Tuesday, July 15, 2014

One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round

It can be odd sometimes to be reminded that people once staples of the headlines are still among us.  Lord Snowdon, for example, has emerged from the (comparative) shadows in today's news, having donated a cache of his portraits to the National Portrait Gallery, which is mounting a large-scale show of his work.

Here we see one of his more atmospheric studies of the sometimes Mrs. Snowdon (I suppose more actually Mrs. Armstrong-Jones).  He is a sensitive portraitist, and over time his are consistently the most interesting pictures of his eminent wife.  He somehow makes her both lovelier and more interesting, although neither were qualities she lacked, at least for much of her life.

There's no word specifically, at least that I can find, that his donation includes any pictures specifically of the Countess. We do know it includes a luminous, wary snap of David Bowie, lean and almost painfully alert, as well as a highly characteristic late picture of Vita Sackville-West, lightly sozzled and as ever self-conscious in her eccentricity.  I've been leafing of late through the Glendenning biography of Lady Nicolson, and what shines through most to me is her odd combination, caught so well by Snowdon, of reckless self-confidence and crippling doubt.

Snowdon's best work may in the end be social portraiture of a high order (not a genre generally much admired by critics of a more austere frame of mind), but it has a rare quality: it displays his subjects as they would like to be seen (or as they think they would like), even as it reveals something else, often something quite opposite.  The Princess, dressed so formally, is oddly vulnerable among the nursery ponies; the rock star's cold hauteur is undercut by something in the eyes, as if the photographer had just said something unutterably sad; the old writer, in her aristocratic disarray, is almost touching as she tries to arrange her features in a semblance of a public face at once ladylike and gentlemanly.

I do hope, if I'm not able to get to London, that the NPG at least puts out a first-rate catalogue.


  1. Not that it has anything to do with this, but I thought of you last night, deep in the TCM Kay Francis Speech Impediment Festival.

    1. As did I, Peenee. I knew off Kay Francis more than I knew any of her work. Watching Trouble in Paradise was most invigowating. When Kay spoke of wobberwee, I almost fell off the couch.

    2. Isn't it a heavenly picture? And the divine Kay is terrific in it - she really could do comedy, when called on. As to the "wobbery!" moment, I especially adored how it apparently unnerved poor Herbert Marshall to the extent that a few seconds later, he came out with a remark about being the "Social Wegister"!

      And I still can't quite fathom that thousands, tens of thousands, of people all at once watched I Found Stella Parish, a film that I practically had to sell my soul (and worse) to get a bootleg video of 20 years ago, from what was supposedly the only source in Manhattan. What TCM hath wrougth!

  2. Agreed. Snowdon captured something unguarded in Bowie - no posturing Ziggy or Thin White Duke here...a tenderness perhaps? Not to mention that exemplary bone structure.

  3. As all our greatest gay icons do, Princess Margaret collected homo/bi boyfriends, Mr Armstrong-Jones among them.

    He certainly lets his effeteness show in the beautiful way he takes a portrait - even Doris Lessing looks vaguely glamorous...

    I am looking forward to seeing the new collection - it's right opposite my regular gay haunt in the West End, so no excuse! Jx