Among the well-known Brits, past and present, whose images line the walls of Washington’s National Portrait Gallery in the exhibit “Great Britons: Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London,” there is Diana, Princess of Wales. The 16-by-20-inch black-and-white photograph proves once again that the camera loved Diana, who was almost as fond of it.
The small portrait is one of many taken by Mario Testino in May 1997. The others, larger than life, are on display at Kensington Palace, where I saw them on a recent trip to London. The purpose of the shoot was to photograph the princess wearing evening gowns (now displayed in an adjacent room of the palace) that she was putting up for charity auction.
According to the Accoustiguide, at the beginning of the photo session the princess sat prim and emotionless.
“No, no, no, this is what I want,” said Testino as he flopped on to the couch.
That broke the ice, made her laugh. The results—some were published in the July 1997 Vanity Fair—show an enchanting young woman at ease with herself, her image, her life. She wears no makeup, no jewelry. The stiffness imposed by the royal mantle, a bad marriage, and and even worse divorce is gone. Never mind that she is having a bad hair day.
Kensington Palace, a large brick building—what the Brits call “a pile”—is where the princess lived unhappily and not forever after. It is also where, following her death on August 31, 1997, thousands of people came to pay their respects. Floral tributes, placed one on top of another—some carefully arranged by professional florists, others hand-picked from commoners’ gardens—were so numerous that they measured four feet in height.
“Quite extraordinary it was,” says Nigel Arch, director of Kensington Palace. And no doubt, as the tenth anniversary of the princess’s death approaches and Tina Brown’s much-reviewed dirt-dishing biography, The Diana Chronicles, becomes this summer’s guilty-pleasure reading, the Palace will again be a place for the faithful to gather.
Kensington Palace, London, is open daily from 10 to 6. Tickets to the exhibit are about $20. To make a reservation from the US, call 011 44 870 751 5180 or visit here.
Susan Davidson visits her native England frequently and has put her name down at the library for Tina Brown’s book.