February 28, 2021

‘A great cover for their first album’: Harry and Meghan’s romantic rebellion against royal portraiture

The Sussexes’ baby announcement shared on Valentine’s Day is a confident image of defiance that seems to take us inside their love – granny must find it utterly baffling

The Duke of Sussex’s left foot steals the show. His knobbly toes shove themselves into the foreground, bulging out to rhyme with his wife’s baby bump. Misan Harriman, the Nigerian-born photographer and friend of Meghan who took the picture remotely from his home in Woking, has created an unbuttoned romantic pastoral that doesn’t so much rebel against royal portraiture as bring it to an end.

Producing babies has been the primary business of royalty since time immemorial. Harry and Meghan’s new child will be eighth in line to the British throne, but the picture tells us quite flamboyantly the Sussexes are not in Britain and have no desire to be. It is a confident image of defiance. A cup of California dreamin’. The garden looks semi-tropical. Harriman’s preference for black and white gives the sun-kissed lawn a lovely silvery glow that sets the couple almost in a vision of paradise. But at the same time, their intimate casualness – those toes again – is intended to show us they are anchored to the reality that matters.

It’s the reality of love. Released on Valentine’s Day, this is about their relationship as well as their baby. Meghan has her hand over her unborn child as if to tell us this will be her child, not just another Windsor. Harry’s besotted gaze into her eyes suggests he too sees this as her story. The revelation of Meghan’s miscarriage last year clearly adds to the intensity of their pleasure, relief and happiness in a new life.

Harriman seems to take us inside their love, to show them not in the eye of the public but as they feel to themselves. That’s quite an achievement in photography. The camera is by definition an exterior observing eye. It’s impressive how he has been able to turn it inward, to let us feel like we’re empathising with Meghan and Harry, directly sharing this moment with them.

He has surely been inspired by the moment we’re living in and the new intimacies it creates. Forced apart physically by the pandemic, people get together on Zoom and FaceTime and find themselves in each other’s homes on the far side of the world. This picture was taken on an iPad with Harriman directing over the internet, and it has that quality of distance obliterated.

This picture might be a happy moment politically, as well as personally. Harry angered some by making his feelings about the US election clear. For a moment, if only in this tranquil garden, the “hate” he warned against has been eclipsed and love rules supreme. It reminds me of pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed. It would obviously make a great cover for their first album.

The Sussexes are true style leaders. They seem to be announcing a new era of loved-up togetherness. This is their folksy equivalent of Taylor Swift’s pandemic album Folklore, getting back to human basics as the modern world stalls. It seems that, like many people, they are mellowing out to folk rock as we all feel as helpless, helpless, helpless as Neil Young. Does this picture then succeed in making them into everywoman and everyman, looking forward to the birth of everybaby?

That probably lies in the eye of the beholder. But whatever your feelings, there’s no denying their feelings. The pastoral, in art, poetry or folk pop, is an escape from the social, a dream of love in an earthly paradise. It’s quite a mythic and intense idea to put in a family photo. Granny must find it utterly baffling. But Harry’s mum might have understood.