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The Crown: The True Story Behind Princess Margaret's Scandalous Portrait

© Netflix

Princess Margaret had a rough time of it in The Crown’s first season: her beloved father dies, her sister becomes the head of the family, country and Commonwealth – then the same sister prevents her from marrying the man she loves (doing so in the interest of said family, country and Commonwealth, supposedly). While writer Peter Morgan may have taken some liberties with historical fact in the interest of good television, the fact that (most of) this actually happened behind palace doors in real life made Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Elizabeth’s younger, wilder sister even more heart-breaking.

As the show’s action movies into the more liberated 1960s for a second season, Margaret’s doomed love affair with Captain Peter Townsend is well and truly shelved: in its place is a far more exciting – but equally complicated – romance with society photographer Antony ‘Tony’ Armstrong-Jones, as played by Downton Abbey’s Matthew Goode.

Often over-looked by the show in favour of the ‘A’ plotlines provided by Claire Foy’s Elizabeth and Matt Smith’s Prince Philip – just as she must so often have been side-lined in real life – it’s only after three episodes of well-elocuted marital strife that Margaret is allowed to take centre stage for season two’s fourth hour-long instalment. After a failed engagement to a truly awful old Etonian named Billy Wallace, she asks her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Cavendish to introduce her to a new crowd, with a few caveats: she wants nothing to do with any man that ‘breeds horses, owns land, or knows my mother.’ Quite radical for a royal, really. Her path then crosses with Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a photographer who balances conventional gigs at society weddings with more experimental (read: slightly risqué) portraiture.

Soon, she’s visiting Tony’s studio for a portrait sitting. The resulting black-and-white image is immediately arresting – not just because her lowered neckline gives (as brother-in-law Philip puts it with characteristic tact) the appearance of her being ‘naked,’ but because it shows a more authentic Margaret, freed from the trappings of royalty. It couldn’t be further from the romantic but staid and oddly chaste Cecil Beaton shoot shown earlier in the episode.

Anthony Armstrong Jones' portrait of Princess Margaret, 1959 © Getty

The portrait we see on screen is more fact than fiction, taking inspiration from not one but two original images taken by Armstrong-Jones during his relationship with the Princess. Tony did shoot Margaret’s 1959 birthday portrait, and though his picture is perhaps a little more traditional in style than The Crown’s, she is shown – the horror! – with bare shoulders, lending that appearance of nakedness. By this point, too, he was hardly an unknown quantity in royal circles, either: in 1957, he’d been hired to shoot the Queen, Philip and their two young children (plus the ubiquitous corgis) in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Even after his divorce from Margaret in 1978, Armstrong-Jones continued in his privileged position as royal photographer of choice, going on to create memorable images for multiple generations of the family he’d married into.

The Crown’s on-screen version does in fact bear a more striking resemblance to another iconic image of the Princess. Shot in 1967 (seven years after the couple were married), it again shows her staring over a bare shoulder, yet the exposure is such that her face is framed in darkness. Given that the pair had, at this point, already tied the knot, the capacity for scandal was lessened somewhat – though it was (and perhaps still is) hardly a conventional portrait for such a prominent royal. We’d expect nothing less from Margaret...

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