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Royal albums: The Prince of Wales's Private Souvenir 1912-14: The poignant record of a vanished age

The albums are unique, says the historian Michael Bloch
WHEN The Independent asked me to give my opinion on two photograph albums which had come into their temporary possession, allegedly from the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, I was frankly sceptical as to the degree of interest they would represent.

During the 1980s, when I worked in Paris for the Duchess's lawyer, Maitre Suzanne Blum, I had seen many photographs dealing with various aspects of their lives, selections from which I used in my books about them; and many pictures of them from other sources had been published since. Could the material I was about to see shed new light and justify publication in a national newspaper?

When I saw the albums, however, such doubts disappeared at once. There could be no doubt of their authenticity, or that they were among the most deeply personal records kept by the duke. The first album portrayed his life with his family and friends and as an Oxford student when he was 19 during the year leading up to the First World War. The pictures were of superb quality, many of them extraordinarily intimate, and together they poignantly evoked a vanished age.

The second album, which had the words "THE FORT" embossed on the cover, was a record of his great labour of love during the early 1930s, when he restored Fort Belvedere, a fantastic folly near Windsor which had been granted to him by his father the King as a grace-and-favour residence, and created a garden there. It was there that his romance with the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson, had blossomed, and the second half of the album was full of amazing photographs of them together there: these started in 1932 or 1933, when Mrs Simpson first visited the Fort with her husband Ernest, and ended just before the Abdication with his last picture taken as King Edward VIII, depicting Wallis and her Aunt Bessie on the swimming pool terrace.

It was fascinating to contrast the two different worlds represented by the albums, 20 years apart but separated by the huge psychological gulf of the First World War. The first showed a world of order, regularity, formality and self-confidence. The second was a record of a more informal and unregulated world in which a generation which had been through a nightmare sought to enjoy life.

Shortly after the Duke of Windsor's death in 1972, the Duchess is said to have given these two albums to a valued personal friend as a keepsake of her late husband. It may seem extremely odd that the Duchess should have given away in this manner what were probably the most intimate and valuable of the many dozens of albums in her and the duke's collection, but it has to be said that there are other examples during her old age of her making impulsive gestures of this sort.

Michael Bloch is the editor of Wallis and Edward - Letters 1931-37 and the author of The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor.