Angus McBean

Head and shoulders photo of a balding man about 60 with a white wispy beard

Angus McBean
Photo: Wikipedia

Angus Rowland McBean (1904-1990) was a Welsh theatre and surrealist photographer, the son of a coal mining surveyor. At the age of 15 he became involved with amateur dramatics at the Lyceum Theatre in Monmouth where he created sets, props and costumes and where his life long interest in dressing up and performing began, together with an early interest in photography.

After working for Liberty’s department store in London from 1925-32, and then with West End photographer Hugh Cecil, McBean set up his own studio in Belgrave Road in 1935. The following year he gained a commission from gay actor and playwright Ivor Novello to create masks for a play he was producing in which the young actress Vivien Leigh was appearing. This began a “romance through the lens” for McBean and Leigh and he was to photograph her on stage and in the studio for almost every performance until her death nearly thirty years later.

Imposing 4-floor plus basement stone corner house with blue door. Windows on first floor have wrought-iron juliet balconies.

Kingston House in 2017

In 1927 McBean was briefly married to a school teacher ten years his senior but by the time of the 1939 National Register he was 35 and living in a Hertfordshire cottage with three other men; his 19 year old photographer’s assistant, a 21 year old theatre clerk, and a 26 year old builder’s carpenter. Because of the London Blitz McBean moved to Bath where he set up a studio in his ground floor flat in Kingston House, Pierrepont Street, which soon became a meeting place for gay men, including servicemen who were stationed nearby.

On 13 November 1941 Bath police raided the flat and arrested McBean and a 16 year old youth. This began a chain of arrests using evidence from letters, diaries and statements to the police. It also resulted in one, and possibly two, suicides.

McBean and five other men were tried “on grave charges” at Winchester Assizes in March 1942 in front of Bristol born and former Clifton College pupil Lord Chief Justice Thomas Inskip, 1st Viscount Caldecote. All six men were found guilty and sent to prison with McBean receiving a 4 year sentence of hard labour for three charges of gross indecency. On hearing the sentence McBean collapsed in the dock. Others convicted were: 25 year old Lt. Tom Gill, in civilian life an actor, who received 15 months in prison; 18 year old Theodore Parker who was found in possession of 36 love letters from Gill and was sent to borstal for three years; 28 year old Arthur Sigmund Politzer, a well known artist and glass designer serving with the Field Security Police who received a 20 month prison sentence; 21 year old Eric Hughes, a civil servant sentenced to three years Borstal; and 22 year old Brian Ball, a soldier stationed in Surrey and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment.

Two other lives were ended by the case, though neither was charged. Alan Farr, a 30 year old Admiralty electrical fitter and draughtsman had been interviewed twice by police in the week after the raid about connections with McBean. On 16 December 1941 a Detective Inspector called at Farr’s office to escort him to the police station, probably to be charged. On the pretext of visiting the cloakroom before leaving, Farr shot himself and died instantly. Also mentioned during the trial was 18 year old Allan Patrick Nottingham, already on probation for indecency charges in Portsmouth, who may have been the catalyst for the initial discovery of Bean’s circle. A week after the trial, the Bath Chronicle of 21 March 1942 reported that Nottingham had been found in a crashed car on the Wiltshire Downs and had died shortly after in Swindon Hospital.

After the war McBean resumed his career and opened a new studio in Endell Street, Covent Garden. In the 1940s and 50s he was the official photographer for productions at Stratford upon Avon, the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Glyndebourne, London Old Vic, and for all productions by the production company H.M. Tennent Ltd. He also created famous images of LGBT figures including Quentin Crisp, Australian ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, drag artiste Danny La Rue, journalist and broadcaster Nancy Spain, artist and stage designer Oliver Messel, and American playwright Tennessee Williams.

In the 1950s and 60s McBean produced album covers for Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey, and for The Beatles’ Please Please Me (1963) and the Red and Blue compilation albums (1973). During this period he also created defining images of Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Laurence Olivier, and Noel Coward. David Ball (b.1926) became his assistant and, by 1947, his life partner. In the 1960s McBean bought Flemings Hall, a Tudor house in Suffolk. He officially retired as a photographer in 1974 but continued producing photographs with images of Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier being among his last work in 1988.

In 1990 McBean fell ill whilst on holiday in Morocco and after returning to England died in hospital in Ipswich on 9 June, his 86th birthday. Overshadowed by photographers like Cecil Beaton and, later, David Bailey, he never enjoyed the same level of fame although it has been argued his work was better technically and artistically. Lord Snowden declared him “a genius” and Cecil Beaton called him “the best photographer in the country”.

Author: Jonathan Rowe, 2021
Additional material on arrests and trial of McBean and others: Andrew Foyle

Angus McBean – Wikipedia
Biography: Angus McBean, Adrian Woodhouse (1985)