Lord Snowdon: Royal refusenik

His whole life has been a counterblast to royal dignity, royal mystique, royal protocol and royal unassailability
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The Independent Online

Snowdon married the princess on 6 May 1960, when he was still plain old Anthony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones, and divorced her in 1978. He has not been her husband, ally or knight in shining armour for 27 years, but reports of the television film elicited from him some flashes of hindsight gallantry. "If you knew somebody was making a film in which your wife was portrayed as having lesbian affairs, drinking too much and having rows, what would you do?" he fumed in the newspapers. "You could try taking out an injunction or saying you find it outrageous and disrespectful and there may be some recourse to law. But perhaps it's better to leave it to the Palace. It is more dignified."

Dignified? There is the irony of this angry row. His lordship implies that the dignity of the Royal Family is impugned by the Channel 4 play just as much as his own, ignoring the fact that his whole life has been a counterblast to royal dignity, royal mystique, royal protocol and royal unassailability. It was Snowdon who let the first breeze of ordinary life into the fetid state rooms. He was the first commoner to be allowed to marry a blood royal and his union with Margaret shocked the nation because of its stridently non-traditional waywardness.

As the nation digested the news about "Tony and Margaret" and their fast set of gamblers, pop stars, artists and people in Chelsea who served dinner to guests sitting on the living-room carpet, it seemed that the concept of royalty had at last kicked up its heels and galloped out of the ancient stable. Not only was the Queen's sister marrying a non-royal, he embodied some positively un-royal tendencies. For one thing, unlike most posh twentysomethings of her acquaintance, he had a job - being a celebrity photographer was about to become the trendiest paid work available in the new democratic Eden of Sixties Britain. For another, he rode a motorbike, a slap in the face of royal conventions. A Jak cartoon of the late Fifties showed a figure, dressed head to toe in grubby leathers and a helmet, walking into a Buckingham Palace reception and leaving a trail of machine oil on the carpet, while a flunkey announces: "His Royal Highness, the Earl of Snowdon..."

Third, he brought the garlicky whiff of the divorce courts into royal circles, from which they had been rigorously excluded since the abdication crisis in 1936. Armstrong-Jones's parents were divorced and remarried. At the wedding, the Lord Chamberlain had the tricky task of seating the groom's mother, father, stepfather and two stepmothers in Westminster Abbey.

He is hardly, of course, from artisan stock himself. He was born in 1930. His father Ronald was a barrister with an estate in Caernarvonshire; his mother Anne was the sister of Oliver Messel the stage designer. They divorced when Anthony was four; his mother married the Earl of Rosse, an Irish peer, and the boy and his sister Susan moved constantly between Wales, Ireland, Belgravia and the Messel estates in East Sussex. Anthony went to Eton, where he revived the school photographic society, but was conspicuously unacademic: "Armstrong-Jones may be good at something but it isn't anything we teach here," remarked a school report.

At 16, he contracted polio, which confined him to bed for months; some theatre friends of his uncle Messel came to visit - Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich. The illness left him with a foreshortened leg and a walking stick, but he went up to Cambridge, coxed the rowing team to victory in the 1950 boat race, studied architecture and was politely asked to leave after failing his second-year exams. Undismayed, he headed for London to make photography his career.

While only in his mid-20s, he began his remarkable career of photographing actors and actresses for theatre publicity shots. His first was of Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton in Separate Tables in 1954. One of his best was of Laurence Olivier, mad eyes blazing as Archie Rice in The Entertainer in 1957. When not building up his thespian portfolio, he inspected the low-life purlieus of Covent Garden market where the traders unloaded sacks of fruit at dawn, and the pubs and butchers' shops of the East End.

He first met Princess Margaret at a wedding in Holkham Hall in Norfolk, but made no impression on her. It was later, at a dinner party in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, given by Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, that they clicked. The new "debs' delight" and the princess (still nursing a broken heart from her aborted affair with Group Captain Townshend) talked intently together all evening, to the total exclusion of other guests.

He won her, according to Snowdon's biographer Brian Hoey, by refusing to take her as seriously as she made everyone else take her. He introduced her to money (she'd never handled it before), riding pillion, eating fish and chips out of newspaper, and conducting a love affair in a small house overlooking the Thames at Rotherhithe. The only thing she didn't like about this classless idyll was the lack of a private lavatory. They photographed each other, danced together at wild parties and chain-smoked. They were crazy cats.

Snowdon soon became disillusioned with his quasi-royal status, however. He wasn't accepted as one of the blue bloods, but nor was he allowed to behave as an outsider. Despite having no public duties to attend, he was expected to give up photography and have neither formal role nor existential function apart from being supportive spouse to a royal. (His title was conferred only on the birth of his son David. The Queen did not want her first nephew or niece to be a commoner, so she made him accept the title of 1st Earl of Snowdon.)

What saved him was the offer, from his old Cambridge pal Mark Boxer, to work as picture editor of The Sunday Times Magazine. The Queen gave her consent and he embarked on a starry career as a portraitist. Gossip and scandal have sometimes occluded the fact that Snowdon is one of the great British photographers, up there with Beaton, Bailey and Parkinson. His secret, he says, is not to put subjects at their ease, but to keep them slightly on edge. Perhaps this is why, on meeting Sir William Golding, he broke the ice by saying, "I greatly enjoyed your book, Lord of the Rings..."

His several photo-shoots each year took him to foreign parts. Returning home, he became bored with the routine glamour of life in royal circles. He and his wife began taking separate holidays. He told people: "I'm not royal. I just happen to be married to a member of the Royal Family." They both embarked on affairs from 1966 onwards. Over the next 11 years, Snowdon and the princess lived separate lives, while proclaiming their mutual devotion in public. Like the Prince and Princess of Wales circa 1990, they attended public functions together while making it clear that they couldn't stand to speak to each other.

The last straw was when Margaret had an affair with Roddy Llewellyn whom she met at the Café Royal in Edinburgh in 1973. After seeing a photograph of them together on Mustique, Snowdon decided on a divorce. The Queen and her husband Prince Philip were in favour: Philip compared the Snowdon marriage to "a barnacle on the bottom of the monarchy, for which the only solution is a wire brush". The Snowdons' divorce in 1978 was the first marital split at the top of the Royal Family since Henry VIII offed Anne of Cleves in 1540. Philip still regards it as the beginning of the Royal Family's breakdown, that led to the divorce of three of his children.

Snowdon was courting Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, a TV producer, whom he married in December 1978 and with whom he had a daughter, Frances, now 25. But he was also embroiled with a journalist called Anne Hills for 20 years until she killed herself in 1997. In his late 60s, he had an affair with Melanie Cable-Alexander, 35, the daughter of a baronet and features editor of Country Life. They had a child called Jasper, whom Snowdon did not acknowledge until 2000.

He lives today in a grand house in Kensington with a turret and baronial urns. He is plagued by ill-health - a heart scare and pacemaker 18 months ago, a stroke earlier this year - and finds walking difficult, but enjoys having young journalists round to spar with. He still takes photographs, but cannot abide the bad manners of young subjects (such as the singer Macy Gray) who treat him with less than respect. A major retrospective of his work toured the world in 2000. Another may be in the offing. It will be, one suspects, a more congenial journey into the past than the TV drama that now occupies the thoughts of this prototypical royal refusenik.

A Life in Brief

BORN London, 7 March 1930.

FAMILY Married Princess Margaret 1960 (divorced 1978); two children; married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg 1978; one child. He lives alone in London.

EDUCATION Eton; Jesus College, Cambridge.

CAREER Failed second year architecture exams and moved to London. First photograph published in the Daily Express, 1954. First royal commission (the Duke of Kent's 21st birthday), 1956. Touring Retrospective, National Portrait Gallery, 2000. Life peerage accepted, 1999.

HE SAYS "I don't like photographs anyway. I prefer paintings."

THEY SAY "He knows what he's looking for, and has the knack of being able to make you relax totally." Princess Diana