Lord Snowdon: a photographer ‘never happier than when photographing artists’
Although he would come to be best known as a member of the British royal family, Lord Snowdon was first, foremost and to the end, a photographer. A selection of his prints and other personal possessions are offered in Snowdon: A Life in Art and Objects
On leaving preparatory school in the summer of 1943, Antony Armstrong-Jones received a far-from-complimentary report. His headmaster wrote that the 13-year-old ‘may be good at something, but it’s nothing we teach here’.
That something would turn out to be photography, and Armstrong-Jones would turn out to be very good indeed. This raffish figure with a studio in Pimlico and a fondness for motorbikes had developed quite a name for himself by the late 1950s.
He was even mooted for the role of official photographer on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth tour on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Duke’s personal secretary, Michael Parker, however, flatly rejected the idea on grounds that Armstrong-Jones was ‘far too bohemian’.
Three years later, the Duke of Edinburgh found great amusement in telling Parker that the ‘bohemian’ was to become his brother-in-law. On May 6, 1960, Armstrong-Jones married Princess Margaret in Westminster Abbey before a global television audience of 300 million.
The couple settled into apartments at Kensington Palace, but Lord Snowdon (as the groom officially became known) kept his friendships with London’s leading writers, actors and artists.
He took portrait shots of them regularly, and a selection of these are on offer in Snowdon: A Life in Art and Objects at Christie’s in London between September 3 and 24. The sale features photographs and other items that belonged to Armstrong-Jones before his death in 2017, aged 86.
When he was in hospital with polio as a teenager, Marlene Dietrich popped in to sing for him — accompanied by Noël Coward
David Hockney, Ian McKellen and Isabella Rossellini are just three of the cultural luminaries he captured. According to Patrick Kinmonth, his one-time art director at Vogue magazine, ‘Snowdon [was] never happier than when photographing artists of any kind’.
Why might that have been the case? The obvious answer is that, as an artist himself, he recognised kindred spirits. Perhaps, as a photographer who had to keep up appearances as a royal, he appreciated the element of performance in their work, too.
As the nephew of the celebrated stage designer, Oliver Messel, Armstrong-Jones had also been used to being around artists from a young age. When he spent six months in hospital with polio as a teenager, Marlene Dietrich popped in to sing her famous number The Boys in the Back Room for him — accompanied by Noël Coward on piano.
His experience of polio, incidentally, left him with a slight limp — as well as a lifelong concern for disabled people. He’d go on to fight a successful campaign against British Rail to improve its access to wheelchair passengers; and in 1980 he set up the Snowdon Award Scheme (now the Snowdon Trust), a charity that helps disabled students in further education.
As for the style of his portrait photography, it has been described as ‘immaculately ordered but emotionally detached’. Which is to say, his images are pure, powerful and uncluttered, yet marked by a certain distance between himself and his subjects.
‘I don’t want people to feel at ease,’ Snowdon said of his approach, as if happy to leave any friendship he had with his sitters at the studio door. He wasn’t one for chatting while he worked. On getting down to business, ‘an almost unearthly feeling of suspension’ developed, Kinmonth says, as the photographer set about the ‘palpable hunt for his image’, waiting for the sitter to reveal something telling about themselves.
Three pictures in the upcoming sale — of the actors Fiona Shaw (1989) and Ian McKellen (1984), and of the playwright John Osborne (1991), all of them sitting on a chair, without background, posing at us — are what one might call typical Snowdons.
What’s interesting about Snowdon: A Life in Art and Objects, though, is that a handful of the photos — chiefly, those taken outside his studio — show much less formality. Take the image of Yves-Saint Laurent dressing one of his models; that of Max Ernst working on his sculpture, Capricorn; or that of David Hockney in his famous, gold lamé jacket, sauntering down a London street in 1963 — all of them show the photographer in a relaxed vein.
Hockney was one of a number of visual artists whom Snowdon shot for a 1965 book called Private View. Compiled by the critic John Russell and the curator Bryan Robertson, it examined why — in their view — London had become an art capital to rival Paris and New York. Snowdon enjoyed the project, though admitted to having had his struggles with one particular subject. ‘Lucien Freud scared the shit out of me,’ he said.
Snowdon’s bonds with other artists continued throughout his career, notably during his spell as Provost of the Royal College of Art between 1995 and 2003.
A final picture from the sale worth mentioning is ostensibly the most curious: of an empty red chair. Snowdon owned eight of these and often — as can be seen in his portraits of Shaw and the film director Peter Greenaway — liked to shoot his subjects sitting in them.
The chairs dated back to 1969 and the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle, the ceremony that formally acknowledged him as Prince of Wales. Snowdon was invited by the Queen to stage-manage the event, and his contribution included the design of the so-called ‘investiture chair’ for 4,600 guests.
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Each of them was made from red-stained beech and plywood, and embossed in gold leaf with the Prince of Wales motif. The chairs were all put up for sale after the ceremony and have since become collector’s items.
Judging by Snowdon’s aforementioned photograph of one of his, from 2013, he seems to have considered it a celebrity in its own right. Or perhaps he liked the idea of being the creator not just of a photograph, but of its subject, too.
He would continue taking photographs into his latter years, and in 2000 was granted a retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery, an institution that today holds 285 of his works.
'Lord Snowdon is such an important figure,’ says Benedict Winter, Associate Specialist in Private Collections at Christie’s. ‘He was constantly progressing and exacting his art. His dynamic photos leave a lasting impact on the viewer: not just in terms of his phenomenal roll-call of sitters, but of a life well-lived.’
This last point was addressed by Snowdon himself not long before his death, when he caught up for a drink — on camera — with his old pal and fellow-photographer, David Bailey. When Bailey asked him if he had any regrets, Snowdon gave himself a moment’s thought, cleared his throat and responded, ‘No. None’.