Marcus Adams - Royal Photographer

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Work of Royal Photographer Marcus Adams. Our present Queen when she was Princess Elizabeth (above) and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (below) and the  Queen with Prince Charles & Princess Anne.  Merton Russell-Cotes image courtesy of Russell-Cotes Museum & Gallery


By Jeremy Miles

Long before the era of celebrity snappers and the unwelcome attentions of the paparazzi, the Royal family were being routinely and discreetly documented in a series of stunning photographs.

Marcus Adams may not be a familiar name to the general public but he spent 30 years as photographer of choice to the Royal household.

A master of his craft and a specialist in child photography, Adams took the family pictures for Buckingham Palace in the days before they acquired their own camera-toting insiders in the form of Lord Snowdon and the Earl of Lichfeld.

Now Adams’ extraordinary pictures, normally kept in the Royal Collection, are to go on display at Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The Russell-Cotes is of course housed in East Cliff Hall, the cliff-top mansion built by Bournemouth mayor,  philanthropist, traveller and art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes and his wife Annie at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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A fervent social climber, Sir Merton was a devoted royalist and it may well  be the connections that he forged with the monarchy of his day that has led to the museum being chosen as one of only two venues in the country hosting this exhibition of wonderfully intimate photographs.

The show, which runs from June 29 to September 16, celebrates Adams work which, between 1926 and 1956, created a joyful photographic record of two generations of the Royal family.

They reveal Adams to have been an exceptional photographer. Though mannered and carefully directed his images speak volumes about how close his relationship was with his subjects. 

The sheer joy on the faces of the young Queen Elizabeth and her children Charles and Anne could only have been achieved by someone who instilled a sense of trust and fun in the people he photographed.

Even the photographs taken in more austere times of the young Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret with their father George VI and mother Queen Elizabeth,  later the Queen Mother, shows the family supremely relaxed in Adams’ company.

These are extraordinary photographs. A document of an era. But Marcus Adams, who died in 1959 was an extraordinary photographer. He originally opened his studio in Mayfair in 1920 and quickly established a reputation as a leading child photographer through  his  ability  to  capture  the  personality  of  his  young sitters.

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  These included the children of the writers A.A. Milne and Agatha Christie.  Adams, who believed that photography was ‘ninety-five per cent psychology and only five per cent mechanical’ wanted his subjects to be completely at ease. His studio was filled with gadgets and toys, and had no visible equipment or dazzling lights. Instead, Adams built a special camera in the form of a toy cabinet, which he operated remotely while he moved about and talked to the children.  A number of the portraits were kept by the Royal Family, some were published in newspapers and magazines, and others appeared on postcards,  calendars, commemorative china, and even biscuit tins and jigsaw puzzles. 

The  Duke  and  Duchess  of  York  (the  future  King  George  VI  and Queen Elizabeth) were frequent visitors to Adams’ studio. Their eldest daughter Princess Elizabeth was first photographed there on 2 December 1926, when she was seven months old.  Four weeks later, the Duke and Duchess left on a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand. During their absence, the Princess was taken to four sittings with Adams, and the resulting photographs were sent to her parents in the royal dispatch bag. 

Sue Hayward, the heritage manager for Bournemouth Council, described the opportunity to stage the show as a delight for both the Russell-Cotes and Bournemouth.

“The images of the Royal Family are remarkable and Adam’s technical mastery is second to none.” she said. 

Russell-Cotes project manager Tricia Walker says the museum feels honoured to have been approached by Buckingham Palace.

“I think they felt it was appropriate to stage the exhibition here because the Russell-Cotes has so many royal connections. The galleries here ( an extension to the original house) were actually opened by Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice in 1919. We still have the gold tea-service from which she drank.”

Other connections forged by Sir Merton may have been a little less public. It is rumoured that in the 1870s when he owned the Royal Bath Hotel, Merton regularly played host to the future King Edward VII and his mistress Lillie Langtry.

The pair had a decidedly tempestuous relationship.  A cracked plate in the Russell-Cotes collection is believed to have once been thrown by Miss Langtry at her royal beau.

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Needless to say the ever-discreet Merton Russell-Cotes remained silent on the subject. There are historians who believe that he may have received his knighthood as a reward for his loyalty. 

Elsewhere in the museum there are sculptures of Queen Victoria and even a beautiful stained glass window commemorating her own diamond jubilee.

Sadly the most recent royal visit was eclipsed by tragedy. The Duke of Gloucester came to the museum in 2001 to preside over the Russell-Cotes official re-opening following extensive refurbishment.

Nearly £3 million worth of heritage lottery funded renovations had been lavished on the museum, restoring it to its former glory. 

 The event attracted local and national press but the celebrations went unnoticed by a world transfixed by a horror three thousand miles away. Within a couple of hours of the Duke’s visit thousands of people had died and the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York lay in a mass of rubble and twisted metal.

It’s ironic perhaps that while his old cliff-top home - a bizarre mix of Italianate villa and Scottish hunting lodge - would be instantly recognisable, Merton Russell-Cotes would find himself dreadfully adrift in the 21st century. 

He would however love Marcus Adams photographs. As Tricia Walker points out. “They are wonderful photographs irrespective of the subject. Personally I have never seen photographs of the Royal family in which they look so at ease. 

“You have to remember that they returned to Marcus Adams studio repeatedly over a period of 30 years. The result is a series of remarkable pictures which look spontaneous and fun. It’s wonderful seeing the Queen as a little girl.  Its also an insight into the royals  as a family. It captures them as individuals which is very, very rare.”

The Russell-Cotes is hoping their Royal summer show will turn out to be a blockbuster and advise early booking. They may be helped by the fact that many of the photographs were taken in the era depicted in the hugely successful Oscar winning film The King’s Speech. 

The Royal Collection photographs by Marcus Adams will be on show at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum from June 29 until September 16. For more information visit russell-cotes.bournemouth.gov. Uk

A book  Marcus Adams: Royal Photographer published by Royal Collection Publications (120 pages, over 160 colour illustrations), price £9.95 will also be on sale.


*All Marcus Adams’ Royal Pictures courtesy of  The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

ly© Jeremy Miles 2017