Star quality shines out through a lens
IAN COLLINS Welcome to the heady world of Angus McBean – Suffolk’s surrealist snapper of the stars. Ian Collins pays tribute to a dramatic talent now with a retrospective show in London.
At the annual antiques street market in Halesworth a few years back, one stall was offering a more than usually familiar human skull. No one rushed to snap it up, even for a fiver.
Alas, we had known this particular Yorick rather well . . .
For the skeletal relic had featured in a legendary black and white image of Hamlet as played by Laurence Olivier, the future first knight of the theatre (and purveyor of uncured ham).
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But Larry had been an absolute lamb in the pre-war photo shoot by lensman Angus McBean. The prop it was that corpsed . . .
Until a retreat to Suffolk, in the decades before his death in 1990, McBean had perfected a mad and masterly form of surrealism in fantastic photographs beloved of theatrical agents and glossy magazines.
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This early maker of masks had a thing about heads, if not skulls. The beaming bonce of a youthful Spike Milligan was snapped in a bell jar, like a trick trophy for Salomé.
Beatrice Lillie adopted a Marie Antoinette-style look of disdain in another disembodied presentation. Later she was to be shot while taking a call from a phone cunningly concealed in a giant lily (geddit?).
Among many claims to fame by Angus McBean - as showcased in a retrospective exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - perhaps the biggest came in 1951 when he chose to feature a young and unknown chorus-girl in an advert for a beauty product.
Posing her head and bare shoulders in sand alongside his favourite miniature classical columns, he produced an arresting picture which appeared in chemists' windows up and down the land.
The model was Audrey Hepburn and the poster led directly to a Hollywood screen-test. The rest is history.
In 1963, after our snapper had given a spectrally surrealist edge to the cover of Cliff Richard's album Me and my Shadows (in which the star adopted that trademark look of Elvis Presley crossed with Doris Day), he was invited to the EMI headquarters in London's Manchester Square to depict the pop sensations of the minute.
Four grinning faces had soon been snapped looking over a balcony. Close your eyes and . . . I bet you can picture the resulting cover of the Beatles' Please Please Me LP.
Six years later the image was reprised for the fab four's Blue Album compilation of hit singles, only this time the features of John Lennon (like those of McBean himself) were barely visible beneath a psychedelic explosion of facial hair.
Throughout his glittering career, this most creative of lensmen produced eight tons of glass negatives, but he only ever had one of his pictures on display in any of his successive homes.
The 1938 glamour shot to cap all glamour shots showed a female head in profile, smouldering under the brim of a fedora hat and a branch of blossom.
Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Vivien Leigh - McBean's most loyal and rewarding subject.
This particular image, part of the campaign which won the actress the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, would scoop the ultimate accolade in dramatic decapitation. It was reproduced as a postage stamp.
The snapper, who would now have turned 102, was born in South Wales in rather humdrum circumstances. He escaped by buying his first camera at 15 and used his family and friends as models in scenes and situations.
Not exactly your run-of-the-mill boy, or miner's lad, Angus began to make masks and props for local amateur dramatic productions.
He also started to make over suburban houses with swags of sparkly material and bags of glittery antiques in a manner which he would call Fourth Empire and which might startle Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
You might say he had something of a gilt complex . . .
The death of his father allowed a flight to London and work in Liberty's antiques department. There McBean displayed what might be termed an artistic temperament, with a genius for restoring, adapting and making antiques and an inability to suffer bores, or boors, gladly.
Indeed, he couldn't abide them at all. And once he had clobbered an especially irritating customer with a bolt of cloth he was propelled on a new career.
That billowing beard was then adopted as the symbol of a farewell to wage slavery. Over the years it would take centre stage in self-portraits on ever-more ingenious Christmas cards which may now be rated as highlights of the McBean art.
A small exhibition of masks and props drew the leading West End photographer Hugh Cecil, who spotted the flair in a few displayed photographs and cannily grabbed a new assistant.
For a year McBean produced all the images issued under Cecil's name, slyly changing the society snapper's soft-focus style with sundry theatrical effects. He played with the emulsion coatings on glass plates, enhancing reality with his artistic pencil.
Opening his own studio in a Victoria basement, the budding surrealist got his big break with an order for masks for the 1936 Ivor Novello play The Happy Hypocrite.
This gatherer of lilacs in the spring, and keeper of home fires burning, so admired the photos taken in order to make the masks that he commissioned a set of production shots as well.
The leading lady - Vivien Leigh - would be photographed by McBean, on stage and in the studio, for almost every performance she gave until her death 30 years later.
After that first foray, all stage doors were opened. Charles Laughton was captured in Peter Pan, Edith Evans in As You Like It, Larry O in Hamlet.
The portraits themselves became works of consummate theatricality, requiring their very own dress rehearsals. Angela Baddeley and Emlyn Williams were to be shown on a toy stage as puppets in the hands of out-sized impresario Hugh Beaumont (with the title Binkie Pulls the Strings).
A favourite technique remained the placing of lopped heads and torsos in a desert of classical ruins, created in the sand pile in his studio. Such images had to stop when the Blitz strewed real body parts in city wreckage.
McBean retired to Bath, returning in peacetime to resume a career exactly where he had left it. In 1948 he brightened up post-war austerity a treat with a picture of Mae West alongside her image he had modelled in a mobile doll.
Divas, singers, dancers (Marlene, Maria, Margot) were added to the glitzy rollcall until such costly style - each shoot would take at least half a day - fell foul of the increasingly brutal facts of fashion's bottom line.
Despite the loyalty of certain stars - such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were flattered by their elevation to the world of high art - such grand productions were no longer deemed affordable. Save for very special occasions, the commercial doors snapped shut.
Not that McBean was one to hang around moping. He, plus assistant David Ball and partner Norman Kelvin, repaired to Suffolk - and the idiosyncratic restoration of a moated Elizabethan manor near Eye. It's now the home of fashion designer Jasper Conran.
In his eighties, and working on another ancient wreck, in Debenham, he was still running up curtains (and ladders) and moving around antiques to produce domestic stage sets.
Hailed by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Lord Snowdon, the wit, drama and fantasy of Angus McBean's output is among the greatest achievements in the art of photography. He always makes us look - and very often he leaves us laughing.
Angus McBean: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery (020 7306 0055) until October 22. Open 10-6 Sat-Wed, 10-9 Thur and Fri. Admission £5, concessions £3.50. Tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square.