At the National Portrait Gallery

Peter Campbell

Angus McBean knew that he knew how to please. Actors, he said, were terrified of having pictures taken, but ‘the stars often get to know a photographer and to trust him, and thank goodness that photographer is often me!’ He took two photographs of the Beatles looking down a stairwell at EMI – neatly coiffed in 1963, hairy in 1969 – so the curator of Angus McBean: Portraits (at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 October) turned to Paul McCartney to explain that trust. But McCartney can’t have been as star-like as Gielgud, say, or Marlene Dietrich, or so intimate with his own profile – nor was he so demanding that a photo session became a duel or a duet. In an interview with McCartney, 33 lines of question from Terence Pepper (the curator) elicit only 17 lines of laconic response: ‘We knew nothing about his previous work, but he struck us as a very amiable, slightly eccentric kind of guy.’

‘Who chose the outfits?’

‘Lord knows!’

‘Thank you so much for your time and trouble.’

Sycophancy, you might think, was also part of McBean’s stock in trade. Quentin Crisp said that ‘unlike most of the men who work with the rich and famous he was genuinely star-struck. I never heard him speak badly of anybody well known.’ But the ability to play the pond to Narcissus required more than passive admiration. There is a 1940 portrait of Crisp in the exhibition. You can read in it the dedicated model’s preternatural awareness of self. A sitter with no talent for self-presentation could stymie the photographer. But McBean had something to offer beyond complicity with the sitter’s self-projection. He was a craftsman; his prints were exceptionally well-made, strongly lit to give a clarity which stood up well to imperfect reproduction in magazines: his idea of how Vivien Leigh should look, which must have been her idea too (‘Vivien Leigh would never have anyone else’), was presented to the world in good order. And perhaps because Leigh’s face came so close to perfectly representing a current ideal, McBean’s photographs of her are strangely without individual character – either human or aesthetic – while at the same time being utterly memorable: even the one with plum blossom which Olivier said ‘made her look like a Javanese tart’. (McBean claimed this only made her like the picture more.)

Some portrait photographs are memorable because the photographer has won a tug of war with the subject – Richard Avedon has described the process in his account of taking photographs of people picked out of the crowd in the American West. Unlike Avedon, McBean, who began his career as a mask-maker, didn’t look for cracks. His photographs don’t map social class as August Sander’s do, or make art out of everyday life as photojournalists sometimes can. The most memorable of them are, instead, and in every sense, ‘theatrical’.

They are very often of actors and directors: he was regularly commissioned to do the publicity photographs for plays and was for many years official photographer for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Anyone wishing now to illustrate the stage in the 1930s and 1940s must use his work. His archive of theatre negatives (there is a photograph of him taken in 1968 backed by a wall of shelves neatly stacked with boxes of these plates) was sold to the Harvard Theatre Collection in 1970. In the 1950s, when theatre became less theatrical (he called his unpublished autobiography ‘Look Back in Angus’), pictures which recorded the performance, and were less posed, more like reportage, were wanted (the same thing was happening in fashion photography) and he fell out of favour.

The pictures he is most famous for followed visits to the first Surrealist exhibitions in London. Surrealism, of all modern movements, was the one most easily subverted by commercial art. The Surrealists didn’t like his ‘surrealised portraits’: essentially studio portraits with Surrealist props and backdrops and the odd trick added – for example, a head which appears to have been cut off at the neck. The British Journal of Photography called him a charlatan. Yet the set of pictures of actors published in the Sketch in 1938, with their broken columns, cotton wool clouds and cellophane water, exaggerated perspective and absurd juxtapositions of scale, have proved remarkably robust, time somehow blurring the distinction between the original and the pastiche. A picture in the same vein of Audrey Hepburn, looming up between two miniature classical columns, was commissioned as an advertisement for Crookes lacto-calamine skin cream. It became McBean’s most famous photograph.

In fact, his work fits more easily into the history of the staged tableau than that of the theatre. Had he been there to photograph Emma Hamilton’s ‘attitudes’, curiosity about those poses and why they were held to be so affecting would be satisfied. He found, I guess, the business of making the ‘surrealised portraits’ and others with backgrounds of blown up scripts and press cuttings, or the double exposures, or the photographic collages, or the pictures of people dressed as sculpture (there is a picture of him at work applying clay to a chiton Vivien Leigh wears as Aurora), more satisfying than the mere craft of snapping. He was clever at making things. There is a Mae West doll on show – it appears too in his portrait of her. She couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t sell it to her. Also in the exhibition are a number of the self-portrait Christmas cards that show him reviving games he played in the 1930s and 1940s and having fun with dolls, nudes, long perspectives and set-ups in a sand box.

Marriage to a schoolteacher ten years his senior lasted only a few years. He was convicted of homosexual offences in 1942 and in prison until 1944. His characteristic images of sensitive-looking men and immaculate women remind you of the time when to say someone dressed too well (see Binkie Beaumont’s suit or Noel Coward’s dressing gown) was to hint at undisclosed inclinations. He found a partner, David Ball – also an assistant and a model. In the 1980s Robert Mapplethorpe was one of those much taken with McBean’s photographs of him. He died in 1990, on his 86th birthday. He had come out of retirement from time to time to work for smart magazines, but on the evidence of this exhibition colour did not suit his way of doing things and modern style did not produce the particular kind of narcissism he responded to. Crisp said that McBean ‘played that life was happy; that all women were lovely – even Edith Evans; he played that love was everywhere. This philosophy made him delightful to be with, impossible to talk to and infinitely sad.’