No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
This lot is subject to storage and collection charges.
**For Furniture and Decorative Objects, storage charges commence 7 days from sale. Please contact department for further details.**
THE ANGUS McBEAN COLLECTION. The Property of Norman Kelvin Esq.
ANGUS McBEAN (1904-1990)
Surrealist, Society Photographer and Interior Decorator.
The first time I met Angus McBean, the unsurpassed master of the theatrical photo-portrait; it was an appropriately surreal experience. Invited to visit him for lunch at his legendary Tudor house Flemings Hall at Eye, I arrived in the middle of Suffolk to find the great door open and no-one within, the house mysteriously empty, as though adrift like the Marie Celeste. At first cautiously, but with increasing boldness, I began to explore room after room filled with wonderful things: furniture of improbable grandeur, many of the pieces recognisable from old pictures of McBeans's previous decorative incarnations; a gallery of haunting old portraits; unlikely objects that, as one's eyes adjusted to the gloom, revealed themselves as the props from those well-remembered photographs. Only eventually did I discover Angus himself - by then in his eightieth year - outside at the back, up a shaky ladder, happily whitewashing the gaps between the half-timbering. 'the painter hasn't turned up, so I thought I'd make a start' was his simple explanation; the habits of a lifetime of turning his hand to any practical task, of making, mending and inventing had still not deserted him.
One of Angus McBean's greatest inventions was his own legend. Over the years he had woven fact and subtle little exaggerations into a seamless story. He liked, for example, to believe that he was born on the same day in 1904 as Salvador Dali, a perfect fiction that told you more than any prosaic truth. Much that seemed yet more improbable was actually true. He had bought his first camera by selling the gold pocket watch left to him by his grandfather. By doing up a sequence of highly unpromising suburban houses, he had escaped his poor upbringing in dismal Newport, Monmouthshire and reached London in 1924. There, already besotted with the cinema and the theatre, he worked for seven years in the antiques and furnishing departments at Liberty until he was dismissed for felling a tiresome customer with a bolt of cloth. 'It was 1932' he recalled, 'when there were no jobs, so I let my beard grow as a sign that I was now an artist and therefore quite unemployable.'
His real introduction to the London theatre world came when he began to use his artistic skills to make masks for the three clever women who worked together as costumiers under the name of Motley & Co. At the same time he was taking photographs. Some of these early efforts were shown in a tiny exhibition and were seen by the influential society portrait photographer Hugh Cecil. Sensing promise, Cecil took on the young McBean as an assistant. The deal was that he would not be paid but could use the well-equipped studio after hours for his own work. Within a short time Angus was not only doing most of Cecil's day-to-day work (including photographing the Prince of Wales who made an impromptu visit one day) but also beginning to create images of his own.
It was a visit to a show of surreal portrait paintings by the then much-feted Thirties painter William Acton (brother of the aesthete Harold Acton) which inspired 'Vinnie Actonised', the first of McBean's brilliant portraits of actresses and other beauties of the day.
Now with a good studio of his own in Belgrave Road, began the series that would make his name. Each required the most elaborate of preparations, with neo-romantic backdrops painted by his friend Roy Hobdell, elaborate plaster-soaked draperies shaped into the wildest forms, and sand and clay shifted by the ton and sculpted into dunes by willing assistants. By contrast, the actual sittings often took only a few minutes. Already Angus had mastered that speed of work that endeared him when on his assignments to photograph theatrical productions, and which earned him the soubriquet of which he always remained justifiably proud, 'One-shot McBean'. Recalling this happiest of periods, Angus wrote, 'I produced one of these pictures a week from about 1936 until war broke out and made surrealism, with its catalogue of ruins and deserts, all too real and no joke.'
As a conscientious objector, Angus McBean endured several difficult and miserable years. Released shortly before VE Day he bounced back and established himself in a bomb-damaged Queen Anne house in Endell Street. Somehow he raised the necessary year in advance of the £3 a week rent and began to decorate in earnest. At that time interesting old furniture could be bought for nothing or salvaged from the streets. Angus found many treasures: carved pilasters from a Wren Church, a superb French lit bateau which he hung with orange silk and a vast, illuminated fish tank which he placed within a heavy antique gilt picture-frame. The new House and Garden magazine featured his extraordinary confections in an enthusiastic article in 1952.
For the next ten or fifteen years McBean was the theatrical photographer, his unmistakeable black and white images on display outside every theatre. He knew everyone, and counted among his friends all the great luminaries of the post-war stage, including Gielgud and Olivier. Noel Coward and Robert Helpmann were both part of his circle, but Cecil Beaton, who admired his work and said that he was the better photographer, remained always too much a rival to become a real friend. During these years Angus created numerous stunning images of Vivien Leigh and, needing a new face for an advertising campaign, was the first to discover in a chorus-line the unforgettable, elfin looks of Audrey Hepburn.
At this time, too, Angus McBean was asked to create decorative schemes for the old Academy cinema in Oxford Street. Beginning with a clever Empire-style ticket kiosk, the decor went on to ever greater flights of fancy. Coles hand-printed the massive swagged wallpaper which Angus designed. A superb late Empire French gilt clock in the form of a Grecian warrior graced a niche on the upper landing (cannily, Angus later bought this back), whilst a gilt sofa which he bought for £8 turned out to be the last, long-lost piece of a suite originally made for Napoleon's uncle, the Cardinal Fesch, now re-united in Brighton Museum. Various pieces from the cinema, together with light fittings and furniture from the cinema's restaurant in what has been described as Angus's 'Fourth Empire style' are in the sale.
By the start of the sixties, McBean began for the first time ever to find himself out of step with the times. 'Kitchen-sink' drama and the low-key reality of the 'angry young men' had come to dominate the theatre and a newer generation of photographers travelled light. Theatrical illusion and artificiality now looked passe; Angus's grand, neo-romantic manner and his method of dragging full-plate cameras and tons of lights into the theatre seemed impossibly old-fashioned. Although he continued working and photographed for EMI many of the new pop stars (including Adam Faith, Marty Wilde and, in 1963, the Beatles), Angus knew that it was time for a change.
With his friends David Ball and Norman Kelvin (in recent years the devoted keepers of the flame), he began what he described as 'the last great decorative adventure' of his life, buying the near derelict Flemings Hall at Eye. Here McBean's abilities as a hand's-on decorator - or 'bodger-of-genius' - came into full play. With his carpentry skills he re-made panelling and built a staircase and a four-poster bed from a cart-load of fragments delivered by passing gypsies who had heard that the new squire was in need of woodwork. Mastering screen -printing he created elaborately coloured hessian wall-hangings, whilst every week brought new additions in the shape of old portraits, massive Elizabethan or Jacobean furniture, and an ever-increasing profusion of grandly-scaled art-objects and artefacts.
Happily, living to a great age, Angus lived long enough to see a great revival of interest in his work. Exhibitions of his greatest early images were held in London and elsewhere. Several magazines illustrated his interiors, whilst in 1983 Vogue commissioned him to gather up his old equipment and travel to Paris to photograph the best of the couture collections. With characteristic style and energy he rose to the challenge, working almost for the first time in colour and creating memorable images. Still dressed, as ever, in the wonderfully idiosyncratic clothes that he designed and had made up, he wrote of himself about this time: 'Well, good or bad, classical or romantic, I have been decorating the nest and myself most of my life like some demented bower-bird'. It is a delightful line and one which, for those who were lucky enough to know him, captures precisely something of the qualities of an extraordinary artist and a generous, humorous man. Angus died in 1990, in his eighty-sixth year, still full of ideas and plans.
Walworth, July 2005