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  • Angus McBean (1904-1990)



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    Angus McBean Cecil Beaton called him the best photographer in the country; Lord Snowden declared him a genius. It is no exaggeration to say that Angus McBean revolutionized portraiture in the 1930s, or that he immortalized the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor. Blending wit, drama and fantasy with the consummate skill of a master photographer, without a doubt Angus McBean has been one of the greatest influences on theatrical, portrait, creative and commercial photography in the last 100 years.

    Biography: His Life & Art

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    Angus McBean was born in South Wales in June 1904. Despite the surname and the family's claim to be head of the sub-clan McBean, they had been Welsh for generations. Clem McBean was a surveyor in the mines and the family moved frequently around Wales with his job. From an early age Angus 'always had to be making things', and with his own carpentry tools and pots of paints he became practised in decorating the succession of family homes according to his mother's 'artistic' tastes.

    Angus McBean He bought his first camera - a 2 and a half x 3 and a half inch autographic Kodak - and tripod as the Great War was ending. Fascinated by the apparently magical properties of photography, he wanted to be able to take pictures of people and sold a gold watch left to him by his grandfather to raise the five pounds necessary for the equipment.

    Parental ambitions for Angus to become a draughtsman or a bank manager were dashed successively because he spent so much time on his photography - which he had managed to turn into a small business - his other crafts and his stargazing at the local cinemas and theatres. Along with his photography, for which he had graduated to a quarter-plate Ensign Popular Pressman reflex camera, he developed a particular aptitude for modelling masks and other theatrical props for amateur dramatics.

    Angus McBean In 1925, after his father's early death, Angus moved with his mother and younger sister to Acton in West London. He took a job in the antiques department of Liberty's where he learned to restore, and indeed to make, antiques. His spare time was devoted to mask-making and photography in a rudimentary studio and darkroom at home, and to theatre-going in the West End. He invested in a 'magnificent' half-plate Soho Tropical reflex camera that was cased in mahogany and brass. 'In those days, the bigger the negative, the better the quality of the final print and the easier to retouch'. He used it, along with hard Zeiss lenses and Kodak Panchromatic black-and-white plates, for nearly twenty years. 'I never knew what focal lengths they were or what film speeds were. I just knew what they could do for me.'

    After seven years he gave up his job at the department store, grew his distinctive beard to symbolize the fact that he would never be a wage-slave again, and began to win recognition as a maker of theatrical props. Among his early commissions were intricate pieces of medieval scenery for John Gielgud's 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux and some much praised masks for an Oxford University Dramatic Society production of Doctor Faustus and a West End play, Ballerina. Since this was a time when decorative wall masks were much used in fashionable interiors, his masks were much used in fashionable interiors, his masks of luminaries such as Greta Garbo and Lloyd George were also chronicled in social columns. While he was giving a small exhibitions in Mayfair of masks and a few photographs, the leading Bond Street photographer Hugh Cecil admired his striking portraits.

    Angus McBean McBean's style of hard lenses, harsh lighting and dramatic shadows was in direct contrast to Cecil's practice for his society clientele, but Cecil was impressed enough to offer the young man work as his assistant in his elegant Mayfair studio. Consequently, for a year McBean took all the photographs that went out under the Cecil name, submerging his own photographic instincts in the traditional Bond Street technique of the soft-focus lens and gauzed lighting. 'I learned all about negatives, however, and what a negative should look like. Those marvellous 12 x 10 [inch] glass plates, specially coated with a matt-surfaced emulsion could be drawn on, like handmade crayon paper, with an ordinary pencil.'

    Cecil allowed his assistant to use the studio at night to take his own style of photographs, and after eighteen months McBean felt confident enough to set up a studio in a basement in Belgrave Road, Victoria. But 'the artist McBean', as he was described in magazines, continued to be best known for his masks.

    Angus McBean Through them McBean received his first photographic commission in the theatre in 1936. Ivor Novello had ordered some masks for a play - The Happy Hypocrite - in which he was starring with a new and very beautiful young actress, Vivien Leigh. The matinee idol so liked the romantic photographs that McBean took in order to make his masks that he commissioned him to take a set of production photographs as well. The results, taken on stage with McBean's idiosyncratic lighting, instantly replaced the set already made by the long-established but stolid Stage Photo Company. McBean had a new career and a photographic leading lady: he was to photograph Vivien Leigh on stage and in the studio for almost every performance she gave until her death thirty years later.

    Angus McBean Within months McBean had talked his way into the business of taking production photographs and selling theatre studies to the glossy weekly magazines. Charles Laughton in Peter Pan , the magnificent Old Vic season that starred Edith Evans in As You Like It and The Country Wife , and Laurence Olivier in his first Henry V and first Hamlet were just some of McBean's studies that immediately attracted the image-conscious acting profession. In a little over a year McBean had become the court photographer of the theatrical establishment, whether his clients were the player kings and queens of the Shakespearean stage or the stars of the West End, dominated by the H.M. Tennent of Hugh 'Binkie' Beaumont.

    Angus McBean McBean's portrait business also thrived in Belgrave Road and, after taking a series of debutantes' photographs for The Sketch, he began experimenting in 1937 with some surreal portraits for the magazine. The subjects, usually beautiful actresses or actors of the moment, were placed in very detailed, specially constructed sets or landscapes in the studio. (Sand happened to feature in many of them because McBean once ordered a yard of sand and found it was rather more than he could sweep away!) The series was immensely popular, firmly established McBean's reputation and ran every week until the early months of the war. 'With ruins everywhere, it didn't seem very good taste to be photographing pretty ladies among artificial ones.' The war closed the London theatres and, although productions continued in the provincial houses, McBean decided he couldn't do much business, closed his studio and moved to Bath.

    In 1945, not sure whether he would find work again, he set up a new studio in a bomb-damaged building in Endell Street, Covent Garden. His Soho camera, without the Zeiss lenses, was sold for thirty-five pounds and he invested in a new half-plate Kodak View monorail camera onto which he attached his trusted lenses. He was commissioned first by the Stratford Memorial Theatre to photograph a production of Anthony and Cleopatra, and all his former clients quickly returned. Through the late 1940s and 50s he was the official photographer at Stratford, the Royal Opera House, Sadlers Wells, Glyndebourne, the Old Vic and at all the productions of H.M. Tennent, servicing the theatrical, musical and ballet star system.

    Angus McBean Magazines such as Tatler and The Sketch vied to commission McBean's new series of surreal portraits. This time the series ran for over ten years and included sporting and literary notables, as well as theatrical personalities and almost every visiting transatlantic celebrity, such as Mae West, Martha Graham and Katherine Hepburn. In time McBean changed his Kodak for a metal Linhoff monorail half-plate - 'The most modern of its day' - and his experimentation took him further and further into tricks with montage and blow-ups and double-exposures. From 1945 his Christmas cards continued and became unfluential far beyond their original sphere.

    In 1951 McBean chose to feature a young and unknown chorus-girl in an advertisement for a beauty product. He posed her head and bare shoulders in sand alongside his favourite miniature classical colums, and the photograph appeared in chemists' windows all over the country. The girl was Audrey Hepburn and the picture led directly to a screen-test in Hollywood.

    In the 1950s McBean also etablished a lucrative source of work taking photographic covers for record albums. With the growing pressure for colour work in this field he abandoned his half-plate camera - 'The half-plates had grown enormously expensive anyway and emulsions had got much better' - and changed to a 5x4-inch Sinar monorail. For colour work he acquired his first soft lenses. 'I felt illusions had to be preserved and of course I couldn't retouch colour.'

    Angus McBean A variety of young pop stars visited his studio in the early 1960s and one group so enjoyed their first photographic session with McBean that they later requested he should take the photograph for the cover of their first album. The photographer in turn so enjoyed their zany spontaneity that he posed them laughing over a balcony in the EMI offices in Soho. The LP was Please, Please Me, the group were The Beatles and the photograph became one of the key images in the iconography of the swing 60s.

    At the same time, however, McBean's theatre work was coming to an end. The star system he had elevated had been washed down the theatrical kithen sink and, in the search for theatrical truths, directors and actors felt they no longer wanted McBean's artifice and could no longer afford the half-day photo calls that his technique demanded.

    Faithful clients such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor insisted on using only McBean in the English theatre, and in 1970 the Beatles asked him to recreate their famous pose for their last retrospective album. But the photographer gradually withdrew from active work and concentrated on restoring and furnishing his magnificent medieval house, Flemmings Hall, in Suffolk. In the early 1970s he sold his London home and last studio in Islington; to Harvard University he sold much of his collection of eight tons of glass negatives. At the age of 70, Angus McBean had officially retired.

    Angus McBean For a decade he took no photographs professionally, other than for a few Suffolk friends, and busied himself restoring antiques, making collages and sculptures out of resins, and creating hand-blocked wallpapers. Gradually, however, a remarkable revival of interest in his work began. Exhibitions were held, television programmes were made and McBean began a steady round of lectures. The first book on his work appeared in 1982.

    The following year the French magazine L'Officiel coaxed him out of retirement to take a series of colour fashion photographs. Although he had never worked outside Britain before, or with fashion models, the photographs were highly successful; he also photographed a series of pictures for French Vogue.

    Angus McBean By his eightieth birthday McBean was restoring his second medieval house in Suffolk and undertaking occasional portrait studies and commissions from the pop and fashion worlds. The choice of milleux seemed appropriate because fantasy and make-believe had largely left the theatre and were now a staple of the pop music and fashion industries. In 1985 Angus McBean achieved apotheosis of a more formal kind when his earliest studio portrait of Vivien Leigh , his favourite picture, was turned into a postage stamp.

    He died in 1990.




    Angus McBean: Gallery


    angus mcbean

    Portrait of Hugh Laing
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Beatrice Lillie, studio portrait, 1959
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Leslie Henson, studio portrait, 1938
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Cousin Rowena, 1940
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Rene Ray, studio portrait, 1938
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Hermione Baddeley, studio portrait, 1937
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    June Clyde, 1940
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    The Third Eye
    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 2

    angus mcbean

    'A Midsummer's Night Dream'
    studio picture, 1983

    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    angus mcbean

    Beatrice Lillie
    'An Evening with Beatrice Lillie', 1950

    Angus McBean
    Manipulation 1

    Jean Cocteau Star

    Angus McBean

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