John Hedgecoe: Artists off their guard

Hockney making faces, Henry Moore in his daughter's wig – some intriguing photos of Britain's art titans have just been discovered in an Essex barn

Hundreds of portraits of famous artists including Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, recently rediscovered in a barn, are on display in The Face of the Artist: Photographs by John Hedgecoe at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

Hedgecoe died in 2010, but the pictures, all signed and dated, were found in boxes belonging to a friend of the family in Essex. Hedgecoe had boxed up much of the collection while living at Oxnead Hall in Norfolk. After he ferreted them away – some he sold and others he gave away – nobody knew what was left.

"There were some real discoveries when we unpacked the boxes," says the show's curator Calvin Winner. "A group of photos of Moore show a humorous and frivolous side to the sculptor that you don't usually see with a highly regarded artist. In one image Moore in Forte del Marmi, Italy, is wearing his daughter Mary's wig and in another he is reclining in a deck chair, in a holiday mood reminiscent of a Martin Parr photograph. It's rare to see artists let their hair down but there was real trust between him and the photographer."

The photographs reveal the artists in their studios or catch them just at the moment they realise they are being photographed; often Hedgecoe focused heavily on their hands, and he kept notes about his sessions in his diaries.

Bacon, pictured in 1969, is shown just after he had just accidentally burnt down his own studio and was working from a studio at the Royal College of Art, where these photos were taken. Moore has his hands outstretched, displaying how enlarged they had become through toil with chisels and hammers.

Barbara Hepworth is wearing a red headscarf and an oversized black fur coat in 1970, probably at her studio in St Ives. Lynn Chadwick is standing outside with his famous angular sculpture Couple on a Seat in the background. Peter Blake looks pensive in front of his easel, while David Hockney, in black thick-rimmed glasses, turns down the corners of his mouth for the camera. Potter Lucie Rie is shown sitting on a table in her home in 1980.

Other photographs in the exhibition include a gruff-looking Eduardo Paolozzi in his ramshackle studio in 1989; Alexander Calder popping his head through a white sheet in 1968; and Marc Chagall at home with some of his artworks in 1958.

Heaps of other photographs of literary figures including Daphne du Maurier, William Golding, JB Priestly, Agatha Christie, Harold Pinter and Ted Hughes, and the composer Benjamin Britten, among many others are being saved for future exhibitions.

The John Hedgecoe estate contacted the Sainsbury Centre last year saying that the family wanted to keep the collection together and, because of Hedgecoe's connection with Norfolk, find a home for the works nearby. A central focus of this show will be photographs of Bacon and Moore, alongside their works from the Centre's permanent collections.

John Hedgecoe, who was born in 1931, was one of the leading British portrait photographers of the 20th century, and focused much of his work on artists and writers. He joined Queen magazine as staff photographer after he left the Guildford school of Art in 1957. By the mid-1960s he was taking portraits of eminent people for freelance commissions published in newspapers and magazines. He was also responsible for the 1966 photograph of the Queen which is still used on postage stamps.

In 1965, he established the photography department at the Royal College of Art, where he became Professor of Photography from 1975. He said: "A good portrait photograph should try to tell us something about the subject's character, for the portrait is a visual biography in a sense."

Hedgecoe knew Moore for almost 40 years, through his first wife, Julia Mardon, whom he married in 1960. Hedgecoe's many photographs of the sculptor resulted in a 30-year collaboration and several books, including the landmark Henry Spencer Moore, published in 1968.

Hedgecoe's son Sebastian recalls Italian holidays with Moore in Forte dei Marmi, a place Moore sourced stone for his sculptures, which were more photo shoots than conventional family holidays. "We went on family holidays with dad and mum and my sister Dolly and brother Auberon for many years with Henry, who taught me to swim. I remember long lunches at his house and at restaurants on the seafront. We played table tennis in his garden. He was such an easy person to talk to, even as a child. Endlessly dad was taking pictures of Henry, who was there to source the marble, but we never went into the quarries. Dad would go with him up into the mountains. Whether it was breakfast lunch or supper dad was always taking photographs."

Hedgecoe also wrote photography manuals and a novel, Breakfast with Dolly (1996). He was working on a second novel just before he died.

According to Dr Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Sainsbury Centre: "The physical appearance of the artist, his or her features, mannerisms, eccentricities, and posture has long fascinated us. John Hedgecoe, one of the great society photographers and educators of the last half century, brilliantly photographed many of the greatest painters, sculptors, poets, and cultural thinkers of his age. This exhibition presents these artistic faces, in celebration of a great photographer, and a great artistic age."

The Face of the Artist: Photographs by John Hedgecoe, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich (01603 593 199)to 4 December

The Faces of the Artist

Dame Barbara Hepworth, sculptor, 1970

"Dame Barbara, here wearing her familiar fur coat, asked me if I could do a book of her work, like the one I had done on Henry Moore. She was lively and full of enthusiasm, yet I had the feeling she was lonely. We talked a lot about Henry, because they were old friends. Henry had told me he'd been a 'bit sweet on her', as he put it and I think that perhaps they were sweet on each other for a while."

Lucie Rie, potter, 1980

"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. It all looked fantastic and I could hardly bring myself to eat it and spoil the effect".

Francis Bacon, painter, 1969

"Francis Bacon was moody, and to really get on with him you had to enjoy his lifestyle, spending afternoons drinking and exchanging abuse with Muriel Belcher, owner of the Colony Room club in Soho. He loved drinking champagne and was incredibly generous. I often used to see him waiting in the queue for the bus to South Kensington, where he lived, and he was a frequent visitor to the Senior Common Room at the Royal College of Art. When I photographed him he'd just accidentally burnt down his studio, so Robin Darwin, rector of the RCA, let him have a studio in the college."

David Hockney, painter, 1972

"[This picture was] taken on an assignment for Flair magazine, in his studio in Bayswater. He was extremely cooperative and friendly and was certainly striking in his appearance at the time – the big library spectacles, the striped shirt and the brilliant corn-yellow hair. I remember he told me he dyed it with Lady Clairol bleach."

Henry Moore, sculptor, 1953-60

"I knew Henry Moore for nearly 40 years and saw him most weekends. I've produced four books about Henry and his work. He was a wonderful man, with sparkling blue eyes and still very much a Yorkshire man, although he lived in Hertfordshire. When he sold a large piece of sculpture to someone, he'd also make them a gift of one of his drawings. However, after we'd done a book together, he gave them a copy of the book instead. It saved him, he said, quite a lot of money."

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