School of Art Acquires Rare Set of Welsh Photographer’s Prints

Photo montage of Audrey Hepburn by Angus McBean. ©Estate of Angus McBean.

Photo montage of Audrey Hepburn by Angus McBean. ©Estate of Angus McBean.

27 September 2016

The School of Art at Aberystwyth University has acquired a collection of vintage prints by one of the most significant British photographers of the twentieth century.

Born near Newport in South Wales in 1904, Angus McBean photographed some of the most iconic stars of the stage and screen between the 1930s and the 1980s.

Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Williams are just some of the big names who came to the studios he set up in Belgrave Road and Covent Garden, London.

One of his most recognised photographs shows the four Beatles leaning over a concrete balcony for the cover of their Please Please Me album.

The originals of The Beatles’ album covers are in the National Portrait Gallery in London but other McBean photographs of famous performers such as Cliff Richard and the Beverley Sisters were also used for their album covers and are now part of the Aberystwyth collection.

In addition to his more conventional studio portraits McBean, a pioneer of photo-surrealism, would playfully arrange his subjects in dream-like sets that he constructed in his studio.

In one of the striking black and white photographs in Aberystwyth University’s School of Art Collection, Audrey Hepburn’s head and shoulders emerge from a desert landscape dwarfing three Roman columns.

During the 1940s, McBean became the official photographer for such notable British theatres as Sadler’s Wells, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, and the National Theatre at the Old Vic.

His work was also in demand from the editors of glossy magazines such as Vogue, Tatler and Picture Post.

The acquisition of 71 of McBean’s photographs was initiated by the Head of the School of Art at Aberystwyth, Robert Meyrick.

“This collection of photographs is representative of the breadth of Angus McBean’s work over more than half a century and is the most representative collection of vintage prints of his work held by any public institution in the UK,” he explained.

“Many of the photogaphs are rare, in some cases unique, and most are not represented in any other collections nor seen before. Many were made from negatives that no longer survive – variously destroyed through war damage when his studio was bombed during the Blitz, by McBean’s own hand when he vacated his last studio, and destruction wrought when a consignment of his glass plate negatives was damaged in transit to Harvard University.

“Considering that he was a Welsh-born photographer, his body of work is not well represented in other collections in Wales. This set of 71 prints also offers a more representative collection of the artist’s works than those held in the other two main repositories in the UK - the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Shakespeare Centre at Stratford.”

The collection of prints includes the following stars of the West End stage:

  • Laurence Olivier (as Hamlet, 1937)
  • Peggy Ashcroft (as Portia, 1938)
  • Claire Luce (as Becky Sharp, 1946)
  • Anthony Quayle (as Falstaff, 1951)
  • John Gielgud (as Wolsey, 1958)
  • Michael Redgrave and Maggie Smith (in The Master Builder)
  • Ivor Novello and Vivien Leigh (in The Happy Hypocrite)
  • Edith Evans (in The Dark is Light Enough)
  • Sybil Thorndyke (in Treasure Hunt)
  • Vivien Leigh and Bonar Colleano (in A Streetcar Named Desire)

Within the School of Art at Aberystwyth, the collection will be used in the teaching of students practicing photography as well as art historians. The collection also has enormous research potential for both resident and visiting researchers.

A retrospective exhibition with an accompanying publication is planned for 2017-18 which will include loans from other public and private collections