Retired WWU professor donates portraits of Queen Elizabeth II to the national gallery in London

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 14, 2012 

Western Washington University music professor Ford Hill quietly amassed his collection over the span of three decades.

Safely stored in cabinets in his Bellingham home sat more than 300 high-quality photographic portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, most of them signed by the photographer.

Hill, who grew up with a childhood fascination about British royalty, bought his first photo portrait of the queen in 1965, when he was a doctoral student. He thought it would be interesting to collect portraits of one person over time and decided she would be an ideal subject.

Later, Hill, who retired from Western 16 years ago, began to wonder what he should do with his vast collection.

"I thought, 'I really have something here and I should find a home for it,'" he said.

So he did the logical thing and contacted the National Portrait Gallery in London, home to more than 175,000 portraits of famous British women and men. At first it appeared the gallery might be interested in 30 to 40 portraits to fill gaps in its collection, said Hill, who offered to donate them. Then he sent the gallery photographs of his entire collection.

"When they saw that, they sat up and took notice," he said.

Indeed they did. The gallery accepted 256 portraits, with a total appraised value of just over $467,000.

"As well as being an important record of portraits of HM the Queen, the collection is also a valuable and unique record of the changing styles of royal portraiture," Neil Evans, gallery spokesman, said in an email.

The portraits have been in London for about a year, but details of the transaction weren't final until a few months ago, Hill said.

EARLY INTEREST IN ROYALTY

Hill, 72, grew up on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin. He recalls asking his parents as a child whether the United States had a king and queen. Their reply is when he first learned about British royalty.

"I thought that was the most romantic thing," he said.

While in high school he played organ for an Episcopal church. The priest, an Anglophile, gave Hill as a gift a book of photographs of the queen. Hill collected more such books and, in time, became well-read about Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and other members of the royal family.

For his collection he purchased portraits 16 inches by 20 inches, mounted and unframed. He estimates three-fourths of them were signed by the photographer. Signers include such famous photographers as Cecil Beaton and Yousuf Karsh.

The world is awash in portraits of Queen Elizabeth, with photo portraits regularly shot for tours, royal marriages and births, images for currency and stamps, and portraits to hang in government offices, embassies, post offices, schools and military posts.

"It's been part of her job to sit endlessly for paintings and photographs," Hill said.

He checked magazine and newspaper articles about the royal family, knowing that trips and milestone events meant new images were in the offing. He would then contact the person commissioned to photograph the queen and purchase a print from the original negative.

"That gives you the highest quality," he said.

The earliest portrait in his collection was from 1943, showing Elizabeth in the uniform of what Hill called the British equivalent of sea scouts for women. A 1945 portrait shows her in her wartime auxiliary uniform. Other portraits include Elizabeth in her wedding gown, dressed for her coronation, with her infant children, with a favored horse and with her beloved corgis.

Hill also had seldom-seen photographs shot to provide images for currency. Those show the queen posed somberly before a blank background. His most recent portrait was shot in 1997.

Technically, Hill donated the photographs to the American Friends of the National Portrait Gallery (London) Foundation, which has loaned them to the gallery for five years. Five photographs by Cecil Beaton are already on public display, and a separate photograph by Beaton of the queen with Prince Andrew is part of an exhibition celebrating the queen's 60th year on the throne.

Hill plans to be in London soon for several days of activities celebrating the queen's Diamond Jubilee. On June 1, the gallery's director, deputy director and curator of photographs will honor Hill with a tea. On June 3, he and two friends have reservations for lunch, with seats that will afford them a view of up to a thousand boats on the River Thames for a jubilee pageant.

Some people mistakenly presume Hill will meet the subject of his collection.

"I tell people she's very busy that week," he said with a smile.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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