Angus McBean: Portraits at National Portrait Gallery

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Angus McBean: Portraits at National Portrait Gallery
Vivien Leigh by Angus McBean, 1938. © Angus McBean Estate © The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

LONDON, ENGLAND.- The National Portrait Gallery presents the exhibit Angus McBean: Portraits, on view through October 22, 2006. Angus McBean: Portraits is the first museum retrospective devoted to Angus McBean (1904-90), one of the most significant British photographers of the twentieth century. It brings together over 100 photographs in black and white and colour, including a large number of vintage prints from museum collections and important loans from private collections. The exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to see the astonishing range of McBean's work. From the striking surrealist portraits of the 1930s to his period as indisputably the most important photographer of theatre and dance personalities of the 1940s and 1950s. The exhibition also showcases his cult re-emergence as a chronicler of pop music and includes his famous Beatles covers.

Highlights of the exhibition include the iconic 1951 photograph of the then unknown Audrey Hepburn, her head and shoulders emerging from sand - and posed amidst classical pillars. The forty-year spread of the exhibition includes more recent photographs of Derek Jarman and Tilda Swinton, while other significant portraits include Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Katharine Hepburn. The exhibition also features several defining portraits of Vivien Leigh, whom McBean photographed many times over the course of their thirty-year association.

On show for the first time is the complete series of his self-portrait Christmas cards which McBean produced between 1934 and 1985. These inventive and innovative portraits are displayed alongside theatrical props used in their composition, including a Mae West puppet, a marble 'Greek God' bust, bisque 'bathing beauties' and two 1930s papier mâché masks of Greta Garbo and Ivor Novello.

Born near Newport in South Wales in 1904, Angus McBean bought his first camera at the age of fifteen. He used his friends and family as models, and also began to make masks and theatrical props for local amateur dramatic productions. After the death of his father in 1924, McBean moved to London and found work in the antiques department of Liberty's on Regent Street, spending his spare time photographing his friends and making masks. After leaving Liberty's in 1931 he decided to try and live by his art, growing a distinctive beard that he claimed was symbolic of the fact that he no longer wished to be a wage earner. McBean was briefly apprenticed to society photographer Hugh Cecil, who taught him photographic techniques, and after a year he set up his own studio in Victoria.

McBean's big break came in 1936 when Ivor Novello asked him to create masks for Clemence Dane's adaptation of a Max Beerbohm short story, The Happy Hypocrite. Novello was delighted with the masks and immediately commissioned McBean to take portrait photographs for the production. In 1937 The Sketch commissioned him to photograph the actress Beatrix Lehmann playing Lavinia in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. The dramatic composition of this photograph was inspired by the surrealist art of the era, and working with the artist Roy Hobdell, McBean went on to produce a number of 'surrealist' portraits of leading actresses in a weekly series, which ran until the early months of the war. Among those on display are portraits of Flora Robson, René Ray and Peggy Ashcroft as Portia.

After the war, McBean set up a new studio in Endell Street, London and was commissioned to photograph the American actress Clare Luce in a new production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. He then produced a series of portraits that incorporated significant objects from the lives of his sitters into their photographs: Cecil Beaton is shown surrounded by pages from his scrapbooks, while Ivor Novello leans over bound editions of his musicals. Other portraits show 'Play Personalities' such as Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson and Hugh 'Binkie' Beaumont (Binkie Pulls the Strings). Also on display are portraits of ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann.

In the 1950s and '60s McBean's career took a new direction as he began taking colour photographs for LP covers. The exhibition shows his photographs of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Shirley Bassey and The Beverley Sisters and Spike Milligan's head encased in a glass jar for his album Milligan Preserved. McBean was responsible for the front cover of The Beatles album Please, Please Me, taking a spontaneous shot of the group leaning over the balcony at the EMI Offices in London. Six years later he was asked to recreate the 1963 photograph for the proposed Get Back album. It later appeared on the retrospective LP The Beatles 1967-1970, and these will be displayed alongside one another. Angus McBean retired in 1966 to focus on decorating and restoring his house, Flemings Hall in Suffolk, but he returned to photography in 1982 and the exhibition includes late work such as his portraits of Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier.

A lavishly illustrated catalogue accompanies this exhibition by curator Terence Pepper, and includes excerpts from McBean's unpublished autobiography, Look Back in Angus. Price £25 hardback. 280 x 230mm, 172 pages. 100 images

The exhibition will tour to Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield (2 December 2006-10 March 2007) and Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales (31 March-3 June 2007).

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