Portrait of a Queen

To her critics, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is a stiff and off-putting curmudgeon, hostile to modernizing the monarchy and rather unfeeling toward her heirs. But a new photo exhibit at Windsor Castle to commemorate her 80th birthday this week leaves a markedly different impression: that of a convivial and happy woman who cares deeply for her family and has a profound respect for her role as sovereign.

Straightforwardly if clumsily titled, "An Exhibition of Photographs to Celebrate the 80th Birthday of HM the Queen" (through March 2007) is presented in chronological order and includes some gems seldom seen by the public. Among them: a gelatin silver print of Princess Elizabeth at 5 weeks, looking rather serious in her christening gown. Another striking image, of little "Lilibet" being held by her grandmother Queen Mary in 1927, hints that even as a toddler she had the stoicism of a leader. But there is also a mischievous sparkle behind her eyes--a motif that recurs throughout the exhibit. There are, of course, more formal portraits too, like Cecil Beaton's official 1953 coronation pictures, as well as numerous shots of Elizabeth on duty as monarch, on a walkabout during a state visit to Berlin in 2000 and visiting Iceland's hot springs in 1990.

But there are also more casual photographs that allude to a woman who enjoys a good laugh, and lets her guard down when "off duty." In 1943 a teenage Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, appeared in a Christmas pantomime of "Aladdin"--and, as a series of five photographs makes clear, immensely enjoyed dressing up in their costumes of embroidered jackets and puffy shorts with tights. A brilliant photo taken from behind during a 1970 visit to the South Pacific shows the queen--with her petite waist, in heels and a dress--standing beside the much heftier figure of the leader of Tonga in his traditional garb. Patrick Litchfield captured the queen in 1972 aboard her beloved Royal Yacht Britannia, far from the crowds, openly cackling at the renowned photographer who was shooting her with a waterproof camera while swimming in the pool below.

There are the predictable family shots as well; a 1988 Christmas card with her children and grandchildren looks like what most people send to family and friends at the holidays. Other images show a maternal side the queen has often shied away from displaying in public. In one sweet shot, the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, pose endearingly at Balmoral in 1953 with their two eldest, Prince Charles and Princess Anne; in another she smiles at the adorable infant Charles. There is also a warm portrait of the queen and Prince Philip taken in the library of Balmoral with four of their grandchildren in 1987, which shows a happy set of grandparents proud of their progeny.

To be sure, few if any of the images speak to what a truly typical modern-day family she heads up, with its share of divorces, affairs and step-relations: there are no pictures of Princess Diana, her ex-daughter-in-law who was killed in a car accident in 1997. But there is still time for the family album to grow and change; if she has genes like her mother, who died in 2002 at 101, Queen Elizabeth II will be celebrating many more birthdays to come.