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

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