Like most things in my life portraiture came about by chance. When Sal and I were married (1958) we happened to live in a house full of actors. Well, two houses owned by the same landlady. In our house we had Thomas Heathcote, a regular in films in the fifties and sixties, and a playwright called Sean Patrick Vincent, who recommended me to several friends, notably Anton Rodgers. Next door were Norman Rossington, Kenneth Cope and his wife Renny Lister. Ken was famous on TV as Hopkirk (deceased) and as memorably unconvincing (female) nurse in Carry on Matron. Norman was in the same film but was also in the very first Carry On, Carry on Sergeant and several others. His major triumph was as Albert Finney’s friend in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was made while we were living there so there was much coming and going of cast and hangers on. Hence my picture of Shirley-Ann Field with our son Ben. Jean Marsh was another visitor. She liked most of my pictures but hated the one on Hampstead Heath. Maybe she will like it better now it is in the National Portrait Gallery collection. The thing just expanded.
Clare Davidson was a friend of Sal’s family, then teaching at LAMDA, who went on to coach stars of stage and screen all over the world. For a while Clare sent students to me for their Spotlight Directory pictures and later we would see them pop up on their first TV outings. Two Americans come to mind. We first saw Stacy Keach starring in a LAMDA production of a Restoration Comedy playing an overbearing English aristocrat; the next day when we met for the photos I was astonished to discover he was all American. Clare had done an amazing job. The other was Andy Robinson soon afterwards to become the serial killer Scorpio tormenting Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Andy swore it was my picture that got him the job. Never believe an actor. One day a fancy agent in Mayfair rang up to ask me to photograph a great new prospect. In walked the RAMC corporal who had been entertaining us national service squaddies on the troopship coming home from Singapore five years earlier. He turned out to be Oliver Reed.
Other portraits of actors were for newspapers, magazines and record companies, an arrangement I much preferred. I suppose if actors are paying they are entitled to want pictures which portray them as they wish to be seen on stage or screen, that is 20 years younger, 50 times better looking and 100 times more ‘interesting’ than they actually are. Most people think that is what portraiture is all about. I’m far too sceptical for that. I didn’t try to flatter them but, on the other hand, I certainly didn’t want to ruin their careers. Many came back for more. Ken Cope was still using one of my pictures 30 years later. Still I do admit to an unfortunate/amazing (but entirely intuitive) talent for revealing things about some people they don’t like!
Vanessa Redgrave, Rupert Davis and Sheila Hancock were all for record companies, as were most of the musicians. Sheila recorded an anti-smoking song called My Last Cigarette written by Sydney Carter, who was well known himself for the hymn Lord of the Dance. Sydney, in turn, recommended me to Donald Swann, famous at the time through his comic performances with Michael Flanders. He came back for more several times, and had me photograph his daughter Natasha.
My favourites among the musicians were the ‘traditional’ singers, their faces full of the knowledge that they can do something lesser beings can’t, exactly like skilled craftsmen everywhere. Strangely, the Liverpool footballers, and their mighty manager Bill Shankley, were for a record as well, made by Stan Kelly and Bill Leader for Transatlantic. The team was invincible in the late 60s and 70s and Stan was a raving fan. It sold many, many, thousands. In Liverpool. Now it is a collectors item.
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay then) was a surreal experience. I was summoned to Hemel Hempstead Sainsbury’s to photograph him on a countrywide tour promoting Ovaltine. This may seem an unlikely event for Muhammad Ali, World Heavyweight Champion, but it was totally unheard of for Sainsburys in 1971 when the Family reigned supreme. The entire population of Hemel was there. Full marks to me for getting so close as he signed hundreds of Ovaltine tins and chatted amiably to everyone. Eventually the police had to be called to get rid of them all. Not a proper portrait, perhaps, but an unexpected treat.
I have photographed dozens, maybe hundreds, of businessmen, officials, academics, consultants, who I haven’t shown you mostly because I don’t know their names. The clients did so I didn’t need to. I suppose some of them may have achieved eminence/notoriety since. Still, there are a few here. Molly Hattersley was our children’s Head Teacher. Roy happened to be there when I went to photograph her at their home. There are lots of stories to tell but no room here. They just came my way through commissions, custom adventures, or wandering the streets; I have no idea who many of them are and many of them had no idea I was taking their picture. But it has never been my style to go looking for scalps.
‘Queen Elizabeth I’ was a press show ‘photo opportunity’ at the National Portrait Gallery when they were exhibiting Elizabethan Portraits in the early 80s. My picture may not be what they were hoping for. I thought it best to leave it out when I made a speculative submission to their photograph collection around 2010. I sent twenty-four portraits and was astonished (and gratified) when they accepted eighteen. Subsequent negotiations brought the total to fifty, and I’m planning to have another go. As a result I have seen myself described in print as ‘the distinguished portrait photographer’.
Even I don’t believe that!