Royal photographs seldom say too much, but once in a while they say everything. Yesterday all over the world a picture issued to mark Prince Harry’s 36th birthday was being studied with both affection and fascination.
Affection because the image shows Harry, his brother William and sister-in-law Kate with their faces wreathed in joyous smiles, happy and comfortable in one another’s company.
Fascination because this picture, provided by Prince William’s office at Kensington Palace, was more than three years old, taken in early 2017 – predating Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, the birth of their son Archie and their departure from the Royal Family. A touching throwback then to happier times.
How things have changed. The last time the brothers – and their wives – were seen together in public was at Westminster Abbey in March when, despite the solemnity of the occasion, a perma-frost seemed to have descended on the once ‘fab four’.
Yesterday all over the world a picture issued to mark Prince Harry’s 36th birthday was being studied with both affection and fascination
In the semi-authorised biography of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, published earlier this summer, we learned that William and Kate had that day indeed shown them the cold shoulder – at least according to Harry and Meghan’s version of events.
And so some on social media yesterday speculated about the Cambridges’ choice of picture and whether the absence of Meghan was deliberate. There were other suggested explanations too. Was it a reference to Harry ‘running away’ from the Royal Family or rather, as a supporter of the prince put it, Harry running for the sanctuary of his new life?
However compelling the narrative of brothers at war may be, insiders dismiss suggestions that Meghan was purposely not included in the Cambridges’ photo. According to aides there is a protocol surrounding royal birthdays, just as there is for any other Palace-sponsored event. Spouses are never included.
All the same it is intriguing that the other two official pictures released to celebrate Harry’s birthday, from Buckingham Palace and Clarence House, show the Duke of Sussex with Prince Charles and the Queen alone.
In the first there is no Prince Philip and in the other no Duchess of Cornwall.
It is tempting, therefore, to wonder if this picture, with Kate running alongside the two brothers, was designed to tell us something about the status of the relationship between William and Harry and the wider one between their wives.
Is there a message contained in the photo, which was originally taken to promote the mental health charity Heads Together? And if so, what can it be?
How extraordinary to learn that they too are not recent photographs but several years old. The one of Harry and the Queen was also taken in 2017
Certainly it is reminiscent of the old Harry, the prince with a ready smile who once joshed with former Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and exuberantly celebrated an England try at Twickenham.
And consider also the photos chosen by his father and grandmother. In both there is a smile on Prince Harry’s face.
How extraordinary to learn that they too are not recent photographs but several years old. The one of Harry and the Queen was also taken in 2017, while the endearing picture of a father brimming with pride at his son is six years old – not only predating Meghan but also the growth of Harry’s beard.
It does seem astonishing that three separate households of the Royal Family should each, independently, have to hunt through their archives to find a picture of a happy Harry.
While it is of course unlikely that the royals would indulge in mind games, many will doubtless consider that the message here is a poignant one: ‘We miss you the way you were.’ Looking now at the picture taken on the cinder track at the Olympic Park in east London, it is hard to remember that such a mood of light-hearted conviviality existed between Harry, William and Kate.
Behind the smiles it was also a moment which offered such a reassuring glimpse of the future of the monarchy. Here were the heir in line to the throne, the wife who will one day be queen and the dependable brother.
He was no longer the ‘spare’, but Harry still occupied a uniquely important role as his brother’s sounding board and the one figure above all others who understood the enormity of the destiny and daunting responsibility he faced.
It was taken on a February day in 2017 and it radiates the goodwill and competitive affection that existed between the three.
Losing themselves in a race, they looked more focused on their running than putting on a performance. Certainly it demonstrated that the future of the institution looked safe enough in their hands.
Yet at the time Meghan was, in fact, already in Harry’s life and the Prince by then was quite possibly head over heels in love.
It is, however, reasonable to assume that this picture was taken before William had counselled his brother with calming, don’t-rush-with-this-girl words – well-meaning advice that according to Finding Freedom, Harry found to be icily snobbish. William was only fulfilling the same function he had ever since the death of Princess Diana – to watch over his younger brother.
Instead it led to the unravelling of a relationship that was expected to be the cornerstone of the future monarchy. And how things have changed.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Harry has exiled himself from that future, turning his back on his family, his friends and his country.
As for the brothers, once so close, they now barely speak.
The endearing picture of a father brimming with pride at his son is six years old – not only predating Meghan but also the growth of Harry’s beard
For the Queen this is not a year she will look back on with any great fondness. Harry’s decision to quit these shores for a new life in Meghan’s home city of Los Angeles has dislocated the Royal Family, and the manner of his departure has left a bitterness that will take more than a smiling photograph to overcome.
Indeed, the rancour laid bare by his and Meghan’s apparent co-operation with the authors of Finding Freedom was reminiscent of the feuding between the Prince and Princess of Wales 25 years ago.
It is, therefore, no wonder that the Queen, Charles and William wanted to turn back the clock to memories of happier times with which to mark Harry’s birthday.
And it is certainly striking that of all the pictures they could have chosen of Harry, they settled on a selection from an era when he was at his uncomplicated best.
In all three his body language is relaxed, informal and carefree. This was the time of Harry being the global star of the family, spreading pleasure wherever he went, exuding something few other royals could emulate. Those were the days when his popularity was second only to the Queen.
Today, he is a changed man. Despite the undoubted happiness he has found in his marriage and in his son, he too often presents in public a morose and troubled persona, raging against the media and lecturing us about how to lead better lives. Once so comfortable with people, he now can seem awkward.
Meanwhile, his homilies delivered from his luxury home, set amid an enclave of California celebrity, seem often woefully out of touch to the problems faced by modern Britons.
This, of course, allows for one other possibility thrown up by the photographs chosen for yesterday’s anniversary. There simply are no recent pictures of Harry with a smile on his face…