Definitive portrait photographer
Thursday 15 June 2006
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.
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