{Scotland} Marcus Adams: Royal Photographer

May 2, 2011


Yesterday’s Royal Wedding reminded me of an exhibition I went to see at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh last month, which I had meant to write about. Marcus Adams: Royal Photographer celebrates the Royal Portraiture of the man in question. If you are interested in photography, or portraits, or the Royal Family, or any combination thereof, then this is the exhibition for you (in my case it was the first two). The majority of the images on display – only a selection of the over 2500 original glass plates of Adams portraits in the Royal collection – are black and white gelatin silver prints, as well as some modern prints from original glass negatives, some gelatin silver prints hand coloured in pastel (by Adams’ brother), and the post war years of the exhibition also introduce colour prints although Adams continued to work in both colour and black and white until the end of his career.

The exhibition begins with an introduction to the man behind the camera, including a self portrait. Adams specialised in the photography of children, in fact, he was the leading child photographer of his day. His career began when Betram Park, already an established society photographer, gave him the opportunity to open a studio on his premises as he was not interested in photographing children himself. That way, he could satisfy the photography needs of his clients without having to send them to another studio across town.

The exhibition then continues in chronological order, giving a glimpse into a photographic record that spans two generations of royal children from 1926 until 1956. Adams’ relationship with the British Royal Family began when King George VI (when he was still Prince Albert) commissioned him to photograph his daughters, first Princess Elizabeth and later Princess Margaret, and lasted until Elizabeth started her own family. The first set of photographs is from Princess Elizabeth’s first sittings, initially to celebrate her birth – as the first child of her parents – and then to record her progress during her parents’ six month absence on a trip to the Antipodes. A heart-warming letter from Elizabeth’s nurse, sent to her parents along with the photographs, is also on display, which reads “If mummy looks into my wide open mouth with a little magnifying glass she will see my first teeth.”

The following sections included, amongst others, photographs commemorating the family’s reunion; an intimate view into the close bond between the two sisters; family portraits following the accession of King George; the last photographs with pearl necklaces and frilly dresses before the outbreak of the war (after which the children were pictured in tweeds and woolens); the last sittings of the two Princesses in 1941; and finally, after an eight year gap until 1949, a new generation of royal children with the birth of Prince Charles (several photographs are inscribed with the name of the sitters, including one which reads ‘Lilibet’ in a shaky child’s handwriting^^) The narrative comes full circle with images of Charles and his sister, Princess Ann, being sent to Queen Elizabeth in late 1953 on her six month Commonwealth Tour to keep her up-to-date with their progress.

Other sections of the exhibition, completing the story, include the portrait used for the first postage stamp featuring Princess Elizabeth; a section with photographs of ‘royal relatives’; a small selection of adult photographs by Bertram Park; a case of commemorative china featuring Adams’ photographs; and an early film clip of Adams engaging with a young Princess Elizabeth.

There was also an audio guide accompanying the exhibition, which was extremely well made and engaging. Additional information, both about the Royal Family and some of the photographs, but also about Marcus Adams and his techniques proved very interesting. For example, I learned that Adams was interested in the “expressive nature of hands” and studied palmestry. He often made pencil sketches for reference, and one of the images on display is a close up of Princess Elizabeth’s hand. He also used a series of different tools to create the “characteristically smooth and velvety textures” in his photographs, e.g. by using chalk or graphite pencils to work on the emulsion side of the glass plate negatives in advance of printing on them. Through this technique he could also add a hint of background into studio portraits – not dissimilar from photoshopping a digital photograph!

Adams understood how to relate to his young sitters. The audio guide tells us about the unusual camera which he built himself. The contraption, which comprised a long tube with a rubber bulb at the end, enabled him to take pictures whilst playing with the children, requiring only an assistant to change the glass plates. That way they often didn’t even realise they were being photographed, which in his eyes gave more natural shots. According to Adams, photography was “95% psychology and only 5% mechanical input”.

The final picture in the exhibition shows a triple portrait of Elizabeth with her two children, all three of them falling about laughing, and shows Adams’ ability to take portraits that were relaxed and informal without looking stilted. For those of us who only know the Royal family from the news and the media, may be suprised by Adams’ closing remarks on the audio guide: “I have had more joy from that family than from any. They are full of fun.”

The exhibition runs until 5th June 2011, and if you get your ticket stamped at the exit it becomes valid for a year, so you can use it to revisit the Queen’s Gallery to see other exhibitions.

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