John Timbers

Photographer who immortalised Delia Smith with an egg and introduced Edna Everage to gladioli


John Timbers, photographer: born London 21 January 1933; married 1975 Belinda Barr (two sons, and one son deceased); died London 14 October 2006.

The humblest item claimed on expenses by the photographer John Timbers was, "Eggs, 32 pence", yet it led to one of his most iconic shots. Commissioned by the Radio Times to produce an egg-themed portrait of Delia Smith for her 1978 television cookery series, he had tried various approaches, from breaking and beating to whisking and separating, but nothing worked, until the future grande dame of British cuisine picked up an egg and held it against her face. "It was the simplest shot, and certainly the best," said Timbers.

The picture was also used in 1982 as the cover for Smith's phenomenally successful Complete Cookery Course, the resident bible of every contemporary kitchen. Timbers was invited to a party to mark the one-millionth sale of the book, but to his chagrin he did not profit from his own creation: the image rights were held by the BBC.

Timbers also laid claim to another sub-cultural icon of the day, Edna Everage's gladdy. In 1973 he was commissioned to photograph Barry Humphries for Harpers & Queen, and came up with a double portrait of "a vertically challenged Barry, timidly proffering a single gladdy to a domineering Edna". The gladioli theme became an integral part of Edna's act, and the sitting marked the beginning of a 30-year friendship with her creator Barry Humphries. When the humble Melbourne housewife made herself a dame, Timbers himself was duly dubbed "Lord Timbers, official photographer to Dame Edna". Many years later, in 2004, his portraits were exhibited in Melbourne in a show called "Chameleon: Barry Humphries as seen by John Timbers", and the whole collection was acquired by the Victoria Arts Centre for the Australian nation.

Known principally for his outstanding theatre work, John Timbers was always the most collaborative of photographers, producing pictures which grew from his knowledge of the stage and his friendships with those who trod the boards. As he was fond of saying, he worked with performers not for them. Sir Alec Guinness praised him as one "who knows all about disguises" and Alan Bennett, another friend, described him in photographic terms as always "my number one".

John Timbers was born in London in 1933, in Tottenham, where his grandfather made footballs for the Spurs team. After National Service with the RAF in Germany, he studied at the Regent Street School of Photography (now Westminster University). "Imagining that I knew everything", as he put it, he applied for a job as photographic assistant to Antony Armstrong-Jones, who, having satisfied himself that the applicant could "handle a knife and fork in the proper manner", asked him to start work next day.

He joined Armstrong-Jones in his minuscule studio in Pimlico at the unprincely salary of £6 a week. His new employer was always inclusive, insisting Timbers joined in post-shoot refreshments. Once, when Viscount Montgomery of Alamein invited Armstrong-Jones to lunch after a sitting, suggesting that "your man can get a bite to eat at the local pub", the future Earl of Snowdon made his excuses and returned to London.

Then, one Friday afternoon in 1960, Armstrong-Jones gathered his small staff together and announced his engagement to Princess Margaret. "The studio was closed with immediate effect and everyone was kept on full pay until they found other jobs," said Timbers. Shortly afterwards he was invited to tea at Kensington Palace. He recalled an impromptu session with Princess Margaret accompanying herself at the piano while singing popular songs of the day. "A sadly thwarted talent," he commented.

In time, he employed his own assistants and, as "someone who's 5ft 5in tall and who generally works with a stepladder", he favoured tall, quiet and discreet young men to do his bidding.

In 1959, he began taking stills for the groundbreaking independent television series Armchair Theatre, and in 1975 became a regular contributor to the Radio Times, then a hugely influential magazine with an eight-million readership. Thus began "two decades of wonderful commissions and worldwide travel" during which he covered some of the BBC's best remembered productions, including Fortunes of War (1987), which brought Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson together.

He went to Corfu to photograph My Family and Other Animals in 1987, recalling that Gerald Durrell liked to play recordings of birdsong in the middle of the night "to confuse the local wildlife". In 1977 he covered the making of Anna Karenina in Budapest, with Eric Porter and Nicola Pagett, and sidelined as a sports photographer at the Table Tennis Championships which were held in Hungary that year. His reporter on that occasion was a very inexperienced Beryl Bainbridge, who stayed in touch, always bringing her personal bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label to dinner parties.

Timbers was himself a noted bon viveur and oenophile. One of his favourite assignments came in 1982 when he covered Jonathan Gili's documentary The Queen of Beaujolais, featuring the wine-maker Marguerite Chabert, whose proudest boast was that no single drop of rival Bordeaux had ever passed her lips. "I pinched myself," he recalled later. There were, however, moments when his enthusiasm for the vine overcame him, as when he had to be rescued from a dustbin in Soho by the journalist Molly Parkin, while he sat declaring, "I'm just a piece of old rubbish."

Timbers's career is marked by strong friendships with the thespians he photographed (he was often mistaken for the actor Ian Holm himself). Judi Dench was a regular sitter and enduring pal for 45 years. He snapped her in a maternity dress for The Observer in 1972, remembering her absolute certainty that she would give birth to a son. "I've done the wedding ring suspended over my bulging tummy with a strand of hair, and it's definitely a boy," she said. "We're calling him Finn." In the event it was her daughter Finty.

In 1975, Timbers married the stage manager Belinda Barr, daughter of the actor Patrick Barr. Their relationship was strengthened indissolubly when their first son, David, died at just 10 weeks old. They had two more sons, Will and Tom, who grew up in the convivial family home near Wandsworth Common, complete with a darkroom at the end of the garden.

In his spare time, Timbers was a keen amateur cricketer, describing himself as a "slow left-arm bowler of mediocre talent" though he proudly remembered playing for a President's side that included the actors David Hemmings, Robert Powell and John Alderton.

Throughout his career Timbers worked with Olympus cameras, and the company sponsored a major exhibition of his work, "Familiar Faces" in 1981; but there was one camera he prized above all others - a state-of-the-art Leica M3 which had belonged to Sir Ralph Richardson. When Timbers tried to photograph him in Brighton during a storm the great actor refused to brave the elements. "I suppose you want me on the beach looking like King Lear," he said; "but I'm not going outside for all the tea in China." Instead he posed on a hotel balcony.

It was a shot Richardson always liked, and when he died his widow insisted that Timbers should have his Leica camera, saying it was what he would have wanted. He used it with pride for the rest of his life.

Roger Eldridge

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum