John Swannell: 40 years of portraits from a modern master

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He may not be as famous as David Bailey but his portfolio is a celebrity Who's Who of the past four decades. From a tricky Spike Milligan to a jumping John Gielgud, John Swannell has snapped them all

John Swannell keeps a diary, with pictures and words. It's pretty flash. In fact it's a bit like flipping through Tatler. Tara P-T today. Darcey Bussell here, Tony and Cherie there ("Cherie has great skin – like marble"). And there's Lady Bamford, millionaire and organic jam-maker, who recently commissioned him to take her passport photo. Following in the time-honoured tradition of Donatella Versace, whose passport picture is by Steven Meisel, Lady Bamford logically concluded that if it has to last 10 years, it might as well be good. A chauffeur brought her round to the studio. "Life," Swannell smiles through his round Hockney glasses, "is a lot of fun."

The well-beloved celebrity portraitist is sitting at home in Hampstead, which he shares with his second wife, Marianne, and their two children, as well as his favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings (only Pre-Raphaelite lite, as Andrew Lloyd Webber has snapped up all the good ones, damn him!). Romance has always been his thing. Ten or so years younger than Bailey and his gang (Terry O'Neill, Terence Donovan), Swannell lacks their acerbic eye. His is a gentler, more old-fashioned philosophy: "I think women should look beautiful, and men should look interesting. And everyone looks better with a little retouching." You can see why he's so successful.

But Swannell is also highly rated by the cognoscenti. The National Portrait Gallery owns 76 of his works."He's extraordinarily good at formal portraits," says its director Sandy Nairne, "and equally good at the more off-guard ones where he catches someone at a telling angle. He's a bit of a master, really."

Sitters are also admiring. "I'm very fond of him," says Marie Helvin. "In his viewfinder, all women become swans." Michael Palin adds: "He's disarming... there is no sense of an ego at work here." What's his secret? "I'm very quick," he says. "With people that are talented and famous, time is of the essence so I tell them, 'It'll be over before you know it', and that cheers them up." He makes it sound like dentistry – now that's unpretentious.

He doesn't need to be that way. He has a lifetime of good credentials to flaunt. The walls of his corridors are covered with a valuable collection of prints he's amassed over the years: Bailey, Lartigue, Sarah Moon, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt... However, he has recently sold his Helmut Newton print. "Helmut took a liking to my battered old camera bag. He was always on about how much he wanted it. In the end I gave it to him in return for the print of the cover of his latest book, White Women. I went off the subject-matter a bit, so I recently sold it at Christie's New York for $23,000." Which is something of a good deal, considering the camera bag came from Oxfam.

In the loo, there's a cute contact sheet of him and Bailey in the late Sixties, leaning on one another, pulling poses in their flares and Donovan caps. Bailey looks lordly, Swannell terrified. He had just been appointed assistant to Bailey: his childhood dream come true. Born in 1946, Swannell grew up "just down the hill" in Finsbury Park, not academic (he's dyslexic) but photo-mad from the get-go. "I was always converting our bathroom into a darkroom..." His mother must have been pleased when he found another photo lab on Fleet Street, where he worked on a newspaper for a few years.

Next stop was the hallowed Vogue Studios, where he watched and learnt from Richard Avedon (his all-time favourite photographer) – and was recruited by Bailey. "He had this incredible tenacious determination," remembers Bailey. "And was always an incurable romantic...". Swannell found himself being chauffeur-driven to Stonehenge to shoot the Rolling Stones album cover, and sharing a joint with John Lennon. As his own career blossomed, the fun continued.

One of his first solo assignments was to photograph John Hurt, who had just made The Naked Civil Servant. "I was so nervous I did all the research I could. I phoned round and found someone who vaguely knew him, who told me that Hurt liked a drink. So I got a few bottles of champagne in. We ended up drinking all day, from 10.30 in the morning to 1.30am." But were the photos in focus? "I could hold my drink well then – I was only 25. At the end of the shoot we were staggering up the road, arm in arm like a couple of gays."

Swannell says that, most of the time, he works by instinct: "Planning is impossible. Usually it's a wing and a prayer." He enjoys accidental felicities. He was photographing Robert Mapplethorpe informally in 1980 (it was one of those indulgent "Can I photograph you? And can I photograph you back?" trade-offs that photographers like to do, he says) when the studio backdrop fell down. "My assistant ran to put it back, but I stopped him as I really liked it half-collapsed."

At other times, preparation is key. In 1994, Anne Harvey, assistant editor at Vogue magazine, rang to book him for a session, only she couldn't tell him who it was going to be with. "Finally she told me it was Princess Diana and her boys, who were about 10 and 12 at the time. So I had a table tennis table set up in my studio, to stop them getting bored." While Princess Diana was having her make-up done, Swannell beat the heir to the throne at ping-pong. Harry, however, thrashed him. The resulting pictures were very relaxed and happy, and Diana used one as her Christmas card. "I think it was the independent, 'up' picture of her with her children that she wanted," Swannell says.

Since then he has shot almost all the other members of the royal family (some less successfully than others – the Daily Record called his postal-stamp shots of Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex "nauseating") including several sessions with the Queen. She even let him tempt her on to the Windsor Castle battlements in her full regalia, though the pictures have never yet been seen.

Looking back over his career, Swannell can't believe how many hours he spent closeted away in his dark room. The digital revolution has been "fantastic". Across his oeuvre he rejects the more experimental work. A Duran Duran album cover shot in infra-red "looks dated now", he thinks. "The tricksy stuff won't last," he concludes. "Only the classics."

An exhibition of his portraits is at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London SW1 (020-7839 7551), Wednesday to 5 April, and Swannell is speaking at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 (020-7033 3878) on 8 April at 7pm, in aid of Photo Voice

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace