Keith Beken

Isle of Wight yacht photographer with an energetic 70-year career
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The Independent Online

Alfred Keith Beken, photographer and pharmacist: born Cowes, Isle of Wight 16 February 1914; married (two sons); died Newport, Isle of Wight 9 February 2007.

Keith Beken was an internationally known yacht photographer who began his career taking pictures at the Cowes regattas of the 1930s. He was still going out in his launch 70 years later; his image of the yacht Silk II nearly pitch-poling into the Solent in August 1996 was published all over the world.

The family photographic firm of Beken of Cowes dates back to the 19th century. Keith's grandfather Alfred Beken had moved from Canterbury to the Isle of Wight in 1888 and took over an existing pharmacy which had been established in 1839. Alfred's son Frank joined him later in the business after qualifying as a pharmacist. When he wasn't working in the family pharmacy, Frank Beken was photographing the magnificent yachts and ships of all kinds and sizes - including Royal Navy battleships and cruisers - that crossed the Solent waters. He took the last professional photo of RMS Titanic as she sailed from Southampton on her maiden voyage in 1912.

Keith Beken, Frank's son, was born in 1914. After attending Shoreham Grammar School in West Sussex as a boarder he followed family tradition and qualified in London as a pharmacist, before joining the Cowes pharmacy in the mid-1930s. Keith also worked with Frank in the photographic business, then trading as "Beken & Son", capturing on film some of the best-known yachts in the world, including Britannia (owned by King George V), Shamrock V (Sir Thomas Lipton), Endeavour (Sir Tommy Sopwith) and also Valsheda, Astra, Meteor and Germania.

During the Cowes Regatta weeks Beken and his father would photograph nearly all the competing yachts; one famous image is of the top racing yachts against a backdrop of the battleship HMS Vanguard. In the 1930s they also photographed the transatlantic liners entering and leaving Southampton, including the Queen Mary on her maiden voyage. They photographed the Naval Review at Spithead celebrating the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 as well as that to mark George VI's coronation in 1937.

Beken volunteered during the Second World War, and initially served in the Royal Air Force, stationed in Shetland. Later he joined the new Air Sea Rescue Service and, with his nautical background, was put in command of a 60ft high-speed motor launch patrolling along the south coast of England. Much of his work was in rescuing airmen who had been shot down or dropped in the English Channel, returning them to Portsmouth or the Isle of Wight, and also in minor naval incidents and skirmishes.

In the 1950s Beken was reunited with Malcolm Horsley, an airman he had rescued off Cherbourg, when Horsley spotted him in an Air Sea Rescue Service tie in the Island Sailing Club in Cowes. At the time Horsley was Equerry to the Duke of Edinburgh, who was competing in Cowes Week in his Flying Fifteen Coweslip. Horsley introduced Beken to the Duke and the two became close friends, keeping in touch for the next 50 years. Prince Philip was quoted as saying, "I had an unjustified reputation for not liking photographers, but the Beken camera was always one I welcomed."

On one occasion Beken towed Prince Philip and the yacht designer Uffa Fox back to safety after Coweslip nearly sank. He photographed all three of Prince Philip's yachts - Coweslip, Bluebottle and Bloodhound - during the 1950s and 1960s, and was awarded a Royal Warrant.

Having started his photographic career working in black-and-white and sepia images made from plates, in the 1950s Beken turned to colour, using his own home-made camera, designed to be suitable for the sea and salt environment. He began to attend international regattas, particularly at St Tropez in October, and in Antigua in the West Indies where the American and Caribbean yachts used to do battle each spring. His presence at these regattas helped to establish Beken & Son as the premier yacht photographers in the world. After Frank Beken's death in 1970, Keith sold off the pharmacy part of the business and his son Kenneth joined the firm, which was renamed Beken of Cowes.

I am one of the few Solent yachtsmen to have accompanied Beken in his launch during a Cowes Week. Though there was little wind around he smelt action miles away. Within half an hour he had spotted that yacht after yacht in class after class was drifting on to the Irish Admiral's Cupper Moonduster, which was pinned broadside astride the South Bramble buoy - yachts of all sizes bounced off the boat for 20 minutes. This incident alone produced rolls of images. During our trip I interviewed him on tape about his life. I asked him the question, "What was the best photograph you ever took?" With a broad grin he replied, "Tomorrow!"

He strived year in year out for the big news picture. In 1996, aged 82, he finally took it when Silk II, a 41ft ocean-racing yacht, nearly pitch-poled, with the bows of the yacht 15ft below sea level and a crewman at the stern at least 10ft above, just about to be catapulted through the air into the sea. The photograph was published all round the world in the yachting press.

During his time with Beken & Son he published a range of prized annual yachting calendars, nowadays including one of classic yachts from 1890 to 1939 in sepia. He also brought out a range of Beken books, including Beken of Cowes (two volumes, 1966-69), The Beken File (1980, an autobiography), A Hundred Years of Sail (1981), A Century of Tall Ships (1985), The America's Cup (1990) and Ocean Liners (1992).

Keith Beken had an amazing memory and could recognise yachts from miles away across the Solent by their length and hull colour, their kind of rig, the colour and design of their sails and spinnakers. Though a colossus in the yachting world, he was a very private person with a wicked smile and great sense of humour.

He was appointed an Honorary Member and the Official Photographer to the Royal Yacht Squadron of Cowes in 2002 and was a member of the Island Sailing Club for 61 years. Over the last 70 he made a huge contribution to the Beken photo library, which now comprises half a million pictures and in today's digital era is expanding by 50,000 images each year.

Beken continued to take photographs afloat into his 86th year, when he reluctantly decided to stay on dry land. He continued as a consultant to the business until a fortnight or so before his death. He put his longevity down to drinking a pint of Guinness every day for 60 years and to breathing the salt of the sea all his life.

Blake Simms

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