The Sexiest Royal Ever
As a personal retrospective by Lord Snowdon gets underway, this photographer and avatar of the Swinging Sixties is back in the high life
“In earlier times, when men’s fashion was more flamboyant and frankly more interesting than it is today, I was stunned by his bold choices in clothes. I must say that a few of these images have gone straight from my copier and onto the inspiration wall in my office,” writes Mr Tom Ford in an essay that accompanies Snowdon: A Life in View, a recently published monograph from Rizzoli. “While I have a kind of crush on the Tony of today, had I encountered him in the 1960s that crush would have become a full-on obsession.”
At the age of 84 the British photographer Lord Snowdon is back in the public eye thanks to a major exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the aforementioned monograph.
There are many different layers to Lord Snowdon, from the groovy style icon who piloted an Aston Martin DB5 around London in the Swinging Sixties to the award-winning documentary film-maker of the 1970s, via the iconoclast who wore a Nehru collar to HRH The Prince of Wales’ investiture ceremony in Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Lord Snowdon’s attempts to modernise the image of the British royal family were both visionary and bold given his position at the time – he married Princess Margaret, the Queen’s late sister, in 1960. The marriage, which was famously tempestuous, lasted until 1978.
Lord Snowdon was born Mr Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones on 7 March 1930. His father was a Major in the army; his mother’s family had a stockbroking firm called L Messel & Co. A commoner when he married, he received his title in October 1961 in advance of the birth of his first child, the future Viscount Linley. Multi-talented but no dilettante, Lord Snowdon confounded expectations by continuing to work as a photographer after he married Princess Margaret. Perhaps he felt that having escaped stockbroking for the creativity afforded by photography he couldn’t relinquish his freedom. “My father is incredibly disciplined and hard-working. He has always been passionate about ‘get up early in the morning: go and work’,” writes Viscount Linley of his father’s work ethic.
First published in British Vogue in 1956, Lord Snowdon went on to shoot for Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and The Sunday Times, among a great number of other titles. His photographic subjects have varied from royalty to fashion designers (including Messrs Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior), from movie stars including Mr Jack Nicholson, to models such as Ms Bianca Jagger. He learnt street photography, influenced by Mr Henri Cartier-Bresson, and became known for his socially conscious reportage of the old, the ill and the neglected.
Somehow he also found time to design a range of women’s ski wear in 1956, join the British Design Council in 1961, unveil the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo, designed with visionary architect Mr Cedric Price and structural engineer Mr Frank Newby, in 1965; and in 1969 to design the chair for the investiture of The Prince of Wales. His contemporary, de-militarised designs for the ceremony, at which Prince Charles was made the Prince of Wales, were attacked for breaking with tradition. Lord Snowdon elegantly answered the criticism by saying, “I’m not a modernist for the sake of being modern. I just happen to be alive in 1969.”
His most important work has been as an advocate for disabled people (at the age of 16 he spent six months in bed recuperating from polio), which has taken the form of speeches in the House of Lords, articles in magazines, the foundation of a charity to help disabled students into higher education, and work in the field of industrial design.
Lord Snowdon’s life has encapsulated British history since the end of the WWII. He embodies the social change and the glamour of the Swinging Sixties. He’s photographed important cultural figures such as Messrs TS Eliot, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Graham Greene, as well as pop stars from Mr David Bowie to the Pet Shop Boys. He’s charted fashion’s path from the formality of the 1950s to the modern designer era (including great work for Issey Miyake), and while he married into the British royal family he’s never lost his interest in the less fortunate sections of society.
In the book there are powerful shots from 1972 of the then new Dance Theatre of Harlem, as well as warm words from US fashion editor Mr André Leon Talley, who writes approvingly that he felt, when working with the photographer, that in Lord Snowdon’s eyes, “we were equals in his universe of creativity”. It’s a universe over which Lord Snowdon has had a remarkable influence during the past 60 years.
Keeping up with the Jones
Mr Ford describes Lord Snowdon as having a “slightly wicked twinkle in his eye, which has seduced countless subjects of his photographs”. Here MR PORTER takes inspiration from some of his slightly wicked looks through the years.
Lord Snowdon, photographed last year by Mr David Bailey, has settled into his ninth decade wearing the comfortable uniform of the British upper classes – a tailored corduroy jacket, a V-neck sweater and a shirt and tie. The day the portrait was shot Mr Bailey asked Lord Snowdon, “So Tony do you have any regrets?” “None” was his reply.
On Friday 6 May 1960 150,000 people stood along The Mall in London to see Mr Tony Armstrong-Jones marry Princess Margaret. He was the first untitled man to marry a British princess in 460 years, but he looked the part in a morning suit with a double-breasted waistcoat, cashmere trousers with deep forward pleats, a white shirt and a pale tie.
Key to Lord Snowdon’s appeal is that far from being a poseur, he’s spent his life getting stuck in. This 1965 shot of him in a waxed Roadmaster-style jacket was taken at the 37.5-mile Isle of Man TT motorcycle racing circuit. Lord Snowdon completed the circuit on his 650cc Triumph bike in 44 minutes, and said of his lap, “It was a great way to get fresh air.”
Given that he married the Queen’s sister, Lord Snowdon has looked remarkably hip over the years. Here he is in 1957 wearing an oatmeal-coloured cotton sweatshirt looking like a beat poet or a French New Wave film star. He is smoking a French Gauloises cigarette.
Lord Snowdon was photographed in 1962 amidst what appears to be rubble, but what is in fact Villa Foscari, or “La Malcontenta”, a 16th-century house near Venice designed by the famous architect Mr Andrea Palladio. He looks out of place, as well as fed up, but that takes nothing from the style of his suede Chelsea boots, slim white trousers, rollneck and substantial cardigan.
This image, taken in 2003 by the renowned Italian fashion photographer Mr Paolo Roversi, shows Lord Snowdon at work in his studio in London’s elegant Kensington district. Peering into his Rolleiflex camera with the studio’s big windows behind him, he looks comfortable in his cardigan, casual shirt and cotton trousers.
Shot on location in Australia in 1974 while he was making a BBC documentary about the 19th-century explorers Messrs Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, Lord Snowdon uses his Polaroid camera while looking simultaneously chic and rugged in a cotton safari jacket, shirt and neckerchief.
Lord Snowdon’s dual role as actor and observer in the 1970s celebrity world is demonstrated by this shot of the photographer dancing with the British film star Mr Peter Sellers at the actor’s home in Beverly Hills. Dressed down in a denim jacket, casual trousers and dark leather boots, the photographer raises a glass of wine and reveals his chunky watch.
The image that so inspired Mr Tom Ford was shot in Lord Snowdon’s Kensington studio against a backdrop of rough burlap cloth. The photographer looks remarkably masculine and grounded given that he’s wearing knee-high suede boots, what appears to be a suede trucker jacket and his signature rollneck. Equally notable is the bracelet on his right wrist.
In 1957 Lord Snowdon was just setting out on his own, having turned an ironmonger’s shop in London’s Pimlico into a studio. Here he’s dressed like a sophisticated mod in a tailored suit, shirt and tie, posing next to his polished Morris Minor car. The details are just right, from the inch of shirt cuff on display to the flash of pocket square. Lord Snowdon looks, both figuratively and metaphorically, as if he’s going places.
Snowdon: A Life in View by Antony Armstrong-Jones is published by Rizzoli