The Earl of Snowdon
Photographer and former husband of Princess Margaret Born: March 7 1930; Died: January 13, 2017 THE 1st Earl of Snowdon, who has died aged 86, was a photographer of the first rank with more than 100 portraits in the National Gallery, an artistic advisor to magazines and galleries, film-maker, campaigner for the disabled and a gifted designer, who was responsible for the aviary at London Zoo. Inevitably, however, Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s chief claim to fame came from his turbulent marriage to HRH Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, from 1960 until their divorce in 1978.
The marriage was the first for many years by a senior member of the Royal Family to someone who was not royal, or a member of the British aristocracy. It followed the controversy of Princess Margaret’s courtship, in the early 1950s, with Group-Captain Peter Townsend. Though he proposed, the Princess had been advised to refuse on the basis that he was divorced.
As it turned out, her marriage to Tony Armstrong-Jones was to provide more, and steamier, gossip and scandal than that earlier liaison ever threatened. During the 1960s, when London returned to world attention as a centre of fashion and glamour, the couple were at the forefront of the party scene; only Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor provided anything approximating the same interest.
The pair’s combination of tradition, celebrity and bohemian glamour was catnip to journalists. Armstrong-Jones, raised to the Earldom of Snowdon in 1961 – so that any children would have a title – was a dashing old Etonian (and Boat Race winner) whom the Queen appointed Constable of Caernarfon Castle and who helped to supervise Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales. (He later pointed out that most of the ceremonial aspects of the event were “completely bogus” and had been invented for the occasion.)
But he was also a fashionable photographer – the archetypically groovy 1960s profession – an artistic consultant on The Sunday Times Magazine, the first colour supplement, and an innovative designer whose aviary for London Zoo was regarded as a triumph of cutting-edge design.
What was at first deferentially passed over or hinted at, but later came to dominate the stories in the press, were the problems that arose from the Princess’s love of late-night parties and Snowdon’s almost pathological infidelity. In the end, however, it was reports of Princess Margaret’s liaison with the playboy Roddy Llewelyn on the Caribbean island of Mustique that provided the excusefortheirseparationin1976and divorce two years later.
Anthony Charles Robert ArmstrongJones was born on March 7 1930 into the largely unlanded gentry; his father Ronald was a barrister and his mother Anne a noted society beauty from an artistic family; her brother was the theatre designer Oliver Messel. The pair divorced, and Anthony’s mother later became Countess of Rosse.
He was educated at Eton, but spent almost a year of his childhood confined to bed (six months of it in Liverpool Royal Infirmary, without either of his parents visiting) with polio, an ailment from which he recovered but which left him with a limp. He went on to Jesus College, Cambridge, and coxed the winning team in the 1950 Boat Race. He did not, however, complete his training as an architect and instead, aged 21, set up as a freelance photographer.
He was quickly a success. Snowdon’s photographs were certainly accomplished, and his portrait work in particular put him in the same league as his contemporaries David Bailey and Terence Donovan; more than 100 of his pictures are now held by the National Portrait Gallery.
His particular talent was to capture informal moments – something he did, paradoxically enough, by dismissing all suggestions that the subject should be put at ease. “I think there has to be an edginess,” he explained. It helped, too, that he was well-connected, and in 1956, he was commissioned to take the Duke of Kent’s official 21st birthday pictures.
It led to further royal commissions and eventually, to the announcement in 1960 of his engagement to Princess Margaret. They were married in May and, after a honeymoon on the Royal Yacht Britannia, moved into Kensington Palace. Their first child David, Viscount Linley, was born the following year.
Oddly, Armstrong-Jones’s promiscuity, which was already a byword amongst his circle, and which was rumoured not to have been confined to womanising, seems not to have been an issue before the wedding.
Later, Snowdon was to father at least two children out of wedlock, and the interior designer Nicky Haslam claimed to have had an affair with him before his marriage. But at the time, the press’s deferential attitude towards the Palace and the tendency of the upper classes to keep such matters within their own circles seem to have been considered safeguard enough.
The changing mores of the 1960s and early 1970s were to sweep that away, but Snowdon’s own indiscretions received considerably less attention than those of Princess Margaret. Whether this arose from a sexist double-standard, the Princess being better “copy”, or her behaviour being objectively worse hardly mattered: Snowdon escaped relatively lightly. Even the Palace tended to take his part, probably because he never spoke about his marriage to the press and was noticeably less keen on the limelight than his wife.
In any case, whilst the Princess was occupied by royal duties, visiting schools and hospitals, and parties with film stars, pop groups and more dubious figures from the fringes of London gangland, Lord Snowdon had a career. Or rather several: as well as his photographic commissions and work for newspapers and magazines, he was on the staff of the Council of Industrial Design and in 1972 designed the Chairmobile, an early example of an electrically-powered wheelchair.
He had also ventured into television, making a film on ageing, Don’t Count the Candles (1968), which won two Emmys and an award at the Venice Film Festival. Love of a Kind (1969) and Born to be Small (1971) were also well-regarded, and in 1981 he was nominated for a Bafta for two programmes on photography which he presented, entitled Snowdon on Camera.
After his divorce, Snowdon refused to discuss his marriage and maintained cordial relations with the Royal Family and his children (he and Princess Margaret also had a daughter, now Lady Sarah Chatto, in 1964). He undertook a good deal of work for disabled charities, having chaired a working group on integration in 1976. He was president of the Committee for the International Year of the Disabled in 1981, and also of the National Fund for Research into Crippling Diseases, as well as supporting the Guide Dogs movement.
In 1978, he married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg (nee Davies), a television researcher, with whom he had a daughter, Frances. But he kept up his dalliances; he had affairs with the journalists Ann Hills (who committed suicide in 1996) and Melanie Cable-Alexander.
By the latter, he had a son, Jasper, in 1998; his wife then finally divorced him. In 2008, having previously denied her claims, he finally admitted that he was also the father of Polly Fry, who had been born just after his marriage to Princess Margaret.
Snowdon founded an award scheme for disabled students in 1980, and became a patron or honorary fellow of a number of photographic and design institutions. One of his long-running campaigns was to improve disabled access: the Royal Horticultural Society, which had said that the Chelsea Flower Show was not suitable for disabled visitors, incurred his especial ire. In the end, he won out.
In 1995, he became Provost of the Royal College of Art, of which he had been senior fellow since 1986. In 2001, there was a retrospective exhibition of Snowdon’s photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. He was a supporter of a large number of charities and societies based in Wales, from yachting to architecture, and from theatre to art.
The reforms of Tony Blair’s government threatened to deprive Snowdon of his seat in the House of Lords. But hereditary peers of the first creation were offered life peerages; there was some surprise when Snowdon chose to accept one in 1999.
But though some thought a peerage created to mark his marriage hardly qualified him for a legislative position, others defended Snowdon on the basis of his distinguished career, and his work for the disabled in the Upper House. He retired from the Lords in 2016.
The Earl of Snowdon received numerous awards for his photography, of which he presented numerous exhibitions around the world; he also published more than a dozen books of his work. He became an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1985. He held several honorary degrees and was appointed GCVO in 1969.
He is survived by his children; his son David, Viscount Linley, a celebrated cabinetmaker, succeeds him in the Earldom.
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