A Yorkshire princess and the Queen

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, 15 December 1936.  Photo: Marcus Adams. The Royal Collection
King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, 15 December 1936. Photo: Marcus Adams. The Royal Collection
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She must be the most photographed woman in history – more photographed, even, than her late daughter-in-law, Diana. Wherever the Queen has been during her 60-year reign, crowds have jostled with their cameras, snapping fuzzy, fleeting moments of her as she goes walkabout or waves from the back of a state coach or limousine.

With her reign coinciding with the golden age of popular photography, the snaps are preserved – possibly in fading colour – in a million albums and bottom drawers. Few of them, however, will have the charm of the 70 or so royal pictures that go on display today at Harewood House, near Leeds, as part of the Diamond Jubilee jamboree.

Drawn from the Royal Collection, they feature the work of Marcus Adams, one of the Royal Family’s favourite photographers and show the Queen as a cute little girl and the rest of her family at its most unbuttoned... but first, the other, closer-to-home, exhibition that also opens at Harewood today: about Princess Mary, last-but-one Countess of Harewood (and the Queen’s aunt).

The exhibition, called Royal Harewood, was still being put up when I sampled it a couple of weeks ago, on a chilly morning with the resident red kites wheeling through the fog swathing the gardens. Exhibits were being polished, photographs were being sorted, display cases were being Farrow-and-Balled.

But there was enough to show how well the exhibition puts Princess Mary in her impressive royal context as daughter of George V and sister of Edward VIII and George VI. She’s described in the exhibition as “The Yorkshire Princess”, but she’s perhaps better known, almost 40 years after her death, as the Princess Royal (a title now held by Princess Anne).

She married Viscount Lascelles, later Sixth Earl of Harewood, in 1922 and moved into the house seven years later. At that moment, it became a royal household, but didn’t quite measure up. It was still essentially Victorian, last “improved” in the 1850s and without the home comforts which the rich expected.

“The infrastructure wasn’t there; it wasn’t a modern household,” says Anna Robinson, Harewood’s head of house and collections. “And she was a princess. It was a lovely country house that people enjoyed, but places get tired and it was in need of modernisation. And they felt they were here to restore the house, to bring it back to Robert Adam’s original 18th century schemes.”

The Princess and her husband commissioned designs for a suite of rooms for themselves from Sir Herbert Baker, one of the main architects of New Delhi. They featured her personal monogram on some of the ceilings and coats of arms where appropriate. Her son, the Seventh Earl (who died last year) recalled how, as Anna Robinson says, “they had to be careful that the central heating didn’t damage the Chippendales.”

Ironically, the newly spruced-up house soon became a convalescent hospital during the Second World War and some of the grounds were Dug for Victory. A shy and quiet woman, Mary seems to have come into her own during the war. She inherited the sense of public duty and hard work for the community which some claim helped shorten the life of her brother George. She had trained as a nurse during the First World War, was heavily involved in charity work, the Red Cross and the Girl Guides, and became Chancellor of Leeds University.

No-one, it seems, had a bad word to say about her. Her grandson David talks about the time when she would take them for walks into the woods or round the lake, spiking litter on the end of her walking stick.

It seems table manners were very important and woe betide anyone who tore grapes off the bunch instead of snipping them with special grape scissors.

She enjoyed country life at Harewood, particularly hunting, more than city glitz, but that shouldn’t suggest her tastes were modest. The exhibition, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and involving an oral history project with estate workers, features some of her Fabergé jewellery and part of her extravagant fan collection.

They range from swooning ostrich feathers with Cartier diamond monograms on the handle to elegant 18th century fans, decorated with gods frolicking in pastoral landscapes and humans in powdered wigs strumming guitars and spying on each other through telescopes.

At the same time, Mary showed a typically upper class prudence when it came to more everyday items, hoarding old envelopes and bits of string in the Diana and Minerva Commode, one of the plushest pieces of Harewood Chippendale. Some drawers in the library are still stuffed with her envelopes-for-recycling.

There are some engaging family photographs here, including Happy, George V’s terrier, Harewood children dressing up as hussars, and, poignantly, Mary’s youngest brother John, who died in 1919, aged 14. A lock of his fair hair is preserved under the glass.

There’s also Mary wearing a hat as big as a Christmas tree: an image put in perspective by the cupboard in which her more everyday hats are stored – 1940s hats, for the most part, a bit frayed and faded; both homely and surreal at the same time.

“It’s strange, you don’t expect her to have had anything worn, because she was a princess,” says Anna Robinson. “But she was a great one for making do and mending.”

She also collected model owls – including one created by Fabergé and another turned into a car mascot – and there’s a mug that links neatly to Harewood’s other exhibition. On its front is a transfer of one of the royal photographs taken by Marcus Adams.

Adams (1875-1959) was a society photographer who specialised in portraits of children and first photographed the Queen in 1926, when she was seven months old.

His early pictures of her set the style: black-and-white studio portraits, discreetly soft-focus, with the young princess sporting a froth of blonde curls and a sometimes rather gummy smile. At this stage, there’s not a corgi in sight, though a toy tiger lurks in one picture.

Many of the images are strikingly informal, particularly after Princess Margaret joined her sister at the studio sessions and they larked about a bit. Even as a child, Margaret was the more naturally photogenic and relaxed of them. Her knowing young eyes almost flirt with the camera.

All these years later, it’s easy to forget what a potent double act the two sisters were. In The Little Princesses, her backstairs account of Buckingham Palace life, their governess Marion Crawford (“Crawfie”) was one of the first to grasp that a whole literary industry was waiting to be built on public fascination for royal trivia.

“The two little girls had their own way of dealing with their (barley) sugar,” she breathlessly confides early in this pioneering curtsy-and-tell book, which includes pictures by Marcus Adams. “Margaret kept the whole lot in her small hot hand and pushed it into her mouth. Lillibet (Elizabeth), however, carefully sorted hers out on the table, large and small pieces together, and then ate it very daintily and methodically.” What do you make of that, Dr Freud?

Adams, who had a look of Mark Twain about him, continued photographing the family until his retirement in 1956. Over the last seven years of his career, he photographed Prince Charles and Princess Anne 13 times.

One of his most memorable, and most understated, images shows the family – George VI, Queen Mother, Elizabeth and Margaret – posing soberly together shortly after the 1937 Coronation. The eleven-year-old Elizabeth stares intently at the camera, as if it’s suddenly dawning on her that one day she may become Queen.

The family hold hands, in the sort of picture any middle class family in the 1930s might have had taken by a local studio photographer to display on the front-room mantelpiece in their semi. It was just that this family’s semi was Buckingham Palace.

Adams may have made them look a pretty uncharismatic lot, but in a way that’s his main legacy: to humanise the Royal Family, demystify them. And he enjoyed the sessions. “I have had more joy from that family than from any,” he said. “They are full of fun.”

He clearly had as much of a gift for putting his subjects at their ease as the more celebrated Cecil Beaton, whose portraits of the Queen feature in an exhibition at Leeds City Museum from May 5 to June 24. Beaton won the commission to photograph the Coronation and staged the famous portrait of Elizabeth in her Coronation Robes, enthroned in ermine, against a painted backdrop of Westminster Abbey. It’s arguably the most engaging formal image of monarchy ever taken, stirring even the most republican heart.

Beaton included Adams in the “Commercial Photographers” section of The Magic Image, the compulsively readable history of photography he wrote with Gail Buckland.

Many photographers got their come-uppance in the book, but Adams comes out rather well: “Though his Royal Family groups were his most widely appreciated, his best was of Lady Pamela Smith looking like a robin in a taffeta pannier dress.” In point of fact, that’s an insult to robins; it’s a very silly picture.

Beaton’s easy manner didn’t register with everyone, however, as he flitted round the Royal Family on Coronation Day, taking candid shots and trilling “Charming!” and “Divine!” The Duke of Edinburgh reputedly grumbled about such effeteness. I dare say it would have cut no ice with the Yorkshire Princess either.

Royal Harewood: Celebrating the Life of The Yorkshire Princess and Marcus Adams: Royal Photographer, Photographs from the Royal Collection to June 17, 12pm to 3pm. Adults from £14 Freedom Ticket which includes access to gardens and grounds. Half price entry for visitors using the bus.