Career

The fashion photographs of Terence Donovan.

As Terence Donovan’s game-changing fashion photographs are brought together in a book for the first time, Grace Coddington and Robin Muir pay tribute to his enduring influence.

One rainy afternoon, as a star-struck young model at the very beginning of my career, portfolio in hand, I walked into Terence Donovan’s small studio in Yeoman’s Row, a stone’s throw from Harrods.

I had tramped my way all over London, visiting photographer after photographer, ever hopeful. It was 1959. There, sitting at his desk with piles of contact sheets in front of him, was Donovan, a giant of a man with an equally giant presence.

He was a key part of that English movement in fashion photography in the 1960s and, together with Bailey and Duffy, a photographer one simply had to work with if one’s career were to mean anything. He represented everything that was changing in the world of fashion; his eye was altering the way the world perceived women.

Gone was the haughty, stylised lady of the 1950s who led the impossibly glamorous life of the rich and famous. Enter someone young and touchable, someone who was part of the world in which you lived and someone you wanted to be.

Accept

With the help of Donovan’s gritty photographs, the world started to look to London for inspiration, and the whole youthquake was born. Vidal Sassoon was combing out those beehives, giving hair a cut and a freedom it had not experienced in many years; Mary Quant was snipping off skirts into minis that were barely respectable. Donovan was recording all of this, taking us out of frosty locations such as Belgravia to the streets of his youth in the East End.

He was generous and gentle; he was also a very wise man. I sought his advice on everything from decorating my apartment to whether I should accept a job on Vogue or not. He was always there for me. A true friend till the day he died.

Later on in my life when I became a fashion editor, I was happy to work with him again. Shoots were always a pleasure. With Terry, one would spend one’s day laughing until one’s sides ached. But he always had such a great command of the situation, no fussing about, always so direct. His portraiture was masterly and he had a fascination for still life too, the result of tireless hours of lighting and creating special effects.

Basically, he just loved photography and it showed. He loved all cameras, but I think he had a real affection for plate cameras. There was something so proud and solid about them. I have always admired Donovan’s fashion photo­graphy with men. While other photographers resorted to cropping the model’s head off to make the picture acceptable, he created a style at About Town magazine that was revolutionary.

He ruled his life with an army-like precision as he cruised around London in his huge Bentley, his office on wheels. An invitation to lunch would go like this, ‘Burkes, Thirteen-hundred hours’, and woe betide you if you were late. But through all the years that he was part of my life, his beady eye guided me and his knowledge of all the things directed me, and his humour will keep me laughing for ever.

Vogue

Robin Muir, contributing editor, British and Russian Vogues; former picture editor, British Vogue:

In late 1965, on an assignment for Vogue, the writer and balletomane Richard Buckle met Cecil Beaton at his home in ‘a pretty, quiet street’ in South Kensington. The front door, opened by Beaton’s chef, led through to a ‘narrow white hall with white plaster casts of funeral tablets from Palmyra set into its pristine white walls. The banisters are marbled grey-green. The half landing with its view of gardens is shared by a sculpture.’ Beaton called out to his visitor from ‘his bedroom with walls of crimson velvet’.

A few weeks later, in January 1966, a reporter for the British Journal of Photography climbed the stairs to Terence Donovan’s studio, tucked away in a mews a quarter of a mile from Beaton’s townhouse. Donovan was at the top of his profession. There was a new Rolls-Royce gleaming outside, but inside, the reporter found the stairs ‘uncarpeted… discarded coffee cups huddled against the skirting’ sharing floor space with ‘a couple of fencing masks, a plate piled high with lump sugar, two odd shoes and an empty birdcage’. A dusty soda siphon stood on the mantelpiece alongside empty milk bottles, while above them, hanging from a nail, was a rusty carpenter’s saw. In the space of those few weeks, the perception of how fashion photographers lived, worked and behaved had shifted almost unimaginably.

Donovan was the son of a lorry driver and a department store supervisor, born in 1936 in east London. How did it all start? He explained to the reporter: ‘Well, the usual rubbish you know. Born in the East End, I spent most of the war in the cab of a large lorry travelling around England with my father. I went to about 10 different schools because we were moving around so much, and then I decided to become a chef. I tried very hard to get into the School of Cookery in Vincent Square. But that didn’t work because I was too young. So as the only respectable job other than lorry driving or professional soldiering in our family was that of Uncle Joe, who was a lithographer, I decided to become a lithographer.’This was 1948 and Donovan was only 11 years old. He began a part-time apprenticeship in tandem with his schoolwork. In what spare time he had, he was an enthusiastic member of Bethnal Green Camera Club.

He left school at the earliest opportunity to become an assistant at Gee and Watson, an established blockmakers and typesetters. Then came periods as a photographic assistant to Hugh White and Michael Williams at Fleet Illustrated. He stayed there until he was called up for two years of national service, then returned to Fleet Illustrated briefly before joining the John French Studio, where he assisted Adrian Flowers and John Adriaan.

Donovan opened his own studio in 1959, aged 22. His first commission was un­promising – a still life of a sponge cake on behalf of the cake-mix producer Viota – but barely two weeks later a model much in demand, Marla Scarafia, was sitting for test pictures. A month after that Donovan was photographing for the hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, for Sketch magazine and for the Sunday Times. It was at the Sunday Times Magazine, launched in 1962, that Donovan’s fashion photography reached its widest audience.