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John Hedgecoe and the portrait of an artist

PUBLISHED: 13:51 27 June 2011

Portrait by John Hedgecoe - Henry Moore in 1966

Portrait by John Hedgecoe - Henry Moore in 1966

©2006 John Hedgecoe/TopFoto

A major collection of portrait photographs by the late John Hedgecoe has been given to the Sainsbury Centre by his family. IAN COLLINS admires a celebratory exhibition that features images of leading figures from the world's of art, literature, science and politics.

Scores of brilliant portraits of artists and writers by Britain’s most popular post-war photographer have now being given to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and his adopted Norfolk.

But John Hedgecoe’s main claim to fame lies in a likeness selling 200 billion tiny copies by the time of his death last year. The image, er, sticks around.

In June 1966 he undertook a 20 minute shoot in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace - depicting the monarch in profile in the 14th year of her reign.

When HM inquired whether he had finished - “So soon, Mr Hedgecoe?” - he seized the opportunity to have a second impromptu shoot in the music room.

The Queen selected her preferred picture and the sculptor Arnold Machin made a plaster bust, which Hedgecoe then snapped for the postage stamps in use to this day.

Thanks to those 45 years of mass production the royal portrait is believed to be the most frequently reproduced image - of anyone or anything - in the world.

Now care is taken to make sure that the photograph is properly credited. The Post Office once claimed that the photographer was Lord Snowdon. John Hedgecoe sued - and won.

He had immense success with books and in magazines and newspapers, so much so that in 1988 he was able to buy historic and semi-derelict Oxnead Hall near Aylsham - principal home of the Paston clan centuries before, and repository of the Paston letters written during the Wars of the Roses.

A 21-year restoration scheme then ensued in splendid style and at vast cost. The project was still incomplete when the property was put on sale for £2.5 million in 2009.

Oxnead Hall had been one of the homes of the Paston clan centuries before and the repository of the Paston letters, written during the Wars of the Roses.

After Hedgecoe’s death, aged 78, his family wanted to find a permanent home for his photographs, and due to his love of Norfolk and the fact that many of the artists he depicted are represented in the Sainsbury Centre’s permanent collection, the UEA treasurehouse was the perfect choice.

Now, to celebrate the acquisition, there is an exhibition of images complemented by a small group of related paintings, sculptures and ceramics from the Sainsbury Collection.

John Hedgecoe was a banker’s son born in West London. When the family home was bombed, he was evacuated to live with his Aunt Dolly in the far west of Cornwall.

While in Norfolk he wrote a memoir of that time loosely disguised as a novel - Breakfast with Dolly, and he also named his daughter, one of three children, after that beloved aunt.

On his 14th birthday, at the end of the war, he was given a camera by his father, and from that point he was hooked - or, more properly, focused.

During his national service he assisted an aerial survey of wartime bomb damage and took pictures of war graves - strange training for a man whose work would celebrate human beings at their most alive.

From 1957 he studied under the pioneering photographers Ifor and Joy Thomas. They scorned 35mm cameras and insisted that subjects should be posed before giant half-plate Gandolfi cameras, to get things right in the studio before venturing further afield.

In free time Hedgecoe took off on his own photoshoots, experimenting with colour and selling his work wherever he could place it, from Amateur Photographer to Queen magazine. The latter glossy made him.

He became a full-time staff photographer on Queen during the reign of Jocelyn Stevens who, with picture editor Mark Boxer, reinvigorated the magazine along the elegant but unconventional lines summed up by Hedgecoe pictures.

Then came freelance commissions for advertising agencies. And he was hired by numerous national newspapers and magazines to portray the likes of Francis Bacon, John Betjeman, Agatha Christie, David Hockney, Ted Hughes and Mary Quant.

In 1965 he was asked to start a department of photography at the Royal College of Art, and his course did so well that a decade later he became Britain’s first professor in the field. He continued to teach at the RCA until 1994.

That teaching post also led to an approach from Peter Kindersley - son of Cambridgeshire stone carver and designer David Kindersley - to write books, illustrated throughout, for his new publishing company of Dorling Kindersley.

The swift results were The Book of Photography (1976) and The Handbook of Photographic Techniques (1977) which between them have now sold more than three million copies.

Hedgecoe went on to write many more photography manuals (selling nine million books in total in 37 languages). The last was on digital photography, a development about which he was decidedly ambivalent.

In a 2009 interview he said: “In the past you had to get a really good image, but now it’s much easier and that makes it much more difficult to be unique. Technology has made it less of a challenge and I think that has taken some of the magic and mystery out of photography.”

So what makes a uniquely magical portrait?

In The Book of Photography John Hedgecoe wrote: “A good portrait photograph should try and tell us something about the subject’s character, for the portrait is a visual biography in a sense.”

That is certainly true in the vulnerability shown in the 1969 likenesses of Francis Bacon.

The painter had just accidentally burned down his studio and so the sittings took place at the Royal College of Art. Bacon has that look of fright at being so nearly fried.

Although Hedgecoe produced many posed shots of artists at work in their studios, more revealing close-ups show their various reactions to being photographed. Take the telling image of the newly-blond David Hockney wearing thick-rimmed specs and turning down the corners of his mouth - and looking for all the world like a hungry owlet.

Like the photographer, I visited the elfin potter Lucie Rie in the mews house which served as studio, flat and showcase for her stupendous career, with its air of silence and perfect order close to roaring, teeming Hyde Park Corner.

His memory of one meeting could so easily have been my own. “She invited me to stay for tea, which she’d set out like a Mondrian painting: all the sandwiches were cut into neat squares and triangles, with the plates arranged with precision, while a single tulip stood in one of her pots,” he wrote. “It all looked fantastic and I could hardly bring myself to eat it and spoil the effect.”

I would add only a note about the magnificence of the chocolate cake (a recipe from her native Vienna) and the terrifying fact that cups, saucers and plates were all by Rie and Hans Coper.

Not surprisingly, Hedgecoe took the view that the most remarkable physical feature of extraordinary artists was their hands.

Barbara Hepworth had massive mitts (though his best image of her seems to depict an armless human ostrich), and Henry Moore - who exhibits outsized hands in an astonishing likeness - told him that the joints of his fingers had become even more enlarged after decades of wielding chisels, files and hammers. There was indeed more of Moore by that point.

His first wife Julia had long been a friend of Henry Moore’s daughter, and that gave him the connection which meant far more to his life than one brief shoot at Buckingham Palace.

A first book of Hedgecoe images of our leading modern sculptor, who spent early summers drawing and carving while staying with teacher siblings at various sites across Norfolk, appeared in 1968. Three more were to follow.

One of the photographer’s sons, Sebastian, recalls Italian trips with the Moores in Forte dei Marmi, which were more photoshoots than conventional holidays.

As well as painters, sculptors and potters, there were also portrait sessions with every creative type from architects and designers to composers, novelists and poets.

And alongside the images of artists, the Sainsbury Centre is currently showing several pictures of leading locally-linked writers - including Angus Wilson, Malcolm Bradbury, Rose Tremain and Andrew Motion.

They provide an introduction to a pending Hedgecoe exhibition which will focus more extensively on literary figures. I wonder whether the cast will include a typically telling image of Winston Churchill.

n The Face of the Artist: Photographs by John Hedgecoe can be seen at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts until December 4, joint exhibition admission £4 (£2 cons), 01603 593199, www.scva.ac.uk

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