Lord Snowdon obituary: aristocrat, photographer, bohemian – and husband of Princess Margaret

His appeal to the Princess was clear – an attractively freelance character, free of the restrictions under which she toiled

Philip Hoare@philipwhale
Friday 13 January 2017 19:17
Lord Snowdon, pictured in Peter Sellers's garden in the mid-1970s, was known for being a ‘free spirit’
Lord Snowdon, pictured in Peter Sellers's garden in the mid-1970s, was known for being a ‘free spirit’

On 20 February 1958, at Lady Elizabeth Cavendish’s house in Cheyne Walk, HRH Princess Margaret met Anthony Armstrong-Jones. It was a fateful encounter. In the wake of her frustrated, if not infamous relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend, the glamorous princess was widely seen as “in need of a man”. Although of an aristocratic background himself, Armstrong-Jones was a photographer and a bohemian, an advance guard of what would be known as the Swinging Sixties.

Indeed, that year he had published a collection of photographs entitled London, of which he declared: “I believe that photographs should be simple technically, and easy to look at. They shouldn’t be directed at other photographers; their point is to make ordinary people react – to laugh, or to see something they hadn’t taken in before, or to be touched. But not to wince, I think.”

Nor did this dapper, socially-adept figure have that effect on the Princess. Unlike her other suitors – the “witless wonders” – he was a modern man, dressed in hip-hugging slacks, suede shoes, rollneck jumpers; fair, blue-eyed, lean, a diminutive figure prowling London in pursuit of subjects, camera clasped in his fist.

His family background bore evidence of artistic talent. His father, Ronald Owen Lloyd Armstrong-Jones QC was an accomplished barrister, and his mother, Anne, Lady Rosse (Oliver Messel’s sister), was known a Tugboat Annie “because she drifted from peer to peer”. But his maternal great-grandfather was the Punch cartoonist, Linley Sambourne (an aesthetic Armstrong-Jones was himself to echo, remarking of his photography that, “One can legitimately accentuate certain things, like a caricaturist”); his great-great uncle was the Berlin architect, Alfred Messel; and his mother’s brother was the theatre designer Oliver Messel.

In fact, his own taste for camp led many to assume that he was gay, too. Cecil Beaton (in many ways his equivalent for the previous generation) delighted in recording that Armstrong-Jones and a male friend would later be found in New York, doing camp impersonations of the Princess. Messel’s own photograph albums revealing shots of his nephew in drag. And I remember sitting behind Lord Snowdon, as he then was, at a first night of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever when he greeted an actress’s stage entrance with the exclamation, “Love the dress”. But Armstrong-Jones’s desires were decidedly heterosexual, as his subsequent history would prove.

Snowdon and Princess Margaret at the Canadian Women’s Club Centenary Ball at Grosvenor House 

Brought up at Plas Dinas, the Caernarvonshire family home, Armstrong-Jones went up to Eton – only for his teenage years to be blighted by the terrifying disease of polio. While he was in hospital, Uncle Oliver – in many ways an alternative father figure to Armstrong-Jones – brought some distinguished visitors: Noel Coward, and Marlene Dietrich, who sang “Boys in the Backroom” to him. Isolated as a child in a ward full of adults, the experience sensitised him to others’ disability, as well as his own, “By seeing people and being with people who were much worse off than I was”.

One visitor he did not receive was his own mother, who continued to be a remote figure to her son. In a 2008 television documentary, his cousin, Thomas Messel, claimed that as a young boy, Armstrong-Jones had been forced to travel by third-class railway carriage while his half-brother, Brendan – later Earl of Rosse – travelled first-class, in a compartment covered in white linen.

Having recovered from polio with great determination, Armstrong-Jones went up to Cambridge, where he studied architecture but fell into photography. He was also known for his fiery temper, bad language, penchant for practical jokes, and a certain cavalier style – arrogance mixed with charm. Snapped in a leather jacket with the collar upturned, he was an English rebel without a cause, the hint of a pout on his lips. He and a friend, Andy Garnett, explored East End pubs, where Armstrong-Jones took revealing, Brassai-like photographs of the night life (one observer claimed to have seen him board a bus at dawn, clad in black leather, carrying a whip). He projected self-assuredness, but was also restless, and opportunist. “Artificiality and superficiality are abhorrent to him,” claimed a Country Life profile at the time of his marriage to Princess Margaret. It was a revealing portrait.

His quick-witted mercurial personality has enabled him to charm his way into many forbidden territories and overcome the most formidable opposition to get the pictures he wanted…his energy, which is boundless, is all poured into his work … He prefers to dress informally, but discreetly; he moves quickly and likes to drive his car at high speeds…He is addicted to mimickry…He seldom begins a telephone talk in his own voice ... If he is bored nothing will keep him at a party … His own views are always emphatic and inclined to be youthfully impetuous … When he feels that he knows what is the right thing to do, he will say so, even if it is not necessarily what the listener wants to hear.

In the meritocratic world of post-war Britain, Armstrong-Jones promoted himself. Photography inspired him, and launched his career; it would perhaps be too easy to say that it was also an art which demanded the least effort, and made best use of his social connections. Having left Cambridge degreeless, his career was generously funded by his father. He joined the photographic studio of ‘Baron’ – the working name of Henry Nahan, a drinking partner of Prince Philip – then set up his own studio, firstly in Shaftesbury Avenue and then in Pimlico, earning a living from fashion shoots for Queen magazine (recently acquired by his friend Jocelyn Stevens).

Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret with their son, Viscount Linley, and young daughter Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones in 1964 

He specialised in dramatically-lit shots of theatrical personalities, created in sessions heavily underscored by his personal charm. Anna Massey commented: “Tony had this unbelievable gift of making it like a photographed conversation – you were just unaware of him taking photos … He was fun to be with – he always made you feel you were the most important person…” From one kind of theatre, Armstrong-Jones moved onto another, that of royalty, photographing the Queen’s children – and her sister.

His appeal to the Princess was clear – an attractively freelance character, free of the restrictions under which she toiled. “I’m a sort of gypsy, I suppose,” he said. “I wonder how Lady Rosse likes her son to be referred to as ‘working class’,” Osbert Sitwell wrote to Lady Aberconway. And after lunching with the Duchess of Kent and Princess Alexandra, Noel Coward recorded in his diary: “They are not pleased over Princess Margaret’s engagement. There was a distinct froideur when I mentioned it.” Privately, Coward thought: “He looks quite pretty, but whether or not the marriage is entirely suitable remains to be seen”; while Jocelyn Stevens declared: “I have always regarded her as a bird in a gilded cage. She would have loved to break free, but was never able to.”

Yet now she seemed to be offered an escape. Armstrong-Jones appealed to her artistic side, and took her opinions seriously – and at the same time moulding the way she looked by designing her dresses. His East End retreat at 59 Rotherhithe Street – a 17th century house overlooking the Thames – was soon described as a “love-nest”. Here he could play swinging bachelor, a precursor of Warren Beatty in Shampoo. In this whitewashed room, lapped by the London river at high tide, the Princess came on secretive evenings – sometimes with her fun-loving mother in tow – going to pubs, checking out the local tattooists. She called it “the little white roomö, a refuge overlooked by swans.

It was a modern Petit Trianon. They called each other “pet” and “love”; but violet-tinted lavatory paper appeared in the bathroom, and other friends of Armstrong-Jones thought the “informal” evenings in Docklands were in fact “rather stilted and stiff”. But they noted the passion between the pair. It was “sex, sex, sex”, said one, adding that he was a “well-made” man. The Queen’s sister relished the naughtiness of it all – “Disobedience is my joy”, as she told Jean Cocteau.

The couple on their wedding day in 1960 

But on 26 May 1959, that idyll was ended when the two lovers were seen at a performance of West Side Story at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Later that year, Armstrong-Jones photographed the Princess for her 29th birthday. At the same time, she discovered that Peter Townsend had remarried. As a result, she accepted – or suggested – Armstong-Jones’s proposal of marriage. Jocelyn Stevens counselled him, “Never has there been a more ill-fated assignment”; while Sir Ronald Armstrong-Jones declared “It will never work out. Tony’s a far too independent sort of fellow to be subjected to discipline ... He will have to walk two steps behind his wife, and I fear for his future”.

But the engagement was enthusiastically received by the Press, and at one point, Cecil Beaton gave the Princess and her betrothed shelter from the clamouring media at his country house in Wiltshire, where they walked on the downs, and where Armstrong-Jones laid out his coat, like Sir Walter Raleigh, for the Princess to step upon. On 4 May 1960 the Queen gave a party for 2000 at Buckingham Palace in honour of the new couple. Joe Loss played numbers from the pop show Fings Ain’t What They Use To Be, “and Mr Armstrong-Jones’s bohemian friends mingled with staid members of the establishment”.

Noel Coward saw it as a theatrical set-piece: “The lovely rooms and pictures, the preponderance of red brocade and glittering chandeliers; the fabulous jewels and the excellent lighting and the whole atmosphere of supreme grandeur without pomposity.” He chatted to “the radiant engaged couple. He is a charmer and I took a great shine to him, easy and unflurried and a sweet smile.”

The wedding itself took place two days later, at Westminster Abbey. Guests included Sir Winston Churchill, Jean Cocteau, Margaret Leighton, Joyce Grenfell, Hugh and Antonia Fraser, John Betjeman, and Coward, who was in his element. “God in His Heaven really smiling like mad and everything in the garden being genuinely lovely ... The Queen alone looked disagreeable; whether or not this concealed sadness or bad temper because Tony Armstrong-Jones had refused an earldom, nobody seems to know, but she did scowl a great deal. Princess Margaret looked like the ideal of what any fairy-tale princess should look like. Tony Armstrong-Jones pale, a bit tremulous and completely charming…".

Crowds gathered around their limousine as they drove through the City, the spectators’ buttons scratching its paintwork. Boarding the royal yacht Britannia, they sailed to the Caribbean for their honeymoon, where Colin Tennant offered the Princess a parcel of land on Mustique as a wedding present. Back in England, an apartment was prepared for the couple at Clock Court, Kensington Place, and a staff of seven hired, among them Thomas Cronin, former butler to the US Ambassador. He left two months later. “There was a difference of opinion – a clash of personalities,” he told the press; but apparently he was infuriated at being summoned by his new master clicking his fingers.

Armstrong-Jones was doubtless frustrated by the changes in his circumstances. His career met with conflicting demands and royal duties. He couldn’t win: when he did pursue new occupations, he was criticised for receiving “sinecures”, such as his appointment to the Council for Industrial Design (later the Design Council) in 1961. That year, in collaboration with Cedric Price and Frank Newby, his design for a new aviary at London Zoo appeared; a daring modernist structure, seemingly constructed from wires and triangles, for which he was paid the princely sum of £143. Admired by many, others sarcastically described him as one of Britain’s leading birdcage designers, “a not overcrowded profession”.

Princess Margaret and Snowdon on a trip to the Bahamas in 1967 

His appointment, in January 1962 as artistic advisor to the new Sunday Times colour magazine (a pivotal and influential job, given that magazine’s reflection of the Sixties zeitgeist), was also controversial. He was offered the job by his Cambridge friend, Mark Boxer, but it appears Princess Margaret had a hand in the appointment, too, via Jocelyn Stevens. The editor of The Observer, David Astor, said the appointment tainted royalty and press alike. Even The Times spoke out against it; while the Daily Mirror said that if Princess Margaret would like to become their women’s features editor, they’d be delighted.

The rebel had been tamed (although Armstrong-Jones wore a white polo neck to Buckingham Palace). It was unacceptable that he should remain a commoner, and various titles were proposed, to the ire of the Mirror, “On what possible grounds does he rate a title now?” Some claimed that as her sister’s husband had become a duke, so should the Princess’s. But on 4 October it was announced he would become the Earl of Snowdon and Viscount Linley – Snowdon being close to his family home, and Linley because his mother descended from the famous Derbyshire family. HRH Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, defended herself against accusations that she had aimed higher for her husband: “I know my place!” she protested. John Lennon knew their place, too: he called them “Priceless Margarine and Bony Armstrove”.

The cost of the renovation of Clock Court – £85,000 – caused disquiet, and it was claimed that the furniture at Clock Court was specially “scaled down” for the Princess’s stature. Private Eye quipped that they were “the two highest-paid performing dwarves in Europe,” (the New Statesman would later describe them as "Barbie and Ken".) Yet the Snowdons had revitalised the monarchy, updating it to an age of fast cars and short skirts. The Queen and Prince Philip worked hard to keep up, to the extent that Prince Philip’s new green 100 mph Alvis was reported with the Queen with her corgi on her lap and Prince Charles in the back; yet this seemed staid compared to her younger sister whizzing round town, riding pillion on her husband’s motorbike.

Snowdon maintained his East End retreat as a gesture of defiance. One evening Noel Coward and Margaret Leighton joined the royal couple there: “We banged the piano and threw empty Cointreau bottles into the river. Not an intellectual occupation but enjoyable. They were both very sweet and obviously happy.”

The birth of their children, David and Sarah, did little to curtail their movements and foreign holidays. Sacheverell Sitwell claimed that the glamorous pair had even dyed their hair to match, “the colour of peach”, complimenting their Mediterranean tans. Their style was described as “hip plush”, and their love as passionate: “She certainly didn’t go short in that direction,” said one observer.

But somewhere in the mid-Sixties, things began to go wrong. As her biographer, Theo Aronson, writes, the Princess’s husband “had begun to reveal characteristics which not only took her by surprise but literally by storm”. Snowdon – then working on Private View, his coffee-table book on contemporary artists (now a valuable period record of 1960s art) – was annoyed at having to fit his work in with her royal tours.

Their rows were terrible: Princess Margaret would walk into his studio, only to be told, “Never come in here without knocking!” He ignored her when she asked if he’d be in for lunch, with the result that the Princess shouted back, saying she wasn’t prepared to entertain his friends, slamming the door so violently that a mirror shattered. At a dance during which Snowdon spent too much time with an attractive young woman, Princess Margaret glided over to ask the hapless victim if she was enjoying herself. “Very much so, Ma’am,” she replied, at which the Princess’s eyes narrowed and she said, “That’s enough, then, for one evening, run along home”.

On my own, late encounter with the Princess, at a lunch party in the late 1990s, I can attest to the power of that steely gaze; one could see that their power had transfixed Snowdon; but that their disapproval and, perhaps possessiveness, could have repelled him at the same time.

Already, it was clear that Snowdon’s own roving eye would not be restrained by marriage. Indeed, much later, in 2008, a DNA test confirmed that just three weeks after the royal wedding, Camilla Fry, wife of the charismatic Jeremy Fry, Snowdon’s close friend, had given birth to Snowdon’s daughter, Polly. Other friends and acquaintances observed that even as Snowdon had begun his relationship with Princess Margaret, he had continued to see both Jacqueline Chan, an exotic beauty said to be his first real love, and Gina Ward, a model and another passionate affair for Snowdon. One commentator claimed: “If it moves, he’ll have it.”

Now it was said that the Princess was pursuing her own affair with Anthony Barton, a Cambridge friend of Snowdon’s and godfather to their daughter. Jocelyn Stevens thought it had been engineered by Snowdon himself – “If you yourself are playing around, then your conscience is eased if your partner does the same”. As Stevens’ wife, Janey Stevens would comment later, “He’s a free spirit, Tony, and always has been”. But the Princess’s affair with Robin Douglas-Home was more serious, and she ended it only to preserve the outward respectability of her now-fractured marriage. Yet the Press were already picking up on their troubles.

“Tony Denies Rift With Margaret,” headlined the Daily Express in February 1967, quoting Snowdon: “Nothing has happened to our marriage … some of these papers have been hinting about this since six months after my marriage…”

Princess Margaret appeared alone at Royal Film Performance of Zeferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Snowdon stayed in New York. But soon after, the couple flew to the Bahamas to stay with the Stevenses at Lyford Cay. En route, Snowdon stopped their outrider, took over his motorbike, and with the Princess riding pillion, took off at high speed. It was a romantic echo of the early years of their relationship.

For the Expo ‘67 in Montreal, Snowdon took a series of official portraits of his wife, full of chiaroscuro, reflecting both light and dark (“I am always suspicious if photographs are too beautiful,” as he would later observe.) Back in London, as the Princess’s star fell – her alternative life in Mustique, where she had commissioned a villa designed by Messel, was increasingly seen as an affront to egalitarian values – so her husband’s rose. Snowdon made a highly successfully documentary on old age for CBS; shown in March 1968, and featuring Cecil Beaton, among others, talking frankly about the process of ageing, Don’t Count the Candles won two Emmys for its “harrowing brilliance”. Snowdon’s sympathy with the disabled, prompted by his own boyhood contraction of polio, produced an design for a motorised wheelchairs (first created for Quentin Crewe), and a maiden speech in the Lords on the subject. Later he would establish the Snowdon Awards for disabled youngsters.

Very much in tune with the spirit of the times, Snowdon went on to design skiwear, clocks, furniture, and theatre sets – talents exemplified, perhaps, by his designs for the Royal Investiture at Caernavon in 1969 – famous for the contemporary crown placed on Prince Charles’s head, its golden orb actually made out of a ping-pong ball. Snowdon himself wore a space-age, zip-up tight green uniform, in the style of Pierre Cardin.

But in January 1971 Snowdon’s affair with Lady Jacqueline Isaacs became public knowledge, via the New York Daily News. Princess Margaret was furious at the way the publicity reflected on her own reputation – although she herself was said to be dallying, variously, with Dominic Elliott, Mick Jagger, and Peter Sellars. By now, the marriage had deteriorated to the level of exchanged grunts when passing in the hallway. Snowdon locked himself away in his studio, leaving “antagonistic notes” on his wife’s desk, including one headed, “Twenty Reasons Why I Hate You”. He belittled her in front of guests, and told her she looked “like a Jewish manicurist”.

One close friend spoke to me with bitterness of Snowdon’s ability to embarrass the Princess. “She’d never used a telephone before – she’d never had to – and he would make her phone up for a cab at night”. There were shouting matches to rival Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as one observer put it. Indeed, as royal versions of Taylor and Burton, the Snowdons’ tempestuous private lives seemed to be living out their own personal drama. On their last family holiday, Snowdon refused to speak to his wife, and left her and the children after the first week.

Yet the Princess resisted divorce, on both royal and religious grounds. Matters were made more difficult because both her sister and her mother liked Snowdon (whom she accused of being “oily” towards them). Then, in September 1973, the Princess met Roddy Llewellyn. He was 26, she 42; they were immediately attracted. Back in London, she asked Snowdon – now involved with Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, nee Davies, the former wife of film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg – to move out. But it was only when his wife’s affair became public – via snatched photographs from Mustique published in the Daily Express – that he did so. A separation was agreed: she was to settle a six-figure sum on him, and allow him open access to their children.

On 17 March 1976, the Daily Mirror declared “Margaret and Tony Divorce”. On assignment in Australia, Snowdon was interviewed on TV, wishing his wife well. Watching the pictures, the Princess drew on her cigarette and declared, “I have never seen such good acting”. And yet one friend notes of their relationship, “She was more prepared to make changes than he was – he would never come up to her level. He’s a difficult character. Yet afterwards his friends never said anything to the Press about the break-up, whereas hers did.”

Years later, Jackie Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday in New York, offered Snowdon $2.5m for his memoirs: he refused. His former wife may have called him “the Rat”, but in fact, he didn’t behave like one. Indeed, he could be violently circumspect on the subject: when it was later put to him that Lord Lichfield – his fellow Sixties snapper – commented that the rows between the Snowdons resembled an exchange of gunfire, he retorted: “Well, Lichfield would know fuck all about it, so you can tell him to piss off.”

The Princess was granted decree absolute on 11 July 1978. Five months later, Snowdon married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, in a registry office. The couple had a daughter, Lady Frances, but Snowdon’s attention drifted again, to another mistress, Ann Hills. With his subsequent affair with Country Life features editor, Melanie Cable-Alexander, then aged 34, his second marriage ended – and was followed by the birth of his “secret love child” with Cable-Alexander, Jasper, in 1998 – two years after Snowdon’s mistress of twenty years, the journalist Anne Hill who had worked with him on his campaigns for the disabled, killed herself, on New Year’s Eve, 1996.

Snowdon remained resolutely silent on these subjects, as he had on the subject of his marriage to Princess Margaret. It was for that reason, and despite the vagaries, and tragedies, of his private life, Snowdon was still regarded as a favourite of the Queen, and he continued to photograph the royal family. In 1999, he was created Baron Armstrong-Jones, a life peerage, so that he could retain his seat in the House of Lords after the hereditary peers had left. In 2000 – the year when his decree nisi from Lindsay-Hogg was made (it was observed that neither partner collected their decree absolute which would have made their divorce legal) – a major retrospective of his work was held at the National Portrait Gallery.

Including modern figures such as Damien Hirst – whom Snowdon portrayed in a goldfish tank – it amply illustrated the wide-ranging facility of his work. “To me, The goal is to move people, to make people think, but never, never at the expense of the person you’re photographing. To laugh with, yes – but never to laugh at”. And yet “You have to strip people of their poses and disguises”, he claimed. “Photographers should not exploit their subjects. In the old days I did appalling gimmicky pictures but I’ve tried to become simpler. Now I wouldn’t even mind taking a boring picture if it gave truthful information about a human being.” But there was something a little show business, too, in the NPG retrospective – not least in the safety-pin brooch he’d designed to promote the show, and which he wore on the opening night as he was guided around his exhibition, a shrunken character, nonetheless with the vestiges of glamour about him.

Even in his seventies, unable to walk unaided, Snowdon’s vivacity seemed undiminished. In 2004, he went to India to photograph “achievers” – in politics, media, industry and art – for a new book of photographs. Despite his belief in the evanescence of his art – “I’m very much against photographs being framed and treated with reverence and signed and sold as works of art. They aren’t. They should be seen in a magazine or a book and then be used to wrap up the fish and chucked away” – his work had continued to appear in books, from London and Private View, to a collection of photographs taken on a visit to Tasmania and published in 1980; Stills, 1983–1987 (1987); Serendipity: A Light Hearted Look at People, Places and Things, 1989; photographs of wild flowers to illustrate a 1995 book with Sir Roy Strong; Snowdon On Stage, a personal view of post-war British theatre (1997); and London Sight Unseen: A Personal View of London (1999) with Gwyn Headley.

“I hate photographs that put people in awkward situations,” Snowdon told The Hindu on his December 2004 visit to India. The sub-continent’s oldest newspaper was impressed by his energy, despite being now wheelchair-bound himself. “All great photographers have to be inquisitive. Because photography is much more than using a good camera.” In 2005, he campaigned to raise £2.2m for the Snowdonia Society, towards a new building on top of his eponymous mountain. When a Channel Four drama sensationalised his relationship with Princess Margaret that year, he called it “vulgar slander” and declared that the actor playing him was not handsome enough.

In 2006, Snowdon took the official photographs for the Queen’s 80th birthday. He remained ambitious, and deceptively charming, even to the end. In one late interview, he was asked when he had realised he was a good photographer. Snowdon replied: “I haven’t yet.”

Anthony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon: born London, 7 March 1930; married 1960 Princess Margaret (divorced 1978); married 1978 Lucy Lindsay-Hogg (divorced 2000); three daughters, two sons; died London 13 January 2017

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