How we met: Terry O’Neill & Tamara Beckwith

‘He’s never been less than 1,000 per cent supportive. Though he can be a bit grumpy’

Terry O’Neill, 75

The renowned British photographer rose to fame in the 1960s, when he shot many of the decade’s most prominent celebrities, from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles

We met in a restaurant called Daphne’s [in west London] in 1992. I was having dinner with some chums of mine when one of Tamara’s girlfriends came over and wanted to introduce me to her.

I soon noticed that she had a good eye for photography, and we ended up going to several photographic galleries to see a few shows, places such as the Chris Beetles Gallery and Hamiltons. They showed Avedon, Irving Penn, all the giants; I felt like I was a professor teaching a student.

We used to go out at least once a week, anywhere that was fashionable; places such as Tramp [in Mayfair], San Lorenzo [in Knightsbridge] and La Famiglia [in Chelsea]. One of our favourite spots was Ronnie Scott’s, London’s top jazz club, and back when Ronnie himself was alive we went to see some fantastic artists; the likes of Georgie Fame and Marion Montgomery. When I was younger, I was determined to be a jazz drummer, which I did become by the age of 14, playing in a few of London’s jazz clubs. If I hadn’t stumbled across photography, I still would have been a drummer today.

Tamara at the time was quite new to this scene and I remember, in 1994, taking her to [the artist] Sacha Newley’s exhibition at the Halycon Gallery where I introduced her to one of her idols, Joan Collins [Newley’s mother]. I’ve known Joan for nearly 40 years, first photographing her when she did a film with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, so I didn’t think it was such a big deal. Yet Tamara was thrilled to death to meet her, completely taken aback. I’m always amused when people want to meet celebrities; they don’t realise they’re just normal people, so I had a quiet chuckle to myself, because it made her so happy.

Since Tamara opened [The Little Black Gallery] in 2008, we’ve had a terrific work relationship. She first curated my “Guys & Dolls” photos in 2010, followed by “It Girls & Boys” in 2011; but this April she took that show to Miami. Tamara wanted to take a chance and do a show with interior designers, one where all my photos were [laid out] among furniture as opposed to the empty rooms of an art gallery. We gave it a try and it was a great success – so much so that it’s still running. I’m looking to do that in other towns now, maybe New York and London.

It’s a hard business selling photographs and she’s found a good audience and is doing very well out of it. I’m certain her next show [in which she will exhibit a “best of” O’Neill’s work] will be equally successful, if not more.

Tamara Beckwith, 43

Beckwith rose to prominence in the 1990s as a socialite, and has appeared on numerous TV shows, from ‘Dancing on Ice’ to ‘Watchdog’. She opened a photographic gallery in 2008 called The Little Black Gallery

We met in Daphne’s when I was 22. I was in there with a couple of designer friends, sitting in the back, when I saw this really cool guy in the corner and I remember thinking, “Who in the world is that with those startling blue eyes?” My friend told me it was Terry O’Neill and she went over, picked him up from his table and brought him over to ours.

Because I didn’t have very creative parents, places I went to with him, such as Ronnie Scott’s, were completely new to me. He’s mad for jazz, and it’s great fun to be friends with someone who has so much to tell you. And he really sealed his position as my number-one friend when he took me to an exhibition with Joan Collins, who’s a huge hero of mine.

Working with him has been fantastic. Since we opened the gallery in 2008, he’s never been anything less than 1,000 per cent [supportive]. Though he can be a bit grumpy. When I curated his exhibition in Miami in April, we were staying in the same hotel and had organised to have lunch with some friends next door. Of course it was boiling hot once we got walking and it was a bit further than he remembered, and he immediately started complaining, which I pretended not to notice. I eventually said, “Come on Terry, it’s just around the corner.” If you start giving in, with me having to say, “OK, don’t worry, I’ll go and cover for you,” it just goes wrong from there.

He really went beyond the call of duty for me on two occasions. He stopped taking pictures long ago, but I asked his agent whether he could do these two charity shoots for me, one was for the Youth Sport Trust and the other was for the Chelsea Ballet Schools. I was told, “No; Terry retired long ago, he won’t do it.” So I called Terry myself and told him what a privilege it is for people to meet him and whether he could do this shoot for charity, and on both occasions he said yes straight away. That was unprecedented – normally people wouldn’t bother to ask as he doesn’t take pictures any more, and even if they did he would straight away say it’s out of the question, but his input raised more than £40,000 for the charities, which was amazing.

There’s a very ordinary side to Terry, and he’s also very generous. When he was shooting [the musician] Lyle Lovett, I told Terry that I’d never heard any of his songs, which was strange, as I'm mad about country music. Instead of getting me one CD, Terry went and bought me everything Lyle Lovett had ever recorded. That’s just the kind of person he is.

The Best of Terry O’Neill is at The Little Black Gallery, London SW10 ( from 14 January to 1 March

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