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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week