'Vogue' photographer of the Fifties and Sixties with a reputation for creative exuberance
Tuesday 05 December 2006
Claude Ambrose Virgin, photographer: born Atlanta, Georgia 8 June 1928; married 1951 Margaret Barch (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1969 Jillie Bateman (two sons; marriage dissolved 1986); died London 1 December 2006.
Nowhere in the Britain of the late Fifties and the Sixties would you find such a mix of the talented and the original, the raffish and the beautiful as you would on the King's Road, Chelsea. Even amongst this stiff opposition, the photographer Claude Virgin cut an unforgettable figure.
Virgin was born in 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia. He moved to New York to work as a photographer, was hugely influenced by the great art director of Harper's Bazaar Alexey Brodovitch, and worked as an assistant for the terrific photographer Louis Faurer. Then British Vogue brought him to London to give the mostly fuddy-duddy fashion world some American snap.
"Claude arrived in London the same day as Helmut Newton," remembers Willie Landels, former Editor of Harpers & Queen:
They both went to dinner with the then Editor of Vogue, Audrey Withers. She asked, "Mr Newton, what are you going to do for us?"
"Uh. Take some pictures . . ."
She turned to Claude and said, "And you, Mr Virgin? What are you going to do?"
"Oh," he said, "lots of brass! I'm going to put a lot of brass on these girls. Make them look very brassy!"
He meant lots of jewels.
Actually there was very little brassiness about Virgin's work, which had a clean, elegant line, an instinctual sense of composition, and in which the models seemed frequently to exhale a feline, "grown-up" femaleness. As Newton wrote in his memoirs, "His photographs were sexy and different from anything seen before in England."
Soon Virgin had become one of the hardest-working photographers at British Vogue and had picked up a reputation for creative exuberance. For instance, while he was shooting the Paris collections, he told the editor-on-the-spot that one of the fur coats was too long. That was just the way it was, he was told. Was not. He scissored a foot off the bottom.
Michelangelo Antonioni must have heard such stories because when he arrived in London to begin work on Blow-Up (1966), Virgin was, I think, the first photographer he visited. But he settled on David Bailey as the template for the character played by David Hemmings. Things were changing. According to British Vogue, Virgin's work was "suddenly outmoded by homegrown photographers like David Bailey and Brian Duffy". There is truth to that. But not the whole truth.
I met Claude Virgin in the Bistro, a restaurant off Sloane Square, run by a warm-hearted tyrant, Elisabeth Furse, my mother. Virgin was an habitué. We became friendly and together took over a sprawling double studio behind the Pheasantry on the King's Road. It goes without saying that a photographer's fashion and beauty studio was not a horrible place for a young man - I was down from Cambridge - to be. And Claude Virgin was its most entertaining element.
Virgin was addicted to certain forms of Britishry - he joined a club on St James's, he drove an Aston Martin and he would always work wearing a shirt, a tie and one of several well-broken-in Savile Row suits - but he was also a hardcore Modernist. The studio seating consisted mostly of Mies van de Rohe "Barcelona" chairs. The art included a supposed Rothko and Virgin's portrait, painted by a friend, Donald Cammell, but the principal wall adornment was a huge wooden aeroplane propeller.
It was the early Sixties. Virgin was no longer the hot Vogue photographer but had plenty of work, both in fashion and advertising, and could be as quirky as ever. Landels remembers a shoot for Queen. "There was this hat," he says: "He thought it was very dull. So he tore off the leg of his pyjamas. They were striped pyjamas. And put the leg of the pyjama around the hat and made it look terribly glamorous.
Not all the inspirations came off. There was the legendary, perhaps apocryphal, cover shot of a veiled bride. Only when the magazines had been printed did somebody spot that the veil looked a bit, um, black. The issue was not, apparently, a hot seller.
Virgin was close to many women, including some former models, but he had a longstanding girlfriend and was in no sense a womaniser. Indeed, he could be rather a disapproving neighbour. I returned to the Pheasantry one afternoon to find that an interior wall had sprouted between our studios. Relations warmed up again. An openable door appeared in the wall.
We worked together on projects from time to time. He took a suite of photographs of the vivacious actress Sue Lloyd for the magazine Town in which I was a foil. He took it into his head to use me for a beer marketing campaign, kitted me up in a bowler hat and blasted away on tests, spewing out many dozen rolls in as many minutes. To my unspeakable relief, the campaign was killed. This had nothing to do with the pictures, which were pure Virgin, sharp and clear. The drawback, I fear, was the model.
Virgin did indeed secede from photography, but it was nothing to do with distaste for the work of Bailey, Duffy and Terry Donovan, which he admired. It was more that he represented the neo-classic aesthetic of the Chelsea Set. The emergent Swinging London seemed a foreign land, not the country to which he had moved, and he had no desire to take pictures of its raffish, romantic inhabitants.
His attempt to frame another life for himself was in its way magnificent. He was always liable to enthusiasms. One of his closer friends, who worked in the City, persuaded him that copper was the Next Big Thing. Virgin installed a ticker-tape machine in his bedroom and I would listen, awed, to his misadventures in the copper trade. The results were both comic and tragic, but mostly the latter. He lost six figures.
Claude Virgin's post-photography years were pleasant enough. In 1969 he married, as his second wife, Jillie Bateman. They put two sons, James and Henry, through Harrow. The marriage endured until 1986. James is a fund-raiser for Harrow. Henry writes, paints and plans to import green tea from China. Claude developed other enthusiasms, genealogy (his own) being one.
He never changed his mind about his reasons for giving up full-time photography. In perhaps our last conversation, a few months ago, he gleefully recalled a conversation with the glamorous hipster-aristo Nico, Marchioness of Londonderry. "I said, Nico, why are you wasting your time with those silly pop people?" he said. That would be Mick Jagger, whom his friend Donald Cammell was in 1970 to co-direct in Performance.
As with several photographers of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, including indeed his sometime boss Louis Faurer, Virgin's work has not yet come into its own. It will. Count on that.
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