LONDON, AUG. 20 -- Britain's royal family faced yet another scandal today as a tabloid published photographs in which the Duchess of York -- Sarah Ferguson, the queen's daughter-in-law -- is seen smooching, snuggling, nuzzling, embracing, back-rubbing and generally carrying on with her American "financial adviser."
In one long-lens shot, businessman John Bryan is shown planting a tender kiss on the sole of the duchess's foot. In others, she is sunbathing topless (but with her back to the camera or her arms strategically crossed). One photo shows 2-year-old Princess Eugenie looking on as her mother kisses Bryan.
The 32-year-old duchess, popularly known as Fergie, is separated from her husband, Prince Andrew. But they have never announced plans to divorce, and before Wednesday there had even been talk of a reconciliation.
The photos were snapped by an intrepid paparazzo last week at a villa in the south of France and published this morning by the Daily Mirror. They also appeared in the Spanish magazine Hola! and were pirated by some of the Mirror's competitors.
They surface at perhaps the worst possible moment for the embattled British royals. Having spent most of the century creating an image of pomp, circumstance and tradition, they now seem on the verge of becoming just another comically dysfunctional family, "The Simpsons" in ermine.
The whole clan has gathered this week at the royal retreat in Balmoral, Scotland -- the stalwart Queen Elizabeth II, the statuelike Prince Philip, the cold and distant Prince Charles, the dazzling but unhappy Princess Diana, Andrew and Fergie (together for the first time in months), along with assorted others.
Royal-watchers had expected the queen to use the occasion of the annual family vacation to put her foot down and demand that her family behave in a more, well, regal manner. But instead she has another crisis to deal with as the family's many problems get another thorough airing.
Bryan, whom the pictures unequivocally depict as the Other Man in the duchess's life, is a balding 37-year-old entrepreneur who has been seen frequently with her since she separated from Andrew in March. Bryan has consistently denied that he is anything but a financial adviser who helps manage her affairs.
"Fergie ... in Conference With Her Financial Adviser" crowed the Daily Mirror above a centerfold spread that included poolside shots of Bryan lying on top of the duchess and kissing her, the duchess rubbing suntan oil on Bryan's pate, the two spooning in the pool, and the most talked-about shot of all, the one in which she reclines while Bryan kisses her foot.
Bryan, often described in the tabloids as "Fergie's Texan pal," waged a last-minute legal battle Wednesday to try to keep the Daily Mirror from publishing the photos. But the courts ruled there was no reason to block publication, since Britain has no privacy law that would apply.
Bryan Wednesday night decried the existence of a "gap in the laws" that allowed the persecution of people "whom the press persistently follow, without regard to any consideration of legitimate public interest."
Buckingham Palace issued a textbook terse statement: "We strongly disapprove of the publication of photographs taken in such circumstances."
The red-haired duchess was not spotted today by the hapless reporters sent by the London papers to stake out the grounds at Balmoral. Prince Andrew was seen driving off in a Land-Rover, according to news agencies, but it was said he would return to the castle later in the day.
The pictures were taken near St-Tropez by photographer Daniel Angeli, who reportedly had to clamber over hundreds of yards of rough terrain to reach a suitable vantage point from which to aim his super-long lens. The Mirror will not say how much it paid for the photographs, but other tabloids estimated the figure at more than $100,000.
London could talk today of little else, as the Mirror's press run of more than 3 million was snapped up by 10 a.m. Reporters scrambled to track down vacationing royal-watchers, who dutifully bemoaned the parlous state of the monarchy.
"The sadness here is that the monarchy is, for the first time in many years, in a very weakened state," said Harold Brooks-Baker, director of Burke's Peerage, from his hotel room in France. "This is just one more nail in the coffin of monarchy."
It has, indeed, been a terrible year for the Royal House of Windsor. What was supposed to be a long celebration marking Queen Elizabeth's 40th year on the throne has turned into a series of painful embarrassments.
In January more demure photos of the Duchess of York surfaced that had been taken during an earlier vacation with another American friend named Steve Wyatt. In March the palace confirmed that Prince Andrew and the duchess had decided to separate. The following month she flew away with Bryan to Asia, sparking grumbles that the royals should set a more austere example at a time when Britain's economy was ailing.
In April the queen's only daughter, Princess Anne, was divorced from her husband of 18 years, Capt. Mark Phillips -- only the second such "inner circle" divorce since the days of Henry VIII.
In June two new biographies detailed the long-standing marital troubles of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, one book claiming that she had threatened suicide several times.
The Sun, which ran a few of the St-Tropez photos today, invited readers to call in and vote on whether "the royal family is now such a laughingstock that they should call it a day." And the Daily Mirror lectured the queen that "however perfect her public role, she has dismally failed to give her children the guidance they needed for stable marriages."