In 1986 I was asked to do a book on the Queen Mother’s various gardens, in the course of which I visited her Scottish home, the Castle of Mey, to photograph its grounds. The Queen Mother bought the Castle of Mey in 1952 after the death of her husband, George VI, earlier that year, and she became extremely fond of it, spending every August there.
A typical turreted castle, it stares out to sea in the northernmost part of Scotland, its garden surrounded by high walls to help protect the plants from an almost perpetual wind.
I had been invited to stay for the night while photographing the garden, and after dinner that evening a game of Racing Demon was proposed. For those not familiar with it, Racing Demon is a card game in which success, as its name implies, depends almost entirely on speed, concentration, and the coordination of hand and eye. The QM, who was 86 at the time, was easily the oldest of the four or five players and, to my astonishment, she won every game. My admiration for her skill grew greater still when one of her equerries informed me quietly that she had been known to practice a little sleight of hand.
My photographic visit, which lasted about 36 hours, included a memorable picnic held at an absent neighbor’s farmhouse. The food, which had been brought from the castle in an enormous wicker hamper and included various game pies and a salmon, was eaten in the neighbor’s kitchen, since it was too cold and windy to stay outside. The Queen Mother took evident pleasure in slicing the bread herself and she told me that she particularly enjoyed doing it.
From the Castle of Mey, I was given a lift by the Queen Mother in her propeller aircraft to Birkhall, her other Scottish garden, which is on the Balmoral Estate. When we arrived at the local airport, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, who had been dining at the castle the previous evening, was waiting to make the customary symbolic farewell. As we approached and she noticed his car, she exclaimed, “There’s the Lord Lieutenant, what a bore—I mean, how nice!”
During the 40-minute flight, two details intrigued me. First, there was no question of the Queen Mother being asked to fasten her seat belt, the implication being that she didn’t need one, almost as if the airplane wouldn’t dare hit any air pockets. Second, and this may only have surprised a nonracing enthusiast like myself, was that as soon as we had taken off, she buried herself in The Sporting Life, a newspaper devoted exclusively to horse racing. Not one of the many competing broadsheets on offer got so much as a glance.
Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park was the Queen Mother’s principal residence, and it has a magnificent woodland garden dominated by huge and ancient trees, mainly oak. It had become her home in 1931, when she and her husband were the Duke and Duchess of York. At that time there was no likelihood that her husband would become king, since his father and elder brother were still very much alive. Both Elizabeth II and the late Princess Margaret spent much of their childhood there; the miniature house on the grounds, known as the Welsh Cottage, was a gift to the young princesses from the people of Wales. A child of up to 7 years of age would feel perfectly at home inside it, as everything is executed in perfect scale, just smaller.
Prince Charles described his astonishment when one day his grandfather, the king, emerged from out of a bush in the garden, wearing gardening clothes but with a bearskin (the tall fur headgear worn by the footguards as part of their parade uniform) on his head.
It was in the garden at Royal Lodge that I photographed the Queen Mother for the cover of The Gardens of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (Viking, 1988). Even more interesting than the photograph published in the book was the one not used. My father, who had a house on the edge of Windsor Great Park and who was a friend of the Queen Mother, had come along as my assistant. I had brought a bathroom mirror to serve as a reflector. While taking the photograph, I suddenly realized that the two of them—she standing aloof, with my elderly father on his knees holding the mirror at her feet—resembled a scene in a medieval altarpiece, in which a figure kneels reverently before the central character.
The last time that I saw the Queen Mother was about 10 years ago, when she was over 90. I had occasion to be present at Yester House, the estate in Scotland belonging to the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The Queen Mother was the guest of honor at a concert to raise money for a theater project, and a dinner was held in the house after the performance. Well after midnight, we were sitting downstairs where the dinner had been held. Yester House, which was designed by Robert Adam, is one of the great houses of Scotland, and I discovered that it was the first time the Queen Mother had visited it. I asked her if she had seen the ballroom, the most extravagant room of the house, which is located on the second floor, up a grand and long staircase. She replied that she hadn’t and that she would love to see it.
At that point, her lady-in-waiting, a youngster of a mere 82 years or so who had evidently been longing for her bed, said protestingly that it was much too late and that Queen Elizabeth was very tired and should go home. The Queen Mother was not having a bit of it. Unaided by any stick or arm, she shot up the stairs, leaving her poor lady-in-waiting looking like a mother hen whose chicks have run off.