Princess Kate meets Beatles legend Paul McCartney and he teases wife about large age gap

They are both British icons and when Sir Paul McCartney saw her standing there on Tuesday he bonded with the Princess of Wales over their shared love of photography.

Kate, 41, met the Beatles star and his wife, Nancy, when she reopened the National Portrait Gallery in London after a three-year, £40 million refurbishment.

McCartney, 81, was there because he has his own photographic exhibition opening at the gallery next week featuring images he took at the height of Beatlemania between 1963 and 1964.

The much-loved musician had the Princess giggling after pointing out it was all before she was born and joking about whether his wife was even alive then either.

Explaining that his exhibition focused on a very specific period, “when you weren’t even born’” he said, smiling, to Kate before turning to his wife and joking: “Oh, you weren’t either. Nancy, 63, laughingly looked upwards and counted before replying that she very much had been.

Kate asked him if there were photos that were important to him personally. “For me the pictures of John and George particularly, just because they are not here,” he replied.

The encounter, in the unprepossessing surroundings of the gallery’s gift shop, was a last-minute addition to Kate’s schedule given that McCartney – whose exhibition is entitled Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64 Eyes of the Storm – was in town.

The gallery will reopen to the public from Thursday and on its forecourt the Princess met with Jamie Fobert, the project architect for the extensive refurbishment, and award-winning artist Tracey Emin, who was commissioned to create an artwork for its new doors, incorporating 45 carved brass panels, representing “every woman, throughout time”.

Guided by the gallery’s director Nick Cullinan, the Princess looked genuinely awe-struck at the new entrance before making her way down to The Mildred and Simon Palley Learning Centre where she met a group of children from the Soho Parish Nursery and Westminster Family Hub who were enjoying some of the gallery’s new under-fives programme and making colourful Peter Rabbit designs.

“It’s great there is a learning space for the kids,” Kate said as she took a seat at one of the tables, asking one little girl, absorbed in putting stickers on her creation: “Who is this? Is this Peter Rabbit? It’s a very nice picture. Have you managed to look round yet?”

She told the girl’s mother how she had taken one of her own three children to the Victoria and Albert Museum as a baby and the experience had such an effect on them that they still remembered it now.

“It’s those unexpected pieces that really capture their imagination and stay with them,” she said.

Launching properly in September, the under-fives programme, developed in partnership with Westminster City Council, will welcome local families to the gallery and encourage creative learning, play and exploration.

Upstairs the princess visited the Duveen Wing, the highlight of which is the gallery’s new acquisition, Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai (Omai).

The 18th-century artwork, widely regarded as the finest portrait produced by Reynolds, was jointly acquired by the Gallery and The Getty Museum in Los Angeles this year following a £50 million fundraising campaign.

Kate, who studied history of art at St Andrew’s University, marvelled at “the colour, the tone” of the artwork and listened intently as she was told about the dignity and grace of the piece – and how the Tahitian ambassador’s hand bore one of the first depictions of a tattoo.

She also appeared to know that Reynolds’ original studio was just 20 ft away down the road – but is now a Mcdonald’s.

Back downstairs she also viewed Yevonde: Life and Colour, a new exhibition which explores the life and career of Yvonde Middleton, the female London photographer who pioneered the use of colour photography in the 1930s.

Featuring portraits and still-life works produced by Madame Yevonde, as she styled herself, over a 60-year career, the exhibition also includes the archive of her work, which the gallery acquired in 2021, and has been supported by The Chanel Culture Fund.

It was notable that Kate was carrying a Chanel clutch to go with her Self Portrait blazer dress, appeared entranced by the section entitled Goddesses, showing society ladies inspired by classical myth.

“It’s so beautifully curated,” she said. “It’s just wonderful. You feel like you are on a journey and then to finish in a space like this….” Curator Clare Freestone said afterwards that the Princess had loved it.

“She loves photography and loved the fact that Yevonde is such a positive spokesperson for women. She loved the Goddess space,” she said.

We stopped at the portrait of the Mountbattens for the coronation of King George VI. She had a little joke about that. She said ‘oh I remember wearing that’ in reference to their robes and Nick [Cullinan] said she had done very well.”

Before she left the Princess attended a short reception for supporters of and donors to the gallery before saying her farewells.

NPG Director Mr Cullinan said of her visit: ‘It was wonderful. She is fantastic, she’s such a wonderful supporter of the gallery. She and Sir Paul had a good chat, it’s his exhibition next week. It shows the breadth of what we do here, from the Middle Ages and the Plantagenets to what is being produced now. It is very exciting to have here not just names from the history books but names from the newspapers.”

He said Kate, who has been the gallery’s patron since 2012, was very knowledgeable.

“She doesn’t just come to events, she’s knowledgeable, passionate and is involved [behind the scenes]. To have a senior member of the Royal Family who really cares about culture, museums, art and is so very knowledgeable and supportive is a good thing for this country. She is quite amazing,” he added.

Speaking after the visit Tracey Emin said she had been “blown away” to see her gates without any scaffolding for the first time and explained that she hadn’t based her designs on any particular woman. “They are just someone from my mind. I looked at one just now and thought ‘oh they look like Princess Eugenie’. But it wasn’t based on her. People coming can see what the picture means to them,” she said.

Emin added: “The Princess just loved what had been done here and said she wants to come back in her own time. She loved the wow factor. Because she is patron, she was absolutely thrilled.

“When I arrived I was so anxious. I have had really bad cancer. There are certain things I was worried about. So I had totally forgotten about the doors, they just lifted my energy seeing them. This is a big week for me, I’m going to pace myself. But I’m doing well. It’s so exciting.”

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