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The Story Behind TIME’s Commemorative Queen Elizabeth II Cover

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When Queen Elizabeth II died on Sept. 8 at 96, it was not unexpected—she had been under medical supervision at Balmoral Castle and members of the royal family traveled to Scotland to be near her. But a reverent hush still seemed to fall across the world at the loss of such a deeply significant historical figure.

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Sir Cecil Beaton—a British fashion, portrait and war photographer—took the photograph that appears on a commemorative issue of TIME. Beaton, who died in 1980, had a long history of photographing the royals, and his images of them, simultaneously grandiose and intimate, helped to mold the image of the monarchy in the mid-1900s. He was first invited by Queen Elizabeth to photograph the royal family around 1939, when he wrote in his diary: “In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation. It is inconceivable that her predecessor would have summoned me—my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”

Then-Princess "Lilybet" on the Apr. 29, 1929, cover of TIME
Then-Princess "Lilybet" on the Apr. 29, 1929, cover of TIMETIME

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Beaton also cultivated a longstanding relationship with Queen Elizabeth II, still a princess when he first met the family, and would go on to photograph monumental events including her coronation in 1953 and the births of all four of her children: Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward.

Read More: How Queen Elizabeth II Showed Why Britain Still Has a Monarchy

The image on the cover of this issue marks the last photograph that Beaton took of Queen Elizabeth II, in the summer of 1968, when she was 42. In it, the Queen wears the Admiral’s Boat Cloak against a blue backdrop, a powerful and simple image often regarded as timeless. Beaton aimed for the series of portraits to which this one belonged to be “stark and clear and bold”—and most observers in the ensuing decades would deem him successful.

Queen Elizabeth, as Person of the Year for 1952, on the Jan. 5, 1953, cover of TIME
Queen Elizabeth, as Person of the Year for 1952, on the Jan. 5, 1953, cover of TIMEBoris Chaliapin

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On the cover, Beaton’s photograph is bordered by a ribbon of silver, a rare occurrence for TIME, which rarely deviates from its iconic red border. The last time the magazine used a silver border for a cover that featured an individual was in 2008, when Barack Obama was named president of the United States.

Read More: Elizabeth II: Rare and Classic Photos of the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II has a storied history of appearing on TIME’s cover: She first graced the front of the magazine in 1929 as “Princess Lilybet.” She has since been on the cover at least 10 times before now, including in January 1953 as TIME’s Person of the Year for 1952. Most recently, the Queen was featured on the June 4, 2012 cover of TIME’s Europe edition to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

Correction, Sept. 9

The original version of this story misstated the name of Queen Elizabeth II’s mother. She was Queen Elizabeth, not Queen Elizabeth I.

Queen Elizabeth on the June 4, 2012, cover of TIME's Europe edition, marking her Diamond Jubilee
Queen Elizabeth on the June 4, 2012, cover of TIME's Europe edition, marking her Diamond JubileeEQUANIMITY BY CHRIS LEVINE (ARTIST) AND ROB MUNDAY (HOLOGRAPHER)

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