The last time the Royal family posed for a formal photograph at a Buckingham Palace diplomatic reception, it was 2016 and Elizabeth II was at its heart.
With Prince Philip by the late Queen’s side, and flanked by her two heirs and their wives, it captured a moment of British history: the elderly monarch still in fine fettle, with support waiting in the wings.
As of Tuesday night, that supporting cast has now taken centre stage in a new portrait at the same event which inadvertently captures so much of what the Royal family has lost, what it faces and what it is yet to overcome.
The King and Prince of Wales smile warmly, as if they have briefly paused in conversation as the camera flashed. The Queen has a twinkle in her eye, taking her regular position at the side of her husband. If the Princess of Wales had any nerves about this very public appearance in the midst of a testing week, she showed no sign.
Taken in a snatched window of opportunity before the Royal family joined hundreds of diplomats in the palace State Rooms for an annual reception, it sent a message of unity and a not-entirely-accidental sign of how the palace plans to deal with an ever-growing list of challenges from the outside.
One of those challenges was being spelled out just over a mile away. At the exact moment the photograph was being taken in the palace’s 1844 room, across London at the Royal Festival Hall, hundreds of members of the media were watching a screening of the final episode of The Crown.
Amid scandalous scenes of Prince Harry dressing as a Nazi, squabbles between Prince William and his brother, and the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla, came one unmistakable message: the Royal family, after the death of Elizabeth II, are stuffed.
“The party is over,” declares a fictionalised Prince Philip to his fictionalised wife. “We are a dying breed.”
That narrative from the pen of screenwriter Peter Morgan is also the thesis of one Omid Scobie, whose new book Endgame declares: “Queen Elizabeth II’s death ruptured the already-fractured foundations of the House of Windsor – and dismantled the protective shield around it… This is the monarchy’s endgame.”
There is the further matter of a race row, in which the King himself and the Princess of Wales face accusations of being involved in discussions about the skin colour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s son.
In Britain, a tiny but vocal minority of republicans now turn up at royal engagements wielding placards saying “Not My King”. And around the Commonwealth, the threat of removing the King as head of state or countries withdrawing from the late Queen’s prized “family of nations” looms.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, having lit the touchpaper with a series of interviews heavily critical of the palace and family, have fallen noticeably silent.
Little wonder royal-watchers were heartened by the sight of King, Queen, Prince and Princess together at last, facing the storm together. It could be, observers noted, the most important image since the death of Elizabeth II more than a year ago.
Or, said a palace insider present at its taking: “It’s [just] a nice up-to-date picture of the four of them.” In other words, there were no frantic phone calls to assemble the 2023 royal “Fab Four” especially for the occasion.
“This was them getting on with the job,” another shrugged. “There was no change to the schedules in reaction to anything. This was when the diplomatic reception was happening – it’s a key event in the royal calendar. What it shows is an unwavering commitment to duty and service and that is the plan today, next week and long into the future.”
Earlier in the day, the Princess had opened a new surgical unit at a children’s hospital, the King attended an advent service at the Coptic church, and Prince William went to sell the Big Issue again.
The morning after, the Queen hosted seriously ill children at Clarence House for Christmas fun before comforting survivors of domestic violence at a London refuge.
But what the new image does demonstrate is cross-generational support and – behind the scenes – a shared experience of being in the cross hairs.
The influence of the Sussexes’ version of life in the Royal family persists, despite their pointed silence over the latest allegations which began in their own Oprah Winfrey interview and have never quite gone away.
Endgame, with its portrayal of Prince William as an angry, jealous, power-hungry heir and the palace staff as omnipotent master manipulators of the media, tallies remarkably with Prince Harry’s autobiography, Spare, and the Sussexes interviews to date.
The storylines on The Crown, broadcast on Netflix – which signed the Sussexes up for a multi-year, multimillion-dollar deal – have been influenced by Harry’s version of events.
Annie Sulzberger, the series’ head researcher said reading Spare “helped us think, ‘Okay, this is an insider account and I feel like we’re on the right track’.”
Even scenes of Prince Harry picking a Nazi costume for a fancy dress party, due to be included in the final episode, now implicate his older brother for encouraging him, with Harry raging about getting all the blame just as he does in his memoir.
Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is the theory, pressed home in multiple scenes during the final episode, that without the late Queen, the monarchy cannot survive.
The rest of them are “not remotely ready”, says Philip. The ghost of the young Queen, rather improbably, tells the elderly version of herself that the rest of her family always “make such a mess of it”. That doom-laden thesis has not yet come to pass.
The King has been warmly received by a public who have largely embraced him as his mother’s son. The Prince of Wales, still the more popular in the polls, is planning for a future reign that he knows will have to look different to the monarchs who have come before him.
Their success rests on their ability to work together.
“The King and Prince have massive areas of life in which they overlap and support each other,” said a palace source of their current working relationship. “They also have their distinctive interests. On their support for the monarchy and the institution, they are totally in agreement.”
Another noted: “They are talking regularly about issues around their work and the institution.” On the challenges outside the royal households, aides are – or at least try to be – sanguine.
“Everyone stopped caring about The Crown long ago,” said one palace source. “It’s lost whatever qualities it once had. I think everyone has got the message it’s make believe.
“And Endgame is about as credible as The Crown. It is a vanishingly small minority of people that believe it, they’re not going to change their minds, but to everyone else it’s wholly unreliable.”
That theory will be tested in the coming month, before the King delivers his all-important Christmas address summing up what by any measure has been a challenging year.
And anyone worried about the future of the Royal family need look no further than that photograph. In fact, they should look closer.
Pinned to the sashes of the Queen and Princess is a Royal Family Order, with a tiny portrait of the late Queen, handed out by Elizabeth II in recognition of their loyalty and favour.
The next time a photograph of this kind is taken, it is likely that they will be wearing an image of King Charles III, as he hands out his own Orders for a new reign. One more step into the monarchy’s next phase, it is continuity and change in action.
All the while, captured in a minute-long photoshoot before the palace reception, they are – for now – still smiling.