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  • Words by Mr Colin McDowell

Six foot five inches tall sausage makers are not normally interested in fashion photography; one reason why Mr Norman Parkinson stood out from the crowd. The others were for his great pictures and his fabulously eccentric dress and behaviour. When it comes to fashion photographers working in the second half of the 20th century, Mr Parkinson was distinguished as the gentleman farmer turned photographer. It was a stance he actively encouraged, although it is not exactly the truth. Like many a man before and since his time, Mr Parkinson adapted his life to be the man he wished to be - and did so very successfully as he forged a glittering career as one of the world's most popular high fashion photographers - a man who, thrice married, had a great rapport with women, including the models, who all loved to work with him.

If it all seems rather too unlikely, it should be said that the pig rearing and the manufacture of The Porkinson Banger - as his sausages were branded - came well after his career in fashion was established on a world scale. But another surprise is that this most English of Englishmen chose to follow that career not in leafy England, but from his home on Tobago.

Mr Parkinson photographed in London, December 1960
Photograph Terence Donovan. © Terence Donovan Archive

Mr Parkinson was born in England in 1913 to a comfortable but rather staid middle-class family. Most of his childhood and youth were spent in Putney, London, and he was educated at Westminster School. Neither exceptionally gifted nor academic, he was apprenticed in his late teens to a firm of court photographers and from there set up his own studio with a friend. A one-man show of Mr Parkinson's work led to commissions from British Harper's Bazaar in 1935, where he made a name for himself with pioneering action fashion pictures. They showed the clear influence of the photographer Mr Martin Munkácsi who, working in New York in the 1930s, shares with Ms Toni Frissell the honour of being the first fashion photographer to take models out of the studio and show them outdoors, walking, jumping and running. This was at a time when people such as Sir Cecil Beaton and Mr Horst P Horst were creating static studio photographs aping the grand portraits of the 18th century, and even the postures of Greek and Roman classical sculpture. Mr Parkinson's approach was a breath of fresh air and displayed his iconoclastic, carefree rule breaking - he even photographed models playing golf. He was a pioneer in Britain, even though he liked to refer to himself as a mere "snapper".

The trademark that said 'Parks' the most was the hat that he wore almost constantly - even when photographing the British royal family

Mr Parkinson's work had wit. Only he could have found road signs in France profonde reading "Bouzy" and "Dizy" and placed his models in front of them. He was eccentric - originally contrived but apparently endemic as he grew older and became a world star. Tall as a crane and as graceful as a gazelle, he was a presence wherever he went. And his dress reflected the different sides of his personality. Frequently clothed in immaculately tailored traditional English suiting, he could also be equally at ease in a flowing mid-European gypsy shirt with huge sleeves and a belt cinching the waist. But the trademark that said "Parks" the most was the hat that he wore almost constantly - even when photographing the British royal family. It was variously described as a Victorian smoking cap and a Kashmiri wedding hat, but it was somehow not nearly as at variance with his exclusively made Italian silk shirts in swirling patterns and strong colours as one might imagine.

 Ms Wenda Rogerson shot for Vogue, South Africa, 1951 © Norman Parkinson. Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive,

And of course he photographed everyone, from Queen Elizabeth II and her mother and sister, separately and together, looking like The Supremes, as a sharp journalist commented, to supermodels including Mses Jerry Hall, Iman, Carmen Dell'Orefice and Wenda Rogerson, his third wife, married to him for more than 40 years, who he enjoyed introducing with the words, "Have you met my mistress before?" In fact, one of the best stories about Mr Parkinson was when he almost killed her. On a shoot in Africa she was placed on an ostrich. It suddenly panicked and charged away with Ms Rogerson desperately hanging on to its neck in fear for her life. As they hurtled past Mr Parkinson he was heard to call, "More profile Wenda, darling! More profile," oblivious to her perilous plight. It just shows: love is one thing but being a totally dedicated photographer is quite another.