Archive 3 - Book Review - June 2000
THE OBSERVER published its first Jane Bown photograph in December 1949, beginning a romance between Britain's oldest Sunday paper and the country's most loved photographer that still flourishes. Until the winter of I949, Jane's photographs had been mainly of children. No doubt they were cherished, but they had reached places no more elevated than the mantlepieces of well-to-do homes. That December, however, she was telegrammed by the paper's very first picture editor, a charismatic Austrian and former lion-tamer named Mechthild Nawiasky. The commission was to take a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and his bride as they breakfasted in a London hotel. The picture amongst her portfolio that had caught Mechthild's imagination was not of an infant. It was, indeed, of a cow's eye, a large, dark cow's eye, lightly lashed, embedded in an intricate matting of down. It was later used on a front page and as the frontispiece to Jane's first anthology, The Gentle Eye. It symbolizes not only the title of that collection - but like Jane's, the animal's eye is unblinkingly all-pupil yet gleaming with compassion. People generally note picture credits even less than they clock by-lines, but most Observer readers know Jane Bown, and not merely Observer readers. By 1980 she was renowned enough for the National Portrait Gallery to hold an exhibition of her work. In 1985 she was awarded an MBE and in the 1995 New Year's Honours, the CBE. This is the sixth, the fullest, and she says final, published collection of her work. On every scale except that registering income, Jane is up there with Tony Snowdon and David Bailey. Born in Dorset, where she was brought up by a colony of aunts, she spent the war in Liverpool with the Wrens, working as a chart corrector literally plotting the D-Day invasion. After these, the happiest days of her life, she learnt photography at the Guildford School of Photography and left to embark on a career as child portrait photographer.