Angus McBean Photography Exhibition

The Exhibition launched on Wed 2 Sep and will run every Wed, Thu & Fri  10am-3pm and Sun 11-3pm until Fri 2nd Oct.

Exhibition Talk: Both Sides of the Lens: The Charisma and Enigma of Angus McBean with Dr Marjorie Coughlan

Angus McBean (1904-1990) was one of the principal theatre photographers in Britain from 1935, when he opened his own studio in London, until his retirement in 1974.  His portraits of the stage and screen legends of the 1930s and ’40s now have iconic status – as do his later photographs of the Beatles: the much-parodied EMI balcony shots from their debut album Please, Please Me (1963) and the compilation albums released in 1973. 

McBean was born and brought up in Monmouthshire in Wales. He moved to London in 1924, working as a sales assistant at Liberty’s.  When he left under a cloud in 1931, he grew his signature beard to symbolise that he was an artist and would never again be an employee.  In 1934, he was taken on as studio assistant and trained by the highly successful society photographer Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). He learned the techniques for making the fashionable soft-focused portraits, but in the evenings, he experimented with hard lighting to create the crisp contrasts of light and shadow that were to become an identifying feature of his work. 

This exhibition shows a selection of the personal collection of McBean’s photographs, made by a friend, David, who lived in York and probably met McBean for the first time at the major retrospective exhibition held there in 1976: David’s autographed invitation to the opening of A Darker Side of the Moon: The Photographs of Angus McBean is shown to the right.  David was an art collector, so probably bought prints, as well as becoming a recipient of McBean’s famous self-portrait Christmas cards.  He bequeathed this collection to the current owners, who have generously loaned it to the Helmsley Arts Centre for this exhibition.

This David is not to be confused with David Ball, who became McBean’s assistant and then life-partner from 1947: Ball makes an appearance here in McBean’s imposing composite head-and-shoulders portrait, as well as some of his virtuoso photomontage Christmas cards that include his 1952 Christmas card.  This is the witty re-modelling of an early-19th-century engraving of Venus as photographer’s model, with Ball as Zephyr and McBean as a camera-wielding Neptune.  Neptune was a recurrent character for McBean, who regularly won fancy-dress prizes at the Old Vic Balls, most notably wearing his attention-seeking Neptune mask and not much else in 1933, and a few years later, with a plaster of Paris ‘wig’ and beard, which became his Christmas card for 1939.  The costumes for one of the self-portraits on the opposite wall may well have been worn there too.

Deliberately moving away from the soft-focused technique of his contemporary society photographers, McBean favoured hard but not harsh, direct light.  His atmospheric contrasts of light and shadow created memorable drama, lifting his subjects from the two-dimensional plane of the photographic print.  A photograph of Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus in 1938 can be seen here, in a characteristically ‘surrealised’ setting.

McBean’s early involvement in making masks and costumes for the theatre had given him an entrée to his subjects’ side of the lens. His very first cover photograph published by The Sketch magazine was actually a self-portrait with his moving model of actress Mae West (1893-1980).

McBean would later say that he was ‘always what’s known as a purist photographer.  I did nothing to the negatives’.[i]  This, however, does not mean that images were not manipulated. Unsurprisingly, he had a studio assistant who expertly retouched portraits; sitters knew that, even on a bad day, he would always ensure they looked good, and he always sought their approval before sending photographs out to the theatres or the magazines – ‘glossies’ – that were a regular source of his income. 

At the end of 1937, McBean explored a new way to make portraits, inspired by the London International Surrealist Exhibition (1936) and a Sketch feature of the surreal society portraits by artist William Acton (1906-1945). Throughout 1938, he produced one of his ‘surrealised’ portraits a week for The Sketch and he created two Christmas cards that year; both are shown here. One is a self-parody of his particularly successful ‘surrealisation’ of actress Dorothy Dickson (1883-1995), which was well worth the considerable trouble for both McBean and his sitter to execute.  In the Christmas card, McBean portrays himself looking through a mirror (literally), holding onto the jagged hole.  The other represents what he called his ‘flying dream’, with McBean joyously flying through a dramatically lit sky in a tin bath, accompanied by his stuffed auk, a junk-shop find that found its way into a number of the surrealisations.[ii]

McBean stated that he only once ever used flash to take a photograph: his 1950 Christmas card, for which he placed a cut-out of himself once again in his pyjamas and holding an umbrella in a fish tank. Similarly, there was no in-camera manipulation involved in creating the series of ‘surrealised’ portraits.  He and his assistants, including the artist and set designer Roy Hobdell (1911-1961), constructed sets, sourced props and used scissors and glue. He did not even need those for his 1947 Christmas card: an electrician stuck his head through the rotten floorboards in a staircase during renovations of his derelict post-war home/studio in Endell St., and McBean was immediately inspired to exploit the opportunity for some surreal absurdity.

After the Second World War, McBean had to restart his studio from scratch.  Following McBean’s very public trial and imprisonment for homosexual offences (1942-44), the theatre critic and diarist James Agate (1877-1947) opened the door to his rehabilitation by commissioning two portraits to be included in his published diary Ego 7: one of himself, the other a constructed portrait of his imagined regular correspondent Dr Erasmus Glohwurm, complete with dark glasses, armour and the supposed accoutrements of a Wagner-loving music critic. Agate was later the first in a series of composite portraits of ‘Play Personalities’ commissioned by the Tatler in 1947.

McBean’s interest in unusual juxtapositions continued, building on his surrealisations of the 1930s.  He developed his technical skills in using double exposure and creating complex composite photographs, alongside and then incorporated into the theatre work that began to fill his diary.

McBean became the official photographer for Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; Glyndeborne; and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford (now the RSC). The composite portrait of Robert Helpmann as Hamlet here was made when Helpmann (1909-1986) played the role at Stratford in 1948, but was equally topical as a representation of the version he had created for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1942 and revived at the Royal Opera House in 1946.

The title of one of the plays he had photographed that year, I Am a Camera by John van Druten, gave him the idea for his 1954 Christmas card, a self-portrait as half-camera/half-man, which he captioned as either “The Angus in Camera” or “The Photosaurus”. The following year, his 1955 Christmas card showed him back in his familiar tweeds, complete with deerstalker, photographing a group of Victorian ladies (from a photograph probably dating from the 1880s), with Lake Como in the background and the head of David Ball replacing the original boy talking to them over the wall.

It was the emergence of the new, gritty realism heralded by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which took the world by storm in 1956, that McBean identified as the beginning of the end for his style of photography.  Nevertheless, he continued to be in demand, even if the field of his commissions broadened to include, for example, creating old photographs for both stage and screen productions, or providing the cover image for record sleeves, such as the now iconic At the Drop of A Hat for Flanders & Swann.  He also became one of the record company EMI’s official photographers, which brought many leading musicians of all genres, from Yehudi Menhuin to Cliff Richard, to his studio.  His most famous EMI photographs are probably the two he took near the beginning and, as it turned out, the end of the Beatles’ years together, as mentioned earlier, looking down over the EMI balcony in 1963 for their debut album Please, Please Me and again in 1969, used for their Red and Blue compilation albums of 1973.

Meanwhile, in 1959, McBean was honoured to be asked by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre to assist them in commemorating their 100th season. It turned out to be a complex and satisfying project: an enormous mural showing performances of Shakespeare’s plays throughout their history, incorporating old prints and McBean’s photograph of a folio edition, as well as production photographs spanning the whole of his career. A fragment of the mural in miniature can be seen here.  Five years later, almost coinciding with McBean’s 60th birthday, Kodak hosted an exhibition of McBean’s remarkable array of Shakespeare production photographs, to commemorate the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth.  Olivier, who was playing Othello at the Old Vic, opened the exhibition and he and McBean walked round it together.

A few years later, McBean sold his theatre work to the Harvard Theatre Collection and retired.  For a brief time, it could be said that he turned his back on the heritage represented by his life’s work, discarding and destroying some 2,000 glass negatives: a photograph taken by Jake Wallis (1945-2016), his erstwhile assistant, records McBean in the skip, breaking them up.   As the 1970s progressed, however, attitudes towards photography began to change, with an increasing appreciation of photography as art.  The exhibition in York mentioned above, was the first major retrospective of McBean’s work; others followed.  Then in 1983, he was invited to Paris to photograph the upcoming Paris fashions for the French magazine, L’Officiel.  In glorious colour, McBean recreated various of his surrealisations of the 1930s, filling sixteen pages of the magazine. The whole experience was enormously successful – it brought McBean back into the public eye and out of retirement.  He continued then to photograph and was busy making plans for further outlets for his work when he died, in the early hours of 9 June 1990, the day after his 86th birthday.

McBean was justifiably proud of his skills as a photographer, and he loved the whole world of the theatre and the people that inhabited it.  The fact that they loved him back and trusted him means that his work in the theatre as well as the studio resulted in an alchemy of the crisp stillness of that moment captured by the camera and the energy pulsing below the surface.  This exhibition presents a nugget of McBean’s work, encompassing the Kibbo Kift Mummers, through to the final highs and lows of the Stratford frieze and the destroyed negatives.  It offers both a unique glimpse at McBean’s life as presented in his own work, and also an opportunity to get close up to examples of his consummate manipulation.

Dr Marjorie Coughlan

[i] Arena BBC documentary, season 8, episode 6, broadcast 7 December 1982., accessed 26 August 2020

[ii] Adrian Woodhouse, Angus McBean: Facemaker, Richmond: AlmaBooks, 2006, p. 151

Photo Published with kind permission of Houghton Library, Harvard University. 



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