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.