16/01/2013 Books, Contemporary Art & Design
The vast majority of this sale has been consigned by David Ball, Angus McBean's partner and studio assistant of many years until his death in 1990. It must be with a heavy heart that he bids goodbye to this stunning collection of an artistic genius' lifetime work in which he met and photographed most of the leading theatrical lights and film stars of the mid 20th century. It is impossible not to be awed by the beauty and sheer creative brilliance when looking through these images and we are privileged to have been instructed to conduct this sale. Amongst the selection is a visitor book from McBeans' studio with over 1000 signatures of his star clientele from the 1940s onwards. The autographs range from silver screen goddesses such as Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, to very early Beatles signatures (before they developed a signature style), revered actors John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier (who states that McBeans' 'rice puddings are excellent'), comedy singing duo Flanders & Swann, queen of crime literature Agatha Christie, 'Peter Pan of Pop' Cliff Richard, several members of the Redgrave acting dynasty, surreal comedy genius Spike Milligan (who has dated his entry 1883), Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteyn, legendary opera diva Maria Callas and many more.
Angus McBean was born in Newport, South Wales, in 1904. As a child he was a devotee of the cinema, spending hours watching the early silent films and experimenting with photography. At the age of 15 he sold a gold watch left to him by his grandfather in order to buy his first camera, a Kodak Autograph, and started taking pictures of local landscapes and architecture. McBean also had a great interest in the theatre, make-up, costumes and making masks. After a brief attempt at a career in banking he moved to London after the death of his father and began work as a restorer of antiques at Liberty's department store, while continuing his "hobbies" of mask-making and photography.
In 1932 he left Liberty and grew his distinctive beard to symbolize the fact that he would never be a wage-slave again. He worked as a maker of theatrical props, including a commission of medieval scenery for John Gielgud's 1933 production of Richard III.
In 1936 Ivor Novello asked McBean to make masks and take pictures for his play "The Happy Hypocrite." Novello was so impressed with McBeans' photographs that he commissioned him to take a set of production photographs, including of the young actress Vivien Leigh. The results, taken on stage with McBeans' idiosyncratic lighting, were chosen to replace the set already made by the long-established but uninspired Stage Photo Company. McBean now had both a new career and a photographic leading lady: he was to photograph Vivien Leigh on stage and in the studio for almost every performance she gave until her death in 1967.of Bordeaux. His photographs and theatrical masks were also exhibited at a teashop in West London where they were noticed by prominent society photographer Hugh Cecil. Cecil offered McBean a job as an assistant at his Edinburgh studio where he stayed for 18 months before opening his own studio in London to specialize in theatrical photography.
Over the course of the next 25 years McBean photographed all the British theatre stars including John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, and Laurence Olivier. He soon became famous for his star portraits in well-known magazines of the time including Tatler, Picture Post and the Sketch. In the 1930s McBean embraced surrealism; with his flamboyance, love of theatre and the ability to create fantastic studio props he was similar to contemporary American photographer Man Ray. By the late 1940s McBean was the official photographer for a number of major British theatres including Stratford, the Royal Opera House, Sadler Well's and the Old Vic.
As McBeans' health deteriorated and with the decline of the popular photo magazine he closed his studios. In the early 60's he began taking pictures for EMI and shot various record covers for Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Shirley Bassey and the Beatles album Please, Please Me. McBeans' later works also included portrait photographs of individuals such as Agatha Christie, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward. By the mid 60's he had semi retired to a house in Suffolk that he was restoring, but he had already built up an enormous and important body of work. His last few pictures were taken in 1988 and include Vivian Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. He died on the night of his 86th birthday in 1990.
McBeans' works are now eagerly sought by collectors and are displayed in major collections around the world. His fame has been somewhat overshadowed by that of Cecil Beaton (thanks to his work for Vogue and the Royal Family) and David Bailey, despite being arguably more artistically and technically gifted.