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Angus McBean – A most imaginative Surrealist photographer

August 19, 2015

Have you ever asked yourself where your love of vintage fashion came from? Perhaps it’s down to movies and photos from photographers like Angus McBean that you watched as a child, clothes you found in your mother’s or grandmother’s wardrobe – or perhaps you found it from photographs.

Angus McBean Photographer

There’s nothing more though provoking than a photograph and old photographs had a certain magic in the way they were taken.


Before digital photography and the internet made photographs ubiquitous – the only way we could see a photograph of our favourite movie star was via magazines and newspapers.


One of the most imaginative photographers of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s was Angus McBean.


His methods were distinctly unique, copying the styles of the surrealist artists of the time, and with a background in theatre and set design, managed to create some imaginative and striking images that are as relevant today as they were when he took them.


Angus Mc Bean, despite his Scottish name, was born in Wales to Welsh parents in Monmouthshire.


His father was a Surveyor in the mines, but Angus simply wanted to take photographs, and sold an old gold watch, left to him by his grandfather, to buy equipment.At 15 he joined an amateur dramatics group, but mostly created sets, costumes and props at the Lyceum Theatre in Monmouthshire.


After 1925 and after his father’s death, Angus McBean moved to a cottage in West Acton and spent 7 years at Liberty store learning restoration in antiques, while focusing on photography in his spare time.He left in 1932 growing a beard as a protest that he would never be a wage slave again.


He worked with Motley Theatre Design Group where he would create some amazing scenery and clothing too, including shoes for John Gielgud.He went on to become a theatre photographer full time and was spotted by Hugh Cecil, himself a well-known photographer at the time.


He became his assistant and learnt many of the complex skills required by photographers in the 30s and 40s.


In the mid-30s he opened a studio of his own, and throughout the next 2 decades was renowned for his inventive photographs which fused surrealist art and theatre, to create unforgettable portraits.


Angus McBean would open another studio following the Second World War and was inundated with commissions from theatre companies and performers.


In the ‘60s he would go on to create album covers, taking the iconic photographs of the Beatles looking down from a balcony for both their Please, Please Me album and reproducing it again for their later album Get Back.


Other album covers were Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey, Beverley Sisters and Spike Milligan.Of course Angus McBean was also famous for taking the photographs of famous films stars of the era.


These included Audrey Hepburn (photos of which are currently in the National Portrait Gallery as part of an exhibition celebrating the life of Audrey Hepburn), Marlene Dietrich, Flora Robson, Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh, who he worked with for many years.


His photographs were surreal, with Audrey Hepburn’s head and shoulders coming out of sand, Vivien Leigh as Goddess Aurora and another one of Spike Milligan with his head inside a glass jar.


Later he would work again briefly in the 80s, working with Vivienne Westwood dressed regally as a queen, and Jean Paul Gaultier with a frog prince on his shoulder.


Angus McBean gave us some of the most unforgettable images of the Hollywood stars, and from them, perhaps some of the finest images of eras, fashions and trends.


This is something that has stayed with us and is still capable of provoking a reaction today.