We’ve spent the last few days celebrating the royal jewels of the Duchess of Cambridge. Thanks to a set of new portraits released to celebrate her 40th birthday this weekend, we’ve got one more chance to marvel at her jewels—and the way she helped guide these fascinating new royal images.
The three new photograph portraits were taken by the Italian photographer Paolo Roversi in November 2021, in the Temperate House at Kew Gardens. The photographer, who is based in Paris, often still captures his images on film. Kate wears gowns by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen in the portraits. (Burton also famously designed her wedding dress.) Roversi also recently photographed the McQueen Autumn/Winter 2021 collection.
In the past, Roversi has spoken about his specific technique, which is very apparent in these photographs of the Duchess: “My photography is more subtraction than addition. I always try to take off things. We all have a sort of mask of expression. You say goodbye, you smile, you are scared. I try to take all these masks away and little by little subtract until you have something pure left. A kind of abandon, a kind of absence. It looks like an absence, but in fact when there is this emptiness I think the interior beauty comes out. This is my technique.” Women’s Wear Daily calls the portrait images of Kate “dreamy” and soft-edged,” thanks to Roversi’s methods.
Along with the McQueen gowns, Kate wears a select number of pieces of royal jewelry in the portraits, carefully pared back and clearly meant to draw links to the royal past. In this image, she wears three jewels that belonged to the late Diana, Princess of Wales: the Collingwood Pearl Drop Earrings, the Sapphire Engagement Ring, and the Three-Row Pearl Bracelet (partially visible on her right wrist).
And in this more exuberant image, Kate wears the Queen’s Diamond Frame Earrings with a playful red gown. The earrings are part of a range of jewels that the Queen has loaned to Kate over the past decade. (You can read about all of the loaned pieces here.)
Roversi gave an interview to an Italian newspaper after the photographs were released, revealing a bit more behind-the-scenes information about the images. He shared that he didn’t want his subject to look “too Lady Duchess, too establishment, but as pure, as contemporary as possible, or even timeless.” (There’s that word “pure” again.) He also teased that there are more informal photographs from the session that haven’t been released: “In the end I wanted to take pictures in motion, so with that wonderful wide skirt I made her dance in front of my lens, a kind of accelerated waltz mixed with a pinch of rock ‘n roll.”
And here’s the third image, which focuses on Kate’s face. The Collingwood Pearl Drop Earrings, the only visible jewels, fade into the background. All three of the pictures will be part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, of which Kate is patron. In the coming months, they will be displayed in three locations close to Kate’s heart: Berkshire, St. Andrews, and Angelsey.
Roversi has discussed the various influences behind the composition of the portraits, including several pieces of inspiration provided by Kate herself. He notes that Claudia Cardinale’s performance in The Leopard, a 1963 film, is a visual connection for him.
He also shared that Kate spoke with him about her interest in Victorian photography, specifically the images created by Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll. Above, I’ve included Cameron’s 1874 photograph, Elaine. The tonality of Cameron’s images, as well as the posing of her models, can definitely been seen as an influence on the new portraits. Kate has been interested in nineteenth-century photography since her days as a student at St. Andrews. In 2018, she curated an exhibition of Victorian photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.
There are echoes of royal images in the new portraits as well. This photograph of Queen Alexandra (then Princess of Wales), taken by Robert Jefferson Bingham in June 1864, is a clear echo to me, down to the bow on her sleeve with its trailing ribbons. Alexandra wears her diamond and pearl wedding earrings in the images, as well as several other pearl pieces. (Kate, of course, now wears Queen Alexandra’s Wedding Necklace.)
The undone nature of Kate’s hair in these photographs brings to mind the Cameron photographs, but it also reminds me of the famous portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria by Winterhalter, the great nineteenth-century royal portrait artist.
Winterhalter also painted many images of British royals and aristocrats. Note the echo of Kate’s pose and dress in this 1842 portrait of a young Queen Victoria, wearing her sapphire coronet and the Albert Brooch.
And Winterhalter even painted a version of that 1864 photograph of Queen Alexandra, giving her a softer, less direct gaze in his version of the image.
Many have also pointed to the dreamy twentieth-century photographs taken by Cecil Beaton as having resonance with the new images. Here’s Beaton’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), taken at the time of the coronation in 1937. (She wears a lot more jewelry, including the Indian Circlet, the Crown Rubies, and the Diamond Fringe Brooch—all pieces that linked her directly to Queen Victoria. Wearing jewels as a sign of continuity with previous generations is nothing new!)
This connection makes a lot of sense. The gowns that Elizabeth wore in several of these Beaton portraits were part of her famous White Wardrobe, made for the French state visit that took place just after the death of her mother. While discussing the creation of the gowns, King George VI showed designer Norman Hartnell several Winterhalter portraits, including one of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, to provide him with inspiration. Echoes on echoes on echoes…
I’ve seen mixed reactions to the new portraits online—some love them, and for others, they’re just not their cup of tea. They fascinate me primarily because of the clear desire to mix the present with the past, echoing Kate’s personality and her interests with the larger myth-making imagery of royals past. Everything here—from the pose and the styling to the gowns and the jewels—seems deliberately designed to place Kate as a royal woman who bridges history and the present. Formal and casual, rigid and relaxed, then and now, HRH The Duchess of Cambridge and Catherine Middleton.