Godfrey Argent

Definitive portrait photographer

Bernard Godfrey Argent, photographer: born Eastbourne, Sussex 6 February 1937; married 1956 Janet Boniface (died 1970; three daughters), second Anne Coxon (marriage dissolved 1973), third 1973 Sally McAlpine (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1990); died London 1 June 2006.

Godfrey Argent liked to describe himself as the last of the traditional portrait photographers. In an age of mobile- phone portraiture, his stylish black-and-white studies of soldiers and statesmen, scientists and artists, aristocrats and socialites can seem formal, even staged, but they remain definitive.

The man behind the lens was anything but formal. He was the archetypal "cheeky chappie", treating his sitters, who ranged across the spectrum from the Queen and Margaret Thatcher to Norman Wisdom and Joanna Lumley, with a mixture of deference and irreverence. It was a tricky balancing act that he had practised as a serving soldier, and it stood him in good stead.

It worked on the late South African premier John Vorster. Initially wary of the curly-haired "hippie" photographer from London, the iron man of apartheid finally succumbed to his charms, and the two disparate men ended up discussing guns and big game. More significantly, Argent bagged his shot.

On another occasion, to the consternation of courtiers, he cheerfully advised a young Prince Charles to get married, for his own good and the good of the nation. "On reflection, not the best advice I've ever given," he said later.

Bernard Godfrey Argent (he dropped the first name in his professional life, reckoning that Godfrey Argent sounded grander) was born in Eastbourne in 1937. Educated at Bexhill Grammar School, he served as a corporal of horse in the Household Cavalry, and it was during his nine years in the Army that he developed his love of portrait photography, winning the British Army Photographic Competition and becoming an Associate Member of the Royal Photographic Society.

He attracted the attention of military grandees, notably the Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the time, Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, who commissioned Argent to photograph him in full dress uniform. Impressed by the results, Templer advised the tiro cameraman, "You are a much better photographer than you will ever be a soldier. Don't get to my age and then regret what you might have done."

Argent heeded the advice, though, with three young daughters to support, he was taking a considerable gamble. Unlike his famous contemporary Patrick Lichfield who, within two hours of leaving the Grenadier Guards, had swapped uniform for jeans and begun work in a photographer's studio, Argent faced an unmapped future on civvy street.

He began his professional career in 1963 hefting a large half-plate camera around the major seaside resorts of southern England and Wales, capturing beach scenes for a series of postcards. This earned him a commission to photograph the Royal Mews for a new guidebook, and with it an unexpected entrée to Palace circles. Almost immediately he was offered a dream assignment: to photograph the Queen with her horses.

With the writer Judith Campbell, he toured Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral, capturing the Queen and various members of her family with their favourite mounts. The resulting book, The Queen Rides (1965), is a forgotten gem, providing a rare glimpse into a private realm. One particular picture, of the young Queen, head bowed in thought, next to her nuzzling horse, is a seminal study.

Argent's prowess with the camera attracted the attention of Tom Blau, founder of the picture agency Camera Press, and he was invited to join a stable which included Lords Snowdon and Lichfield, Cecil Beaton, Karsh of Ottawa and, later, Norman Parkinson.

Joining such a photographic élite presented occasional stumbling blocks. Summoned to Kensington Palace by the Earl of Snowdon to explain on whose authority he had photographed his young son, Viscount Linley, Argent had the killer answer: "Well, actually, the Queen." Suitably disarmed, Snowdon proceeded to offer him a master class in portrait photography.

For a while, the royal connection flourished, with invitations to produce official portraits for the 15th birthday of Princess Anne and the 18th birthday of Prince Charles, both in 1966, then studies of Charles for a stamp to mark his Investiture as Prince of Wales. Other commissions followed for a succession of royal Christmas cards. Then, in the early 1970s, the connection was cut. "There was no explanation," said Argent. "It just stopped. It's happened to others as well, sometimes because they revealed too much. But I never did that. I was always discreet."

However, his career began to flourish in other directions. A businessman as well as a photographer, Argent bought the archives of the portrait photographer Walter Bird, and later of the celebrated society photographer Baron. At his London studios, first in Queen's Gate then in Holland Street, he became the grandest of high-street photographers, photographing businessmen, soldiers in uniform, families and children. "I did the good and the great," he said. "Sometimes the not-so-good and not-so-great, who often paid better."

In 1967 Argent was appointed official photographer for the National Photographic Record, housed at the National Portrait Gallery, with the mission of photographing "people who are actively doing things and can be seen to be doing things". His sitters included John Betjeman and Noël Coward, Anna Neagle and John Gielgud, Alan Bennett and David Attenborough. His work was recognised with a one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery in 1972.

For over 20 years, until 1993, he was also official photographer for the Royal Society, producing a series of outstanding portraits of Britain's most distinguished scientists, including Nobel Prize winners such as Sir Peter Medawar, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking.

He also worked in the theatre, and photographed the annually changed cast of The Mousetrap 23 years times between 1967 and 1993, a record almost as impressive as the longevity of the play itself.

In recent years, he turned increasingly to painting, producing painstaking portraits in oils which were intricately based on his own photographs.

As a photographer, Argent revered the late Yousuf Karsh, arguably the greatest of all portrait photographers, emulating his monumental style and peerless lighting; but he also added a freshness of his own. The sheer range and depth of his work were on display at his final exhibition, a one-man show at the Special Photographers Gallery in London last year. It was a fitting epitaph to his career.

Roger Eldridge

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game