Some men are born to Surrealism, some have Surrealism thrust upon them. Angus McBean was in the former camp, a word I use advisedly. A flit around the National Portrait Gallery's show of McBean's work suggests a man so fitted to his lot that he was never quite able to shake it. Adrian Woodhouse's new biography of McBean, which treats him with apposite wonder, seems to confirm this.
Birth in 1909 to a Welsh civil engineer and a mother who changed her name to Cherry from Irene does not seem a promising start for a would-be Surrealist. The 11-year-old McBean's interest in the make-up of a visiting actress called Miss Wise hinted at what was to come, though it took London and membership of the strength-through-joy group, Kibbo Kift, to bring Angus's extravagance to flower. His fondness for the KK uniform - "jerkins with pointed hoods, shorts, woollen stocking and sandals" - might have alerted his fellow member, Nellie Wood, to McBean's true nature, but she married him anyway. Angus carved totem poles with their respective KK symbols, hers a sycamore seed, his an ankh. The marriage did not last.
It is tempting to see McBean's discovery of Surrealism as inevitable, part of that pre-war encoding of homosexuality-as-artifice found in Noël Coward's songs and the novels of EF Benson. Surrealist portraiture is a contradiction in terms, being about disguise rather than revelation: what McBean's "surreal" of Beatrice Lillie shows is her theatricality, not her. Still, McBean thrived, turning out weekly pictures of the stars for the Sketch and Picture Post and becoming as famous as his subjects in the process.
Was he a good portraitist? By the naturalistic lights of our day, no. Edith Evans, appalled that a photographer had turned up unannounced at her dressing room door, calmed down when she heard it was McBean. "He will retouch me out of all recognition," trilled the relieved actress. "It's simple," remarked McBean, when asked the secret of his success. "They want to be beautiful." It was his friend and sometime lover, Quentin Crisp, who summed up Angus's way with his subjects. "Everything," said Crisp, crisply, "was retouched but their titles."
This is not entirely fair, though McBean had no-one but himself to blame for the misapprehension. Of his own work, he said that it was concerned with "kings and queens, princesses sleeping or otherwise in ivory towers, or in enchanted castles with satins, furs and cloths of gold... magic, illusion, fairies... and always happy endings." If people mistook him for a flake, it was not altogether surprising.
Actually, his queens and fairies were born of steely professionalism. McBean advised Vivien Leigh to have a tooth removed to reduce a tiny muscle that made her top lip minutely asymmetrical. She did. The apparently simple pond with which he surrealised Dorothy Dickson required finding out-of-season waterlilies, cutting holes in mirrors, experimenting with new materials like cellophane and plasticine and persuading the wilful actress to sit for hours in wet underclothes. "He was an amusing character," noted Peggy Ashcroft, "but meticulously correct."
The acidic Crisp benefitted from this. In November 1944, he was charged with soliciting. While many friends deserted him, McBean appeared as a witness at his trial. This took huge courage: Angus had himself just been released from prison, where he had done two-and-a-half hard labour years for buggery. When his sentence had been read out, he had collapsed in the dock; "a moment of terrible weakness," he later said. It was the last he would allow himself. Like his photographs, McBean's time in prison was airbrushed into a jolly jape. Crisp, who should have known better, fell for the fiction: Angus, he said, was "utterly unscathed" by his experience. That McBean had risked his career by vouching for him seems to have passed Crisp by.
Woodhouse's biography is full of event, perhaps rather too much so. Like the police doctor who described McBean as "the psychological type of homosexual", he doesn't go in for introspection. Neither, of course, did Angus McBean. But you're left wondering what it was that made him tick, what lay beneath the queens and fairies, the funny faces.