The Photography of Angus McBean
Born in the Monmouthshire city of Newbridge on the eighth of June in 1904, Angus Rowland McBean was a Welsh photographer and set designer associated with the Surrealist movement. He went through two main creative periods in his forty-year career: pre-World War II in which he experimented successfully with surrealist images and post-war when his portraiture photography became more conventional and focused on theatrical and entertainment artists.
Angus McBean was the eldest and only son of Clement McBean, of Scottish descent, and Irene Sara Thomas, of Welsh descent. His father, after his military career in the South Wale Borderers, became a surveyor in the mining industry which necessitated frequently moving his family. McBean had his primary education at the Monmouth School for Boys and later attended the Newport Technical College where he developed an interest in photography. At the age of fifteen, McBean bought his first camera and created sets, props and costumes for the amateur dramatic productions at Monmouth’s Lyceum Theater.
In 1925, McBean’s father died from tuberculosis which he had contracted while fighting in the trenches during World War I. After his fathers death, McBean relocated to London where he worked in the antiques department of Liberty’s, London’s luxury department store on Regent Street. In his free time, McBean engaged in photographing his friends, making masks, and attending theater performances in the West End. He left Liberty’s in 1931, grew a distinctive beard, and began a career in photography. McBean served as an apprentice at the New Grafton Street Studio owned by photographer Hugh Cecil who taught him photographic techniques. After a year, McBean established his own studio on Belgrave Road in Victoria, London.
The turning point in Angus McBean’s career came in 1935 when Welsh actor and dramatist Ivor Novello asked him to create masks for playwright Clemence Dane’s adaption of author Max Beerbohm’s “The Happy Hypocrite”. Pleased with the masks, Novello commissioned McBean to take portrait photographs for the production. In 1937, McBean received a commission from the British weekly illustrated journal “The Sketch” for a photograph of actress Beatrix Lehmann in Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra”. This portrait was inspired by the surrealist art of the era. McBean, in collaboration with artist Roy Hobdell, produced a series of surrealist-styled portraits of leading actresses for a weekly series which ran until the beginning of World War II.
After the war, McBean established a new studio on Endell Street in London. One of his first commissions was to photograph the American actress Clare Luce who was appearing in “Anthony and Cleopatra” at Stratford-on-Avon’s Shakespeare Memorial Theater. McBean next produced a series of portraits that incorporated notable objects from the lives of his sitters: Ivor Novello is shown with bound editions of his musicals and Cecil Beaton is surrounded by pages from his scrapbooks. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was the most important photographer of theater and dance personalities. Among his many sitters were Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Margot Forteyn and Robert Helpmann.
Angus McBean’s career took a new direction in the 1950s and 1960s as he began shooting color photographs for album covers. He photographed Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Shirley Bassey and the Beverley Sisters, and Spike Mulligan for his album “Milligan Preserved”. McBean also was responsible for the 1963 cover art of The Beatles album “Please, Please Me” which showed the group leaning over the balcony at the EMI offices in London. Six years later, he was to recreate the shot for the the proposed “Get Back” album; however, the recreated shot later appeared on the two retrospectives of the group’s work “1962-1966” and “1967-1970”.
In the 1960s, McBean purchased Flemings Hall in Bedingfield, Suffolk and undertook a major renovation project; this estate would be his home until his death. In this period, he gradually reduced the number of commissions he accepted but continued to work on selected projects. In 1984, McBean appeared as a special guest in musician-composer David Sylvian’s music video “Red Guitar”. Sylvian, who has a strong interest in McBean’s work, was directly inspired by McBean’s 1938 surrealistic portrait of cinema and theatrical actress Flora Robson.
Over the course of his career, Angus McBean produced two hundred and eighty portrait photographs; he was also produced seventy-nine self portraits. In 1990, McBean fell ill on a holiday in Morocco and, after returning to England, died at Ipswich Heath Road Hospital on the 9th of June in 1990, eighty-six years after his birth. His work is in many private and public collections including London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Mander & Mitchenson Collection at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal National Theater Archive, and the Shakespeare Center Library and Archive in Stratford-on-Avon.
Note: In the spring of 1942, Angus McBean’s career was temporarily ruined when he was arrested in the city of Bath for criminal acts of homosexuality. He was sentenced to four years in prison; however he was released in the autumn of 1944. After the end of the second World War, McBean was able to successfully resume his career. In the late 1940s, he formed a close, yet brief, relationship with male model Sebastian Minton. McBean helped Minton, who had ambitions of becoming an actor, put together a photographic portfolio for studio presentations.
Note: If anyone knows the identity of the actress in the fourth photo of the header photo array, please send me that information via the contact page. Thank you.
Top Insert Image: Angus McBeam, “Self Portrait”, circa 1951, Bromide Print, 29.4 x 26 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Second Insert Image: Angus McBean, “Surrealist Beach Scene with a Male Figure”, circa 1949, Hand-Colored Silver Print, 50.5 x 67.0 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Angus McBean, “Vivien Leigh ‘Twelfth Night’ Old Vic Tour”, 1961, Bromide Print, Private Collection
Fourth Insert Image: Angus McBean, “Choreographer and Dancer Berto Pasuko”, 1947, Gelatin Silver Print, 37.5 x 28.6 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Angus McBean, “Binkie Beaumont, Angela Baddeley and Emlyn Williams”, 1947, Bromide Print, 38 x 29.7 cm, Harvard Theater Collection, Harvard University, National Portrait Gallery