Martin Amis & Friends: Intimate early photos

Portraits of the young Amis and his friends, taken by his former fiancée, are being revealed for the first time. Hannah Duguid gets a sneak preview

Wednesday 07 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton are lined up against a balcony, high up in Paris – the rooftops are visible. It is 1980 and they are young, wearing dark suits. Fenton is well groomed, although Hitchens and Amis have unkempt hair that hangs down to their shirt collars. They look handsome, bohemian and intellectual. Each man takes on the lens with confidence, a direct and focused stare straight into the eye of the camera. There is not a flinch of self doubt between them.

Their lives had run a similar course. All born in 1949, they went to Oxford University; became writers and then worked together at the New Statesman magazine during the late 1970s. Fenton was political correspondent and, at this time, would have been working on The Memory of War, his first book of poetry. Hitchens and Fenton were in Paris to visit Amis who was living there with his fiancée Angela Gorgas.

The man missing from this photo is the writer Ian McEwan. He didn't go to Oxford and was a year older than the other three but was part of their group at the New Statesman. He appears alone in a separate photograph which was taken in a Parisian café. He looks very young, like an academic teenager, and is holding a coffee cup in his hand. He had just finished eating breakfast with Amis and Gorgas, a photographer.

Gorgas and Amis were together from 1977 to 1981 and she documented their life in a series of photographic portraits of their friends and family. Twenty-four images have been selected for an exhibition, Martin Amis & Friends, at the National Portrait Gallery. It is a fraction of a vast archive of her work from that era.

"Going through the negatives was like an archeological dig. The work wasn't part of a grand idea; it was just recording my life, like a visual diary. Some of the people are now dead and the rest of us are of a certain age. These pictures could not have been taken by an outsider because the people depicted here are quite private," she says.

Many of the photographs are intimate, like family snaps. It is the subjects that give them resonance. Kingsley Amis and the literary agent Pat Kavanagh sit together on a bench to watch the New Statesman cricket team play. The atmosphere appears to be one of tranquil camaraderie. They look at ease; Amis père has a radio at his side so he can keep track of the England cricket team who are also playing that day.

Amis sits with his mother, Lady Kilmarnock, at her house in Ronda, Spain. Each casually drapes an arm around the shoulders of the other, the sunlight dapples the surface of the image. It's a relaxed and touching portrait of a middle-aged mother with her grown-up son.

When Amis appears, he usually has a cigarette between his lips. "It was quite hard not to get him smoking," says Gorgas. There is a scene of him as the young writer. He is playing the guitar and on the table are a pen and large pad of paper, covered in notes. In another, he stands by his battered old white Mini. This car was known as "The Ashtray" as the interior overflowed with cigarette butts. There are photographs snatched while they were out walking together in the woods, or in Paris.

"I had a real sense of the transience of time and wanting to capture a moment, to preserve these memories. It was a feeling that I needed to record things as they happened. Martin was already on the road to success. I knew that I was having a great time and I was with people who were intellectually stimulating and hugely creative. There was a buzz in the air," says Gorgas.

Gorgas and Amis did not confine their social life to people of intellectual glamour. There are aristocrats and artists as well as academics and writers: many of them were largely unknown at the time and some went on to define the era. There's a portrait of Bruce Robinson. He is astonishingly handsome, possessing a rare male beauty that he apparently found irksome: it was the cause of much unwanted attention. Robinson was an actor although he was working on a script for a film.

"I met Bruce when a director friend sent me round with a script for him. He was so handsome that I could barely look him in the eye. But we chatted for hours and he told me about a film he was writing. I left holding the manuscript for Withnail and I," says Gorgas. Robinson also went on to write The Killing Fields.

Amis knew Adam Zamoyski from their days at Oxford. Zamoyski was a historian and biographer, a Polish aristocrat – he was a Count – with the looks of a Romantic poet. Gorgas photographed him in his Knightsbridge home. The backdrop is a 17th-century tapestry from one of Zamoyski's ancestral homes.

There is a thread of tragedy that retrospectively runs through the some of these portraits. Gorgas shared a flat with the Scottish writer, Candia McWilliam. She appears here lying across a bed wearing jeans and a white shirt. She is beautiful. Already a writer, McWilliam became a successful novelist. She has talked publicly about her battle with alcohol. Recently, she went blind, struck down with a rare condition called bletherospasm.

McWilliam and Gorgas also lived with Amschel Rothschild. There's a portrait of him by Gorgas, taken when he was just 20 years old. He has a delicate physique. His gaze into the camera lens is not forthright, but diffident. His attention seems to be focused inward.

For a time, he worked at the now defunct literary magazine New Review, before taking up his place in the Rothschild banking empire to become chairman of Rothschild Asset Management. It was believed that he was in line to become chairman of the entire bank – until he was found dead in a Paris hotel in 1996. He had committed suicide.

For the most part, the subjects in these portraits are of young lives full of promise. They were young, often beautiful, talented and privileged. They lived in London around Maida Vale, Holland Park and Knightsbridge. Some went on to huge success: Amis, Hitchens, Fenton and McEwan. For others, the pressure of life was too much and it all fell apart.

Martin Amis and Friends, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (020-7312 2463), 10 January to 5 July

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