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© Armstrong Jones

Snowdon: A Life in View

30 September 2014 Jessica Johnston

Snowdon’s photographs are subtle and sympathetic, not at all what you would expect from someone whose notoriously sharp tongue and biting wit precede him.

At the age of thirty-one, Anthony Armstrong-Jones stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the new Earl of Snowdon, securing his position at the very heart of the Royal Family. There is however, much more to Lord Snowdon than his tumultuous marriage to the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret. With an illustrious and influential career spanning six decades, Snowdon is a pioneer of portrait photography, a Sixties maverick and Britain’s unequivocal Lord of the Lens.

This autumn, the National Portrait Gallery presents an intimate retrospective of Snowdon’s distinguished work, curated in close consultation with his daughter Frances von Hofmannsthal. Snowdon: A Life in View highlights over thirty striking black and white portraits from the 1950s to the 1900s, including selections from the photographer’s important 1965 examination of the British art world.

Snowdon captured a vast range of cultural figures in his work, crossing genres from ballet, theatre and fashion photography to literary and royal portraiture. The early 1950’s saw the beginning of a sixty-year collaboration with British Vogue; Snowdon’s inventive depictions of clothes in everyday situations paved the way for a future generation of fashion photographers. By the early 1960’s, Snowdon began to pursue groundbreaking documentary commissions for The Sunday Times Magazine, another successful partnership that was to last many years. In 1960 he married Princess Margaret, becoming the first commoner to be married into the British Royal Family for 460 years. The couple were married for eighteen years, during which time Snowdon engaged his photographic skills to produce spontaneous and captivating images of royalty.

This new display invites visitors to glimpse at Snowdon’s most notable compositions, through a collection of both authentic and insightful images. The exhibition opens with three charming photographs from Snowdon’s earliest sitting with HRH Queen Elizabeth II and her family. With a delightfully informal approach, Snowdon captures the smiling sovereign resting on a large tree branch in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, reading to a young Princess Anne. The collection also features one of thirty images taken over a two-hour period, on the occasion of Prince Charles’ 8th birthday and depicts the inquisitive prince and his sister Anne, admiring a magnificent globe of the world.

Portraits from Snowdon’s landmark book Private View reveal artists and sculptors in their studios, engrossed in the creative process. Viewers can see the likes of Henry Moore, Kenneth Armitage, William Turnbull, Brian Wall and Dame Barbara Hepworth who is shown sculpting her largest and most significant public commission Single Form, made for the United Nations building in New York. Capturing the spirit of a new era of artworks during the 1950’s and 60’s, Private View sought to examine how London had become a centre of the art world alongside Paris and New York.

Figures from the theatrical, musical and literary world form another captivating part of the display; these pure, strong, uncluttered images seem to offer something telling about the sitter. Highlights include actor Terence Stamp dramatically draped in a cape, Dame Maggie Smith photographed with a cigarette and script in hand, rehearsing the title role of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for Ingmar Bergman in 1970. There are also eye-catching gestural portraits of Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans from 1980 and a whimsical portrait of artists Gilbert and George taken in 1985. Striking images of David Bowie, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Nell Dunn and Dame Agatha Christie also feature in the collection.

Snowdon’s photographs are subtle and sympathetic, not at all what you would expect from someone whose notoriously sharp tongue and biting wit precede him. This wonderfully intimate display reveals the great sensitivity, originality and elegance of Snowdon’s work, showing him to be one of Britain’s most engaging and creative photographers.

Snowdon: A Life in View is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 26th September – 21st June 2015. Admission is free, for further information please click here.

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