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Amen to an era

It must be said that Patrick Lichfield — the outer man — wore his ego proudly and loudly on his sleeve.

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

10 September 2011

12:00 AM

Patrick Lichfield: Perceptions Martin Harrison

Quadrille, pp.224, 30

It must be said that Patrick Lichfield — the outer man — wore his ego proudly and loudly on his sleeve.

It must be said that Patrick Lichfield — the outer man — wore his ego proudly and loudly on his sleeve. And with his aristocratic yet trendy good looks, his Harrovian education, the brigade of Guards, his titled ancestry, royal connections and friendships, his persistent anecdotal recall, his ruffles and velvet or leather and denim, his stately pile, his dashing dare-devilry, let alone his reputed lotharian appetites, one can hardly blame him.

Inwardly, perhaps, this braggadocio was a salad-days reaction, for Lichfield’s youth was marred by family problems. His parents divorced when he was nine, his father’s death clouded his coming-of-age; his grandfather, wildly, decided to make the family home, Shugborough, over to the National Trust. But luckily, as a child, Patrick was given a camera, from which he was henceforth rarely parted; not unlike a Victorian predecessor, the Earl of Craven, he initially photographed, subtly and playfully, the landscapes, retainers and buildings of the Shugborough he so loved. This perceptive, sympathetic approach, imbued with gentle humour, suffused his future work, and this book of his photographs is aptly titled Perceptions.

Perhaps because of this upbringing, Lichfield’s work is, for the most part, essentially English in style. But he was un-
influenced by the surreal or rococo flourishes of the previous generation of British photographers — though there is a touch of Beaton in the portrait of Jane and Pandora Stevens — or the hard edge of contemporary newcomers, despite the fact that David Bailey, never a ligger for a lord, was a mate and admirer.

This could be due to the fact that Lichfield’s sitters were, for the most part, already celebs. But however cosmopolitan those sitters, however warts-and-all the close-ups, Lichfield portrays them with his native, intrinsic tenderness. They appear unforced, unmanufactured, unlike the work of American photographers — Avedon, Penn, Rawlings — in the same period, though he could do that if he wanted; the fashion shoot on page 218 is certainly a nod to Avedon. His photographs also avoid the glossy intenseness of those of Roloff Beny, a Rome-based Canadian working in much the same field at the same time, or the disenchanted voyeurism of, say, Diane Arbus.

While not so supremely successful at taking groups as his contemporary, Snowdon — though Patrick’s royal ones at least give us a schadenfreudian pleasure by necessarily including that rebel lord kitted out in those convention-shattering suede jerkins and turtlenecks — his informal pictures of the Queen must be the most delightful ever taken, especially that with her horse in the stable-yard at Balmoral. As a ‘pap’ he manages, unlike many, to get the atmosphere surrounding and emanating from the snapped: Mick and Bianca in their limo after their wedding — at which Patrick was best man — pulsate with hedonism, just as James Blandford’s fluffed croquet-shot epitomises his lanky frustration.

It is these, particularly those in black-and-white, which capture that ever-hazier era. Dances, grand-dames and dames, dustmen and dukes, Speaker’s Corner or silver-screen stars at the Savoy, hairdressers and hippies, vividly revive dimming memories. It is a kind of goodbye babies and amen to the territory he covered, often astride his motorbike, to catch the misty expression of Susanna Yorke, the long, lithe, looks of Joanna Lumley or George Best, the Anouk Aimée-like beauty of Janet Lyle (compare the two), the Lartigue-inspired, statuesque stride of Loulou de la Falaise, baubled djelabas on tragic Talitha Getty, tiny mites at school on tropical Mustique gazing wistfully beneath wonderfully inappropriate posters for British Wool.

In the more formal and posed pictures, Lichfield managed to encourage the sitter’s incipient humour, smiles, even grins, frequently a fraught problem with portraiture. Valentino, Roger Moore, Kenneth Clark, Boy George, a glistening James Coburn, a slyly card-sharping Duke of Windsor, even the curmudgeonly Dirk Bogarde, seem palpably to demonstrate what fun it was to be in front of Patrick’s lens.

Whether this book elevates Lichfield to the level of ‘great photographer’ is for the reader to judge. There are certainly many more pictures by him that could have been included, had it been a bigger volume, such as those of his beautiful children and their mother. On a personal note, my company was asked, just after his death, to decorate, as a tribute to Patrick, a corner suite high in the recently rebuilt Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, a city he loved, and loved working in. We recreated his studio, copied furniture from it, his key lights instead of lamps, light-reflective umbrellas for shades.

With the help of his beloved Annunziata Asquith, we chose his most iconic photographs to put on the walls, a facsimile of his appointment book on the desk, and found his favourite books for the shelves. The wall-to-wall windows look down on that ever-expanding, breathtakingly night-lit harbour, which he enthusiastically
photographed many times over the years. Due to that enthusiasm, these rooms are the most guest-requested in the hotel. Regardless of his utter Englishness, or his standing among his peers, Lichfield’s admirers are legion, and his Perceptions will be studied and appreciated the world over.  

An exhibition of Patrick Lichfield’s work at Chris Beetles Fine Photographs, 3-5 Swallow Street, London W1B 4 DE (tel: 0207 434 4319) will run from 6 December-7 January

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