mario Testino has made some of the most memorable and beautiful images of the Royal Family, particularly Diana. He captures the full Royal splendor in this portrait of King Charles for Vanity Fair, part of an epic portfolio in the September 2003 issue.
To mark Charles’ 60th birthday in 2008, the Palace tapped former Tatler photographer Hugo Burnand. The King is wearing the “blue sash of the Order of the Garter and the stars of the Garter, Bath and Thistle” and sitting in an Italian giltwood armchair that belonged to the Queen Mother. Charles looks relaxed, given the situation.
Of course I’m biased, but my all-time favourite portrait of King Charles is by Nadav Kander. I was the international picture editor at TIME in 2013 and assigned this to Kander, knowing something magical would happen. And it did.
The portrait is revealing and modern, heightened perfection in a way only Kander can achieve. There’s vulnerability in his expression, a longing never-before captured.
Catherine Mayer, TIME’s London bureau chief then, was critical in making this shoot at Birkhall, the King’s residence at Balmoral, a reality. Kander told Mayer, “I was pleased he was so generous with his emotions.” Mayer eventually published Kander’s photo on the cover of her 2015 book, Charles, The Heart of a King.
Kander also made this portrait, which is spectacular. The color palette is muted, and I love the formal, painterly composition. The hole in the wall, a splash of green with what appears to be a cobweb, is sublime.
The portrait made for a great cover, one of the highlights of my career at TIME.
Kander spent three hours scouting, lighting, and planning but less than the 45 minutes allotted for the shoot. “[The Prince] and I really gelled,” Kander said.
Here’s the opening spread.
Lubomirski also captured this lovely moment between Charles and Camilla. “You feel like they are a young couple in love,” he told Vanity Fair.
Nick Knight focused on the King Charles’ love of nature for this dazzling portrait for British Vogue in 2020. The color is wild, majestic.
Lastly, I love this highly-symbolic photo by veteran Getty Images Royal photographer Chris Jackson. The portrait of King Charles having a quiet conversation with an old oak tree at Windsor Castle was released by the Palace to commemorate his 74th birthday in 2022. Jackson’s work is stellar, his access unparalleled.
King Charles coronation is May 6, 2023.
Updated on May 9, 2023, with the first official portrait of King Charles III by Hugo Burnand.