The Duchess of Cornwall
In truth, though, she was “touched” to receive our shoot invitation. After a life spent at the centre of the British upper classes, the last 17 as wife to the future King, the notion of sitting for her first Vogue portraits in her eighth decade tickled her.
After almost 20 years of speculation, it had come: the ultimate stamp of approval from “the boss”. As with so much of her life, the Duchess had been in uncharted waters:
the first divorced person to marry the heir apparent to the British throne and not derail the ascension; a survivor of Britain’s late-20th-century tabloid swamp; a potential future Queen with children, grandchildren and a life of her own outside of “the firm”.
It is worth noting that the Duchess has been in a formal relationship with her now husband for almost 25 years, as well as a working royal for the better part of two decades.
For some, however, the idea of the new arrival persisted. After all this time, is permanency finally hers?
It’s her 75th birthday on 17 July, so she thought, “Why not?” Not that she’s big on birthdays; even less so these days. “Who wants to be 75, really, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” she tells me later.
Her aristocratic tone – the sort only achieved by being born at a certain point in time and class – can have the bonus of making her sound deliciously dry. “That’s life.”
By the time the Duchess arrives at her three-quarter century, it will already have been a remarkable year. On 13 June, she was made a Royal Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the most senior order of chivalry in Britain, at an investiture that included Valerie Amos and Tony Blair
– “I think it’s probably my favourite ceremony,” HRH says, “because it’s got the setting of Windsor Castle and the colour and the pageantry.”
But the year’s most impactful news came in February, when Her Majesty The Queen, in a message that marked her 70-year reign, wrote, “it is my sincere wish that, when that time comes, Camilla will be known as Queen Consort”.
Unusually, the day begins with an apology. “Sorry you’ve got to photograph an old bat this morning,” says Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall, as she shakes the hand of photographer Jamie Hawkesworth, her blue eyes fixing him with a great deal of warm, if slightly guarded, charm. We are at Clarence House
– the London home that the Duchess shares with her husband, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales – and our small Vogue team is in the Garden Room,
its tapestried wall and eye-popping artefacts bathed in the soft light of a grey April morning. Books are piled on a desk, while a golden harp glimmers in the corner next to a baby grand with a clutch of family photos dotted on top (beaming Princes William and Harry in their early twenties in black-and-white;
The Prince of Wales in the scarlet dress uniform of the Welsh Guards; and, in the primo spot upfront, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their wedding day).
As we prepare to take the first photograph, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, assesses us – a besuited gaggle of creatives – and a look of amusement settles upon her features, along with a flicker of nerves.
She tells us that she’s wearing an evening dress by Bruce Oldfield Couture – which, like all the clothes that she wears for our shoot, is taken from her own wardrobe.
The Duchess likes fashion – to a point – knows what suits her, works closely with her dresser Jacqui Meakin (who also dressed the Queen Mother), and generally opts for propriety over whimsy. She’s allergic to fuss.
“I did have some [press-on] nails, but I lost them all gardening yesterday,” she sighs, glancing forlornly at her hands. She is not immune to the desire to look good, however.
On a recce of the gardens two weeks earlier, the Vogue team happened upon a wisteria and asked the Duchess’s staff whether HRH might have anything in her wardrobe in the same colour.
This was an absolute no go. The Duchess has a dedicated phrase for her dread colour: “Menopausal mauve.”
In short, yes. The tools of choice in her mission? Old-school classics such as public service and keeping one’s head down. Yet, despite her aversion to the glitzier beams of the spotlight, and presumably with some grave reservations about the press in general, she didn’t blink at our request for this interview, her first in-depth print profile for some years.
For the camera, she gamely offers several outfit changes from her wardrobe, while engaging the team in some jaw-dropping small talk. “That Monet,” she marvels – pointing to his atypically rugged Study of Rocks, La Creuse: “Le Bloc” in the Morning Room
– “was bought [by the Queen Mother in 1945] for £2,000.” It is now worth millions. All in all, she takes Vogue’s invasion in good spirits, tolerating rather than loving the lens, and chuckling warmly as Hawkesworth sprints about the rooms with his camera, calling out, “Beautiful ma’am!”
The following day, I return to Clarence House for my solo audience. Our photographic antics must have gone well, as the Duchess has said that she will receive me in her private study, a book-lined room overlooking the walled gardens, beyond which lie The Mall and Buckingham Palace.
A hush falls as her private secretary knocks on the door and shows me in. HRH, who is wearing a blue day dress, removes her glasses and rises from a chair.
“We’re going to have a cup of tea and a Duchy biscuit to keep you going,” she says, cheerfully, sapphire eyes a-sparkle. Followed by, “Shove it somewhere over there,” as she makes way for my recorder on a side table by moving her iPad
– “I do Wordle every day with my granddaughter. She’ll text me to say, ‘I’ve done it in three’, and I say, ‘Sorry, I’ve done it in two today.’ It’s very satisfactory when it tells you how brilliant you are,” she chuckles.
Perhaps there is no such thing as a typical grandmother, but if there were then the Duchess would not be it. Don’t let the biscuits fool you.
Since I last saw her, she has been to the National Theatre on the South Bank, where, in her new role as patron (she took over from The Duchess of Sussex earlier this year),
she met with the leadership team and watched actors workshop a new play; from there she went to view an exhibition of Alfred Munnings paintings in Belgravia, in her role as patron of the British Sporting Art Trust;
and this morning she spent several hours at the BBC World Service, speaking with news gathering teams and war correspondents. This was a pretty typical 24 hours.
The next week, I travel up to Manchester Central Library to see her open I Am, a show of portraits taken by award-winning photographer Allie Crewe of domestic abuse survivors.
The exhibition is backed by SafeLives, a charity founded by Diana Barran in 2004, of which the Duchess is also patron.
The issues of domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape have been central to her charity work for several years now, alongside literacy, the arts, health and animals.
In all, HRH holds about a hundred presidencies and patronages, and maintains a schedule that would make a CEO half her age flinch.
“I think we all know somebody who it’s happened to,” the Duchess says, of her work with survivors.
“I was hearing it too often, from friends who knew friends, and I thought maybe
I ought to look into it to see if there was somewhere for me to help.” In 2016 she attended a meeting at the SafeLives offices in London, where she heard the story of Joanna Brown, brutally killed in 2010 by her husband, a BA pilot.
“Her mother [Diana Parkes] was sitting opposite me. I remember looking at her because, you know, you empathise with someone of the same generation.
She took on the children and brought them up on the Isle of Man by herself. I saw her with tears pouring down her face. I’m afraid we all dissolved.”
Next to tell their story that day was Rachel Williams. “She had a hairdressing salon and her partner had shot her through the legs in front of her 15-year-old son.
Six weeks later the son killed himself because he couldn’t stand it.” The Duchess looks ashen. “I remember saying to Diana [Barran], ‘I’d just like to do anything to help.’ I think that’s what got me started.”
Aside from her official appearances, The Duchess of Cornwall also makes regular private visits to refuges in south London, to speak with women and men.
“Also, whenever we go on a trip, we try and find refuges, wherever it is in the world, and go and see people. It’s interesting to see what’s happening in other countries.”
She’s keen to share expertise, and recently became patron of the Mirabel Centre in Lagos, Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, she points out, but she is proud of the UK’s active stance.
“Obviously it’s much more difficult in Middle Eastern countries. But there are places that are doing a marvellous job.”
She is moved by the community spirit of everyone she encounters working in the field.
“What you find is that people who have been abused themselves always come back into the system to help others.
I think they feel that they’ve been helped through their crisis and they want to give something back.”
She understands the complexities of the issue, the intersection of family, social services and the police, and how they play out differently in specific communities.
“There’s been such a taboo,” she continues. “People can still love the people who abuse them, and feel such guilt and such shame that they think it’s their fault, so they bury it. It becomes a sort of terrible hidden secret.”
Is it the sort of work you will continue as Queen Consort, I ask? “Oh, I shall carry on as much as I can,” she replies immediately
. “You can’t desert things that you’re in the middle of. There’s a lot of things to be done still.
At an age when most people, if not already retired, may be considering it, it must feel odd to be gearing up for the most high-profile period of her working life. She says she no longer gives much thought to birthdays passing.
“I let them come and go. I mean I’d be very happy to turn back the clock,” she adds, laughing. (Her laugh is a delightful sort of gurgle that lights up her eyes very winningly.) “When you get to any big number, whether it’s 30, 50, 70, you think: ‘God, that’s so old.’”
She pauses, then says, “You know, my mother died when she was 72, so I’ve out-lived my mother, which is quite strange.” Are there good things about your seventies?
“Well, I think you can’t do much more about yourself,” she sighs, ever the stoic. “You’ve done what you can. I think you just accept that you are who you are. You get to be a 75-year-old.”
Foreign tours can err on the gruelling side, but by-and-large she adores the work. An avid reader, during one of the lockdowns she launched her online book club,
The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room, where she shares recommendations – from blockbuster fiction such as Where the Crawdads Sing to more esoteric poetry picks – and pulls in contributors from Kazuo Ishiguro and Judi Dench to Ben Okri, as well as her son, the food writer Tom Parker Bowles, to give readings and make book suggestions.
It currently has 136,000 followers on Instagram. “I hardly knew what Instagram was,” she says. You didn’t have a secret account to peep at people from? She laughs.
I didn’t even know where to find it or how to get on it. We battled a lot to get it going. To my complete amazement, it took off. What’s so wonderful is it took off all round the world, and now I get letters from Papua New Guinea to the tip of Chile. It’s a real community.”
The Duchess finds my question about whether she is a feminist ridiculous: of course she is! She starts talking excitedly about the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, a riding centre in south London that provides a change of pace for local teens, which she has visited.
“I meet so many women who I find totally inspirational.” Take the “lovely’’ Khadijah Mellah, “who had never ridden in her life before she joined the Ebony Horse Club.
She went off to a trainer to get her fit and it didn’t go at all well to start off with. She fell off a great deal and wanted to give up. She then got her medical certificate, completed her training, went into this race [the amateur ladies-only Magnolia Cup at Goodwood] and won.
Those are the stories I love hearing. People who started with no confidence and they go on to make a mark in the world and fly the flag for women.”
As she talks evenly about her working days – travelling from engagement to engagement, trying to meet as many people as she can, grabbing a soup and a rice cake in snatched moments between events
– it is hard to reconcile the reality of this terribly pleasant, altruistically minded grandmother with her status as one of the most written about figures of the modern age.
Born Camilla Rosemary Shand in London in 1947, to army officer-turned-businessman Major Bruce Shand and his wife Rosalind, she was raised in bucolic splendour in rural Sussex before stints at the Mon Fertile finishing school in Switzerland and studying French literature in Paris.
In 1965 she was a debutante in the orbit of the young royals and, as anyone who has turned on a television or picked up a newspaper in the past 50 years will know, had a romantic relationship with The Prince of Wales, before they both married other people.
The Duchess, of course, has two children, Tom and Laura, from her marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles, the British Army officer whom she divorced in 1995.
The 1990s – the decade in which her own marriage and that of The Prince of Wales to Diana, Princess of Wales, met their formal conclusions
– saw a level of media scrutiny for all parties that remains unmatched to this day. People picked sides amid savage discourse.
In the decades since, the Duchess has won round a great deal of public opinion. But those years took a toll.
“It’s not easy,” she says, thoughtfully. “I was scrutinised for such a long time that you just have to find a way to live with it. Nobody likes to be looked at all the time and, you know, criticised and…” she drifts off for a moment.
“But I think in the end, I sort of rise above it and get on with it. You’ve got to get on with life,” she says, and gives a calm little shrug.
In the square outside the I Am exhibition launch, crowds, barricades, police officers, fascinated passers-by and a random heckler await the Duchess as she exits her car.
At the reception inside, trailed by an ITV documentary crew, she spends an hour meeting with survivors and volunteers, listening intently to their stories. Dawn Munroe
– who runs an outreach programme in Nottingham, and is herself a survivor of domestic abuse – gives a wonderful speech about the importance of speaking up and the power of sharing experiences.
As foundations go, it is a solid one and must surely comfort her for the years ahead. What though, I wonder, does the Duchess like to do when she is by herself?
When duty, family and the Prince are all otherwise engaged. “I would do a bit of gardening, go for a walk and then I’d sit down and read a book,” she replies.
“It would be my idea of heaven, in the quiet of the countryside, where you can generally relax and properly think.” The mere thought of it brings a final smile. “I suppose what I’d think is, ‘I’m quite lucky that I’m still around.’”
Next the Duchess speaks, thanking Dawn and the others profusely, and admiring the inclusivity of the exhibition. Her presence means the event makes local and national press, then it’s straight back into the car for her next engagement, a jubilee-themed party.
When it comes to the Duchess’s birthday in July, “there won’t be much celebration,” she says. “I shall spend it with my family and a few friends.”
She is much more consumed with her five grandchildren, aged from 12 to 14, and loves texting with them. “It’s very nice getting a text,” she says.
“We learn from very young people and they learn from us, too. That’s the way it’s always been.”
“You know the nice thing about being a grandmother is that you can spoil them occasionally, give them more of the things that their parents forbid them to have,” she says, her face lighting up.
“One’s at a school very near my house, so when I am in Wiltshire and her parents are away, I can nip over and pick her up and take her home.
The girls are beginning to get into clothes and make-up and, you know, it’s rather frightening when you see them, coming out with pierced ears and a lot of new make-up and funny-coloured hair and stuff,” she says, amused.
Famously, the Duchess’s ears remain unpierced. “And they are not going to be!” she declares, faux imperiously. “No, I’m not going to give it to myself for a 75th birthday present.
[The grandchildren] will try to persuade me, but nothing’s going to pierce my ears.”
And how does she find time for her marriage in the midst of it all, I venture? “It’s not easy sometimes,
but we do always try to have a point in the day when we meet,” she says of her routine with The Prince of Wales.
“Sometimes it’s like ships passing in the night, but we always sit down together and have a cup of tea and discuss the day. We have a moment,” she explains.
“It’s lovely to catch up when we have a bit of time. You know when we go away, the nicest thing is that we actually sit and read our books in different corners of the same room
It’s very relaxing because you know you don’t have to make conversation. You just sit and be together.”
One look at HRH, sitting among her books in the quiet of Clarence House, and it is obvious that her love with The Prince of Wales is one born of decades.