Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“The Greatest Photographer This Country Has Produced”

Public Event

Angus McBean: the Post-war Years , National Library of Wales , March 3, 2016
Public Event by Angus McBean: the Post-war Years Adrian Woodhouse touches lightly on the years of war. An artist has a sexual orientation but he or she is not solely that orientation. McBean spends two and a half years in prison for offences against the mores of his time. In prison in Lincolnshire he photographs fellow inmates and produces, directs and dresses play productions. He naturally fears for his future, scandal and absence making a potent combination. But one call for his services follows another. Stratford wants him for the American visitor, Claire Luce. His photographs are published in “the Tatler.” McBean has survived ignominy.

A new studio is bought and recreated. The location in Endell Street is better with close proximity to the places of theatre and opera. He becomes the official recorder for Stratford and the fledgling National Theatre. His record of every production of every Shakespeare play makes a unique collection in theatre's history.

In London there are plays by Christopher Fry and Terence Rattigan, big new musicals from the USA in the form of “Carousel” and “Oklahoma.” In contrast small scale review shows are in the hands of the talents of Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley and Hermione Gingold. In the studio McBean stretches his medium with effects of montage and multiple exposure. This second invention of surrealistically-inclined work produces arresting images year on year. Its methods extend to his production of uniquely idiosyncratic McBean Christmas cards. His lustre is such that up to eight hundred cards go out across the world. Employment at the studio reaches ten with assistants, retouchers, lighters, dark-room workers and secretary all required.

One of his commercial commissions is for a beauty product. He chooses a member of the chorus line from a revue he is photographing at the Cambridge Theatre. He pays his model £4 and her picture is to be seen in pharmacy windows for years to come. It is the eyes that have attracted his attention. The £4 have gone to a young Audrey Hepburn.

The nineteen-sixties is an era that tears up the rules and a new generation of photographers is central to it. McBean is still there to capture Olivier in 1964 as Othello but he has another project to absorb him. He has an Elizabethan hall in Suffolk to occupy him. The camera industry is making great jumps technically and his work diminishes with colour. McBean himself says “As it became easier to take the pictures, I think my pictures became less interesting.”

In the new era a whole raft of signatures are added to the visitors' book at the Endell Street studio. The recording company EMI is at a peak and sends his way the biggest names of the new music. Cliff Richard, the Shadows, Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Johnny Kidd, John Leyton, Marty Wilde, Billy J Kramer, Freddy and his Dreamers are precursor to the most famous image of them all.

Four young men look out over a balcony. “A gangling group of four young men in mole-coloured velveteen performing suits of a terrible cut” was how he described meeting the chart-toppers. The photograph is taken from below akin to a portrait by Titian. It is to be the cover picture for the album “Please, Please Me” which the Beatles are to sell in the millions.

Critical writing on photography has moved. Susan Sontag writes on the images of atrocity and their ability to aesthetise the unspeakable. In effect beauty is being created from the hideous. A photographer who sets out to make beauty is in this context a different kind of maker. At a retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery McBean has become “a generous and somewhat fey portrait photographer, with a pronounced fondness for props and light-hearted gimmickry.”

The books of photographs made by Adrian Woodhouse and McBean in collaboration can be bought for eighty pence plus a bit of postage. Nonetheless, to open the two, one published by Quartet in 1982 and the other by MacDonald in 1985 is to make a journey in three directions.

The first is the photographer as a part of Britain's surrealism. The effects were simply made, often a head emerging through a board with a hole cut in it. Beatrice Lillie is cut off at the chin in a dome of glass where birds or flowers should be. Clouds from a winter night roll by in the background. Earlier she has appeared in a picture made with a double exposure. She occupies a small place in the composition. A giant cartoon of her in silhouette adorns the black background and she stands aside a keyboard. She is in proportion to cover two of the black keys.

Beatrice Lillie was a star and McBean's second distinction is to have been the recorder without equal of London's theatre. Vivian Leigh was his perennial subject. From a “Twelfth Night” of 1955 she is in half-profile to the camera. A dress of sumptuousness and size flows in a full gorgeous sweep. The flow of the dress is mirrored in the arrangement of the curtain behind. In 1951 she is in full profile, her nose abutting Olivier's cheek. The production is “Julius Caesar.” She is Cleopatra in full costume and he is Mark Anthony. These were the stars at the apex. In 1951 he photographs Richard Burton holding the crown just above his head as the young “Henry V.” It is a symbol for the life to come. The eyes are luminously arresting. The pocked right cheek can be seen with a closeness of scrutiny. But McBean's image-making was motivated by beauty.

The third aspect of the work is the one that transcends the role in Britain's art history and his documentation of Britain's artists. It lies in the formal qualities. Adrian Woodhouse as critic homes in on the velvety blacks, the half-tones and chiaroscuro. Vivian Leigh again in 1937 has her head tilted downward. A black hat casts a shadow that is so posed as to just touch the edge of the pupil of her right eye. It is mirrored by a line of dark that sculpts her left cheek.

The photograph was one that made its way to Hollywood and the one that paved the way to Scarlett O'Hara. McBean's mastery of the balance of black and white is consummate. A picture from 1950 comes from a production of “the Innocents.” Flora Robson in mid-distance holds a lamp that throws its light upward on her face of deep disquiet. In the foreground the children, Miles and Flora, are seated. The girl's head is composed to be at the height of Miss Jessel's waist. The children are playing cards, the impossible white of their nightwear next to a lighted candle. In a single image it says everything about Henry James' masterpiece ghost story

His studio guest book records the visitors. Laurence Olivier leaves a commendation. “Your rice puddings are excellent.” An artist who starts young and is active for decades leaves a body of work behind. The physical legacy amounted to eight and a half tons of glass negatives. No institution in 1970s Britain wanted them and Olivier suggested the USA. Harvard bought four and a half tons for $40000. The studio was sold to an assistant. There was no room for the storage of antique images; four tons of glass negatives of all the regular studio sittings were destroyed.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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