LONDON – Renowned for his shots of everyone from The Beatles to Audrey Hepburn, photographer Angus McBean is also celebrated for his witty self-portrait Christmas cards, which he sent to friends and clients for 30 years between 1935 and 1988.
He took great pains to produce them and, in an age before digital photography, used all the optical tricks of which he was such a master to create his surreal images. Of all those Christmas cards, the one for 1948 is surely the most remarkable.
ANGUS MCBEAN BY ANGUS MCBEAN. © ESTATE OF ANGUS MCBEAN / NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON.
In the autumn of 1948 McBean spotted an impressive bearded Classical bust in an antique shop off London’s Charing Cross Road. The shop owner had dubbed the bust Homer (although was later identified as Zeus or Aesculapius) – McBean thought its face resembled his own and formed an idea for his next Christmas card. So the bust was hired and borne back to his studio.
The photographer was determined to superimpose half of his face onto the white marble of “Homer.” He recorded the process: “First I set the bust up on a table top covered with a rough textured wall board which I bent up at the back to give the illusion of a distant horizon, added some small bronze models of ruined columns, a little sand and two tiny figures cut from an old photograph of mine.”
AUDREY HEPBURN BY ANGUS MCBEAN. GIVEN BY THE PHOTOGRAPHER, ANGUS MCBEAN, 1985.
McBean continued, “Then came the somewhat difficult job of lighting the set-up so that one half of the face of the sculpture was completely unlit – tricky when you consider it was made of white marble. This area was then most carefully drawn onto the ground glass [of a negative] the features being exactly shown and an exposure was made. Then all that remained to do was to photograph half my face into the small space left.”
Quickly McBean and his assistants discovered that this was far more difficult than they had imagined. Lighting, angling, size and exposure were wrong time after time and it took 57 attempts before the photographer was eventually satisfied that he had matched his features perfectly into the Homeric frame. The card won immediate acclaim and has been endlessly reproduced in publications about his work since.
ANGUS MCBEAN, DARLING, I THINK WE MUST BE IN BATTERSEA PARK, 1948. TO BE OFFERED AT SOTHEBY’S MADE IN BRITAIN SALE IN LONDON ON 16 MARCH. ESTIMATE £3,000–5,000. A MONUMENTAL MARBLE BUST OF ZEUS OR ASKLEPIOS, THE HEAD ROMAN IMPERIAL, WHICH SOLD AT SOTHEBY'S FOR $3,130,000.
Moreover, having recognised the bust’s importance not just to his reputation but also his self-image, the photographer – a keen collector all his life - could not bear to return it to the shop. He bought it for £50 and the bust became one of his most prized possessions. After his death it featured prominently in the 2006 major McBean retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
GIORGIO DE CHIRICO’S COMPOSITION METAPHYSICAL HEAD OF JUPITER 1942. © PETER HORREE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO.
“Homer” was sold by McBean’s estate and reappeared at Sotheby’s New York in the Antiquities auction in June 2015. The catalogue illustrated the 1948 Christmas card and two 1940s surreal paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, which feature just the head. The bust sold for $3,130,000 – a breath-taking distance from McBean’s transaction 67 years earlier. The photographer would assuredly have loved such an outcome – and dreamt up an appropriate card to commemorate the making of his three million dollar face.