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?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices