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Hugo Burnand: Meet the man tasked with making history happen during the coronation

The photographer Hugo Burnand is taking all the official portraits at King Charles III and Queen Camilla’s coronation  (PA)
The photographer Hugo Burnand is taking all the official portraits at King Charles III and Queen Camilla’s coronation (PA)

When Hugo Burnand took the photos for Kate and William’s wedding in 2011, he called it “the gig of the century”. Now the former Tatler photographer is tackling the coronation. Burnand, 59, follows in the footsteps of Cecil Beaton, who famously photographed the late Queen, then 27, when she was crowned in 1953.

Burnand is an obvious choice for King Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, who will be crowned at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6 May. The British photographer took the relaxed but regal portraits of them at their wedding in 2005, and the official 60th birthday photograph of Charles in 2008, inspired by James Tissot’s 1870 portrait of the soldier, traveller and balloonist Frederick Burnaby (but without a cigarette in hand).

He prefers an “approachable feel” to portraits , he told Hello! in 2008, so “you are almost talking to the person”. His three new portraits, released last week ahead of the coronation, include one of the King and Camilla standing side by side in the Blue Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. Taken in front of a portrait of Charles’s great-grandfather, King George V, it was completed shortly after his coronation in 1911 and, despite the formal setting, shows the couple happy and at ease.

Another portrait captures the King, also with a relaxed air about him, sitting in a grand giltwood and silk upholstered armchair that dates back to 1829, and was supplied to King George IV to furnish Windsor Castle.

Burnand became a photographer aged 27 and worked for Tatler’s Bystander party column for over 20 years. While at the society magazine, he took the steely portrait of Margaret and Denis Thatcher for their golden anniversary in 2001. The couple are seated in the photograph on a gold-coloured sofa and reluctantly held hands as they posed. After four takes, the former UK prime minister apparently said: “That’s enough of that”.

Meghan and Harry broke tradition for their royal wedding in 2018 – preferring to use Alexi Lubomirski, a former assistant to Mario Testino. But Burnand, who was given his first camera by his grandmother for his seventh birthday, has photographed a long line of other high profile subjects, including the late Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Clinton, Lucien Freud, Michael Jackson, Spike Milligan and Victoria Beckham. He also took David and Samantha Cameron’s wedding photos in 1996.

Burnand’s favourite photograph of William and Kate’s wedding was the last “spontaneous” one he took of them that day. The couple are sitting on the steps of the opulent throne room at Buckingham Palace, surrounded by their page boys and bridesmaids, with whom the photographer had a good rapport after bribing them with jelly beans. Kate’s hand is casually resting on William’s knee, as one of the page boys leans playfully into Kate – it took Burnand three minutes to capture it. “The Fly Past was at 1.30pm and we couldn’t over run, even by a minute,” Burnand told Town and Country magazine.

When he and his team left the palace, they spotted a Winterhalter painting of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children – which Burnand claimed sublimally influenced him. “It shows them surrounded by five children who are dressed up beautifully but are sort of tumbling about, and I thought how amazing it was that I had taken exactly that picture hours before without any prior knowledge of the painting,” he said.

William and Kate at their wedding in 2011 (Hugo Burnadn)
William and Kate at their wedding in 2011 (Hugo Burnadn)

Kate, who is a keen amateur photographer, was involved in planning her wedding photographs with Burnand. “We decided not to photograph any of the portraits up against the wall because the architecture of the room was so amazing,” he said.

Burnand and his team of six cycled to Buckingham Palace from his Notting Hill studio on the day of the shoot because of all the road closures. At both royal weddings, Burnand, who was born in Cannes, France, was assisted by his stepmother, Ursy Burnand, a photographer, who had raised him after his mother died in car accident in 1964, a year after he was born.

Burnand’s portraits have traditional and modern elements reflecting the new Carolean era (Hugo Burnand)
Burnand’s portraits have traditional and modern elements reflecting the new Carolean era (Hugo Burnand)

At William and Kate’s wedding, Burnand did dress rehearsals “with stopwatches using endless staff from Buckingham Palace” to stand in as family members. No doubt that’s exactly what he’s doing right now in the run-up to the coronation.

Then his highlight was “looking from behind the balcony [at Buckingham Palace] down the Mall filled with celebrating well-wishers”. It was like a dream; he pinched himself just to make sure it was real. This weekend, he will be back in the same spot – with his self-declared mission to “try not to f*** it up”.

It’s reported his coronation photographs will have traditional and modern elements – reflecting the new Carolean era. Historian Hugo Vickers, who wrote Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography, is quoted by The Times as saying “Burnand won’t have a young, romantic queen, but his portraits of the King and Queen Consort in full splendour will be a big statement and crucial in setting the tone for the new reign”.

No pressure, then? It may be a slimmed-down monarchy on the balcony this time, but as he captures the big day, Burnand will witness so much more than a coronation. He’s right up close as history happens – and he’s also helping make it.