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Kate Middleton’s photo editing fits in a history of royal retouching

LONDON — Queen Victoria became slimmer. Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, lost her double chin. The Duke of Kent saw his wrinkles smoothed. The abdicating King Edward VIII lost his head.

As Catherine, Princess of Wales, comes under scrutiny for altering photographs before they were released by the royal family, British historians have been offering up their favorite examples of royal portrait manipulation over the decades.

This week, Getty Images said that a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, reportedly taken by Catherine at Balmoral Castle in 2022, had been “digitally enhanced at source.” Among the oddities noted by British media were an apparent misalignment of the queen’s tartan skirt and signs that Prince Louis may have been moved farther back.

Kensington Palace would not comment, but last week, after photo agencies retracted a photo they had distributed of Catherine and her children, the princess said she had altered it.

These revelations have reverberated in a particular way because Catherine has been out of the public eye while recovering from abdominal surgery — and while conspiracy theories have taken on a life of their own on social media.

But historians say that long before Photoshop, Instagram filters and iPhone editing, when the public had somewhat different expectations about authenticity from public figures and when media outlets had different standards, heavy retouching of royal and other society portraits was commonplace.

Victoria was a young queen in the early days of photography, and she and her husband, Albert, embraced the new technology, even learning to make daguerreotypes in a royal darkroom. After Albert’s death, when Victoria had taken up a life of seclusion, she used photographs to project her mourning to the world. By the time of her Diamond Jubilee, she had established the distribution of official images as a primary way for the monarch to connect with the people.

“Very early on, images were manipulated,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian. The kind of things photographers do now with editing software, photographers did then by messing with negatives.

Marks of a retoucher’s pencil show how Victoria was made to look as if she never aged. In the book “Queen Victoria, First Media Monarch,” John Plunkett describes: “Victoria’s waistline has been slimmed down by several inches. … Curves have been created where none previously existed. … Her forehead and an area of cheek have been thoroughly smoothed. … A series of lines on the negative darken and thicken her hair.”

Plunkett writes that occasional complaints can be found about the retouching of the queen’s photographs, but those complaints also reflected a lack of surprise that retouching was routine.

In one unusual example of photo alteration, Victoria took it upon herself to scratch her face out of an 1852 daguerreotype portrait with her five eldest children. The Royal Collection, which holds the image, notes that she recorded in her journal: “Mine was unfortunately horrid, but the children’s were pretty.” She commissioned a replacement portrait.

Cecil Beaton, the master of royal photographers in the 20th century, was particularly skilled at enhancing photos to make their subjects look better.

When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum mounted an exhibit of Beaton’s work in conjunction with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, curator Susanna Brown explained in a video: “The final images which visitors will see in the exhibition have all been very heavily retouched. … Often Beaton would advise his retouchers to slim the waistlines of the sitters or perhaps remove a double chin. But these details were very important in constructing an idealized image. These aren’t documentary shots. They’re a much more romantic style of portraiture, in which no hair is out of place and every detail is perfect.”

It wasn’t so different from the idealized “mask of youth” paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, for which artists were tasked with conveying ageless beauty.

In his research, historian Alexis Schwarzenbach found Beaton’s instructions for a retoucher to remove the wrinkles from a 1941 portrait of Prince George, the Duke of Kent, who was 39. “Please do an enormous amount of retouching to all of these. H.M. is not accustomed to any but most retouched pure lines,” Beaton wrote.

The resulting image accompanied many of the obituaries published after the duke’s accidental death the following year, helping to “immortalise an ever youthful and attractive image of this British prince,” Schwarzenbach wrote.

Hugo Vickers, the authorized biographer of Beaton, recalled that one client objected to the extent of alterations on her portrait: Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, widely known as the Queen Mother.

“She felt she hadn’t been entirely untouched by the passing of years” and asked, “Could Mr. Beaton perhaps remove some of the retouching?” Vickers told The Washington Post.

A trio of images from that 1950 sitting, now in the archives of the Victoria and Albert and included in Schwarzenbach’s research, shows one photo that was retouched too much for the Queen Mother’s liking, an original unedited photo, and a third, lightly retouched photo that she approved.

Vickers said it wasn’t until the 1960s that society photographers stopped removing everyone’s wrinkles and aspired to greater realism. But even now, he said, “The job of a society or royal photographer or portrait painter is to make people look good. Unless you’re Lucian Freud, that’s what you do.”

Although typically it has been photographers or their retouchers who altered royal portraits, in some cases it has been the news media.

The Illustrated London News, a beautifully illustrated weekly newspaper, did a little more than light retouching when scrambling to cover the news that King Edward VIII was abdicating in 1936, ahead of his coronation. The newspaper went back to the artist it had commissioned to paint Edward for the coronation edition, and the artist painted the new King George VI’s head on Edward’s robed figure.

“It was one of the first instances of ‘airbrushing’ a magazine’s royal portrait,” said Lisa Barnard, chief executive of Illustrated London News.

One of the first — but definitely not the last.

Marisa Bellack in Washington contributed to this report.

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