Portraits of the Queen: the man behind an extraordinary new exhibition of royal photography
I think the Queen is very open-minded, very open to new ideas and suggestions and she is incredibly sharp
August 2, 2015 | By:
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The Queen, from The Queen’s People by Hugo Rittson Thomas. Photo: PA

The Queen’s People shows the different sides of Her Majesty the Queen, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke of Cambridge. Lucy Handley meets photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas.

The photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas welcomes me into his studio under London’s Westway flyover, a room typical to an artist: plain and square with large windows and a Mac on a messy desk in the corner.

But in an otherwise unassuming environment is displayed one of the most striking images of the Queen I’ve ever seen: she is standing in a red Angela Kelly dress against a black background, her image seen from four angles due to a clever set-up of mirrors and lighting.

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Hugo Rittson Thomas

While she looks her regal self, the image is quite unadorned: there’s no crown, no sceptre and definitely no handbag: the only nod to her status is the brooch she is wearing, the Waterloo badge of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

A working Queen

Rittson Thomas wanted to show a Queen in service to her people.

“[She is] incredibly hard working, essentially a working woman who is a monarch, and transparent in her service to her people, and that is how her portrait should be presented.

“You can see all sides of her, nothing is hidden and she is presented without any of the trappings…The red of the dress is the only reference to power.”

The picture is part of The Queen’s People, an exhibition at the Eleven Gallery, showing members of the Royal Household and support staff in traditional uniforms.

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The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William

But getting the job – a commission to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Colonelcy of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 2013 – was a combination of persistence and luck.

Rittson Thomas had approached Buckingham Palace with the idea of photographing the Queen in this way, but got the impression from the press office that he should ‘forget it’.

But he pressed on with the project anyway, inspired by the so-called ‘Ditchley portrait’ of Elizabeth I, painted in 1592 and displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.

“She is surrounded by the trappings of royalty, she is standing on the world carrying the orbs, the levers of power and it is very typical of that period.”

The Queen’s People

“That made me think about trying to do something on the pageantry which led into this Royal Household, and originally it was 50 of these type of [uniformed] portraits which range from Beefeater to the Queen’s piper.”

He presented a dummy book of the idea to the Palace, casting people from the Royal Household, and then had a nerve-wracking wait before getting the go-ahead to shoot 50 portraits of people in uniform.

But the commission to take a portrait of the Queen came later, and he persuaded the Palace to let him photograph her in the same mirrored style.

“I think she’s very open-minded, very open to new ideas and suggestions and she is incredibly sharp.

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The Duchess of Cornwall in an outfit designed by Bruce Oldfield

“So when it was presented that this would be a contemporary classic photograph, very much in contrast to the Ditchley portrait because it shows a contemporary monarch in her work dress, available and transparent.

“I think she definitely responded to that.”

Setting up at Windsor Castle was a complex procedure that took about four hours.

The set had to be completely black and the mirrors had to be at the correct angles for the pictures to work.

Rittson Thomas wanted to get a series of portraits of the Queen and had prepared several topics of conversation for the 15-minute shoot.

Ian Fleming was a cousin of his, and Her Majesty had shot the James Bond sequence for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London the year before.

This provided good material for when the camera broke down mid-way through the shoot.

“I’d heard she’d enjoyed the process [and] that meant we had a nice chat as I fixed the camera and got up and running [again].”

Getting the Queen to smile wasn’t too difficult: he asked her to imagine that her horse had won the Derby.

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A full-length portrait of the Queen

The Duke of Cambridge

Prince William is also pictured, wearing the frock coat of the Irish Guards, carrying a sword and wearing the badge of St George.

“He’s so relaxed on camera, he was probably the fastest of the lot. His confidence comes out through the shots: he’s a natural born leader,” says Rittson Thomas.

The Duchess of Cambridge took a keen interest in the set-up for the shoot, asking ‘incredibly technical’ questions.

“Obviously she’s been following [photography] for quite a while and we can now see the great results with [her photographs] of Princess Charlotte [and Prince George].”

The photographer was keen to include her in the exhibition as a future Queen, but being pregnant with Prince George meant she “was in a condition in which she didn’t want to be photographed.”

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall also features, wearing formal clothes and family jewellery. “I [wanted] Camilla to be included as the next Queen. I’d like to do Prince Charles when he becomes King, that would be great.

“And I think the Royal Household’s response [to this exhibition] will be quite positive, because they are so popular.”

Other subjects include the Serjeant at Arms of the House of Commons, the Right Honourable Lady Justice and the Royal Mews Lady Coachman.

The Queen’s People, by Hugo Rittson Thomas, will be at Eleven Gallery from 19 August to 19 September 2015.