Angus McBean's Christmas Cards
© Harvard Theatre Collection
Angus McBean, theatre photographer (1904 - 1990)
Christmas cards are the perfect way to rekindle old relationships and to remind the world of your continuing existence. For many photographers, cards also provide an opportunity for a dash of seasonal self-promotion and a welcome outlet for self-indulgence.
Of all the Christmas cards made by photographers there are few as memorable and as sustained as those of the theatre photographer Angus McBean.
He made his first card in 1936 and continued the practice, with only the occasional break, until his last Christmas in 1989. These Christmas greetings are highly prized and in recent years cherished bundles of McBean's cards have been appearing at auction houses where they have successfully attracted competitive bidding.
Almost every card features a self-portrait of McBean, cast as the star turn on a dream-like stage of his own construction. McBean's early career was as a theatrical set builder and mask maker in the age when decorative masks were all the rage. These practical skills were put to good use in the sets, lighting and delicate montage he wittily and self- consciously applied to his 'surrealised' portrait studies. McBean revelled in what he called 'the use of surrealism for its fun value.' It is a delicious irony that he was born on the same day as the surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
His last assistant, the photographer Mike Owen, who worked with McBean in the 1980's recalled that,
"He used to build his own sets, paint and retouch his own pictures. Before I worked with him he never used a light meter or a Polaroid - he did it all by eye. I'd fix up the lights - four or five lamps for each portrait, casting shadows on the background. He would use his hands for shading to bring out the highlights. Ninety percent of the time he did it all in camera.'
The series of cards owned by the National Portrait Gallery and reproduced here are from the 1950s and early 1960s with one famous card of 1940 featuring McBean in the role as Neptune. Indeed, water appears as a consistent and favoured motif, with McBean appearing dressed in pyjamas and submerged at the bottom of a fish tank in 1950; as a the swim-suited beach photographer of 1951 and as the Edwardian dandy of 1956 promenading on the deck of the SS McBean. It is interesting to speculate whether the cards are pure fun or whether they act as biographical markers to McBean's private and public life. There are a number of cards, sadly not owned by the gallery, from just after the war and again towards the end of his life the 1980's that cast McBean as a prisoner entrapped by a strange collection of exotic cages. One card from the late 1940's has his disembodied head grinning on a bleak staircase aside a mop and bucket, another with his head encased in an elaborate bird-cage with his card of 1980 featuring him locked behind the frosted wrought iron gates of his Norfolk home.
McBean's work is well represented in the National Portrait Gallery with a fine collection of exhibition prints bought from the photographer including some of the legends of the London stage including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh and Audrey Hepburn.
The bulk of McBean's collection by his archive of negatives and copyright were sold to the Harvard Theatre Collection at Harvard University in America who have kindly granted permission for these photographs to be reproduced here.