Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibition: Fawning and insight-free, this is a show for tourists

Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibition
Princess Diana: Accredited Access Exhibition - Julian Simmonds

In 1985, Princess Diana visited the Royal Hampshire regiment in West Berlin, and was handed a single red rose. In a photograph taken by Anwar Hussein, you can see that her eyes are wet. According to Hussein, she was crying because Charles apparently never gave her roses – the woman who throughout her adult life could rarely step out the front door without being force-fed flowers almost never received any from the man she loved.

You can question the value of this observation – it’s undeniably saccharine – but it’s one of the very few available in this exhibition of royal photographs taken by Hussein and his two sons Samir and Zak over a four-decade career. Presented as a 60 minute “experience”, it pairs the brothers’ audio commentary with numerous official shots taken by the family firm, many of which have helped engrave Diana’s life into the national consciousness and which several decades on are undimmed by familiarity.

Early shots of her as a coy teenager on a Kensington street; a lifetime later, striding through an Angolan land mine. Diana peeping doe-eyed from beneath a ridiculous hat, or turning her cheek just so in a coquettish come-hither tease. Gleaming in the black cocktail “revenge dress” at a Vanity Fair party in 1994, on the day the documentary aired that revealed Charles’s affair.

Yet the exhibition itself – crammed into a dark subterranean space in St Katherine’s Dock – is a mess. The arrangement is sometimes chronological, sometimes thematic, most of the time haphazard. One minute, Diana is pregnant, billowing in gingham cheesecloth; the next, she is getting married. Captioning is a contested art these days, but the audio’s fawning monotone takes banality to new levels: Diana, we are told, was the “ultimate mum” because she took her children on Jet Skis and participated barefoot on sports day.

We hear an awful lot about Diana as a fashion icon whose penchant for bare shoulders and tactile clothing broke the royal mould, as though this is a revelation, and about the way her touchy-feely approach has been “heartwarmingly” adopted by Meghan, as though this is a good thing. We are also told that, thanks to Diana, Kate and Meghan never have to worry about their clothes upstaging whatever cause they are promoting, a bizarre point that is also untrue. Halfway through, there’s a peculiar mini-exhibition of handmade paper hats apparently inspired by Diana and which we are invited to “focus on what [we] are feeling”. Naturally there is nothing at all on Megxit or on anything remotely controversial.

Diana striding through an Angolan land min
Diana striding through an Angolan land mine - Julian Simmonds

Few of the images, predominantly taken at official engagements, are off-the-cuff, although there is the occasional gem, including the shot of the page boy apparently sticking up two fingers at Pippa Middleton’s wedding, and the poignant early picture of Diana passionately kissing Charles at a polo match. There is the odd revelatory detail, too: the ground-breaking photograph of Diana at the Aids ward at Middlesex Hospital in 1987, shaking the hand of an Aids sufferer, almost didn’t happen because the stigma of the disease at the time was so great, no one being treated for it wanted to be publicly identified.

The picture of Diana sitting alone in front of the Taj Mahal almost didn’t happen either: it took Diana hours to decide to do it. The Hussein family undeniably have the snapper’s gift for being in the right place at the right time – Samir took the spectacular picture of Harry and Meghan in the rain at the Endeavour Awards in 2020 – but this sloppy showcase of their talent feels aimed firmly at the tourist.

Until Sep 2;