Illustration by Brittany Richmond
Picture the scene. Princess Margaret, the Queen's glamorous sister, in nothing but a sparkling tiara, soaking in a tub of hot water in conversation with her husband. Snap! Immortalised. The oft-Instagrammed image of the late Lord Snowdon’s most significant subject is one of many iconic photographs of theatre, fashion and society figures, captured in his Pimlico studio.
Damien Hirst in a goldfish bowl; a gap-toothed Laurence Olivier sneering beneath thick eyebrows; a corseted Helen Mirren framed by light bulbs in the dressing room; Marlene Dietrich in a cloud of smoke.
Young Tony Armstrong-Jones’ interest in photography was initiated by working aged 7 or 8 for his uncle Oliver Messel, the stage designer. Graduating from the Box Brownie to room above a chemist on Windsor High Street - having re-started the Eton photographic society - Armstrong-Jones sourced scarcely available photographic paper from a jeweller’s. His Cambridge career did not last a year, and after eschewing natural studies and architecture, was apprenticed to the famous society photographer Baron for three years, for the sum of £100, paid by his father.
And so it was that six months later an impatient Armstrong-Jones set up by himself at number 22, Pimlico Road, gutting an ironmonger’s shop to install studio and darkroom. Many of his sitters lounge in the same, carved wooden chair, devoid of props, against hand-dyed backdrops in this setting; all excess stripped away to leave the personality exposed. His charm and cheek - which would later endear him to the Queen and Queen Mother as well as Margaret and a host of debutants - earned him commissions with Tatler, Picture Post, Queen, Vogue and The Sketch; he would also go on to work as art director for the newly launched Sunday Times colour magazine in 1961 (living on Marmite on foreign assignments). In time, his photographs would appear on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, where a retrospective of his work was held in 2000.
Crucial to his portraiture was daylight, a deliberate use of grain (often the result of large prints enlarged from 35mm film) and a documentary style, resulting in a realism that is evident in his first book capturing the ebb and flow of London life by means of his Leica (even if he would later dismiss the images as overly nostalgic). Virtually immobilised by polio at the age of 14, Snowdon would develop a great social awareness and ability to identify with the disabled. ‘I want to know the relationship between nurse and patient, and all the love and care involved’ he told the British Journal of Photography. ‘Not do-gooding pictures…but pictures that simply inform people and encourage them to think more deeply about things that are too often swept under the mat.’ Snowdon’s maiden speech in the House of Lords focused on the challenges of disability; all his professional fees during his marriage to Princess Margaret went into a trust, established in 1981 as the Snowdon Award Scheme, to fund disability projects.
His legacy? His involvement with the Royal Family (and no doubt his various extramarital affairs) will forever be a primary association with his name. But hard work will out; and the popularity of his photographs shows no sign of waning. Snowdon appears to have passed his creative genes on to his children who include furniture maker David Armstrong-Jones (Viscount Linley), artist Lady Sarah Chatto, and Lady Frances von H - director of Snowdon’s archive and designer of a line of coats for Dover Street Market, who also recently launched Luncheon magazine.
A natural bohemian, full of boyish enthusiasm tempered by courtesy and a sensitivity to his subjects’ vulnerabilities; all these qualities are evident in his images. ‘Thank you so much for your interest in my work,’ Snowdon concluded an interview in 1983. The pleasure, sir, is all ours.