Archive 3 - Book Review - July 2000
JANE BOWN, OBSERVER
by Andrew Billen
Paperback - 112 pages (September 1996)
Thames & Hudson; ISBN: 0500278911
The Fifties were days of fourteen-page newspapers kept thin by a rationing of newsprint that was not lifted until 1957. Despite this, Astor felt that strong photographs could justify their space in the paper even if they were unrelated to news. The argument, perhaps not fully conceded by the harder of the news journalists who supplemented Astor's senior common room of intellectuals and colourwriters, was that they could illustrate more enduring truths: the coming of spring, the beauty of landscape or that the poor, and rich, are always with us.
In Mechthild he had the perfect ally. A former art editor of Lilliput, she was used to selecting photographs either for their own sake or in order to make a joke (juxtaposing a man with a long neck with an emu, for example). Like Astor, she was a talent-spotter. Michael Davie, Astor's early deputy and a superb stylist whose prize-winning Notebooks ran into the 1980Ås, recalls an early example of a Bown 'snap': a cabbage with snow on it. 'There was a stage,' he says, 'when Philip Toynbee would come into the office on a Saturday simply to write the front-page caption for these pictures. David used to say it was the one piece in the paper that everybody read.'
In 1954, Jane married Martin Moss, a businessman who was to become managing director of Simpsons, Piccadilly. Until then, colleagues remember her as boy-friend free, although adored. This did not,however, make her one of the boys. Although she sometimes reprimands her current colleagues for not drinking enough, she was not one of the paper's great drinkers. Rather she would accompany the great drinkers to 'Auntie's' at the back of Tudor Street and participate largely vicariously in their booze-fuelled conversation. Dubbed by Malcolm Muggeridge as: "Astor's home for intellectual drunks" Astor believes the name was unjustified. 'There wasn't that much drinking. But there were some drunks,' he says. And, just as the paper's reputation for bohemianism may have been largely unearned, so was a label that soon came to be attached to Jane, that of 'brilliant amateur'. It is true she did, and does, conjure cameras and lenses out of wicker baskets ('Shots from My Shopping Bag' was an alternative title for this book), true also that the nearest she gets to carrying lights is an old Anglepoise. But Jane's amateurism is a front for the kind of professionalism most of us meet only once or twice in our careers.
She thanks for this Alison Settle, the paper's fashion editor from I937 to 1959. Settle, one of fashion journalism's doyennes, had married a dying man and was left to bring up two children. 'She asked me,' Jane says, 'to do the Paris Fashions. My son, Matthew, was about four months old and I threw a wobbly. I said I didn't want to come. Alison said "Don't be so silly, Jane. You must discipline yourself "It has rung in my ears ever since because she obviously spent her life disciplining herself'
By this time the paper was noticing another quality in Jane. 'The big change,' Astor explains, 'in Jane's role was when we realised that she was not merely a good photographer who could capture things amusingly and strikingly but that she could photograph people and come back and tell you what they were really like. The news editor used to interrogate her. She gained the reputation of being like a water diviner.'
This gift may not be as mysterious as it seems, for while she believes that faces reveal character, she is also an acute listener. It is certainly a gift everyone agrees she has. 'The real joy of working with her is she is so often so perceptive,' says Anthony Sampson, the anatomist of Britain and the most successful editor of the Pendennis gossip column. Celebrity interviewing was a different craft to that practised today. 'We would stroll along to the Savoy to see the press girls and see if anyone was in town,' Jane says. 'He never did any research that I could see - and, of course, I have never heard of anyone. He would only ever ask three questions: "What are you hoping for?" "Do you believe in God?" and, if he liked them more than that, "If it was your birthday what would you have for breakfast?"
It was while Jane was working with Michael Davie, however, that she took her two most famous pictures, those of John Betjeman and Samuel Beckett. The Betjeman shot of 1972, showing him roaring with laughter on the edge of a cliff, was, she says, ‘one of those sudden miracles, that just happen'. The Beckett portrait, in one account, sounds like another one. It was 1976 and Davie and she had been sent to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square where Billie Whitelaw was appearing in 'Happy Days'. 'I was,' says Davie, 'hanging about at the back picking up what I could, when I realised Jane had vanished. She had disappeared round the back and caught Beckett coming out of the stage door. I doubt if she exchanged a word with him or took more than one shot. I can only assume the Good Lord told her he would be there at that moment because no one else did.' Jane, who likes accuracy, remembers it differently: she told Beckett there had been the promise of a picture session and took three pictures, printing the middle one. As for finding him, he had just finished rehearsals and had to be going somewhere, 'I used my noodle.'
Reporters who have accompanied her on jobs usually find themselves tied in knots trying to explain her technique to those who haven't. Davie, who like most of us prefers not to conduct an interview in front of a photographer, says he never minded her because 'she had a capacity to cease to exist'. He quickly, however, gives an instance of her undeniable presence, describing how she manoeuvered an undelighted Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer to pose standing on a chair on the balcony of the War Office. It is said people will do anything for her, but she bullies and scolds her subjects as much as she beguiles them. We talk of her calmness, but she is rarely in less than a state of high anxiety before a portrait shoot and once in, she, in a Sampson phrase, 'hops around like a bird'. She uses charm but, as Davie points out, 'See her work with a pack then watch her elbows fly.' The present generation rudely believes she gets away with it because she is mistaken for a harmless old lady. Its predecessors insist that her technique has never changed.
And when she is not holding a camera, then what is she like? It is hardly easier to describe. She is short and~pink cheeked and sometimes has mud on her shoes. She is a wonderful hostess. She can seem prickly but is actually so shy that she does not presume to record her voice on her answering machine. She lives in an old farm house in Hampshire where she keeps hens and ducks. The greatest crises in her life seem to involve bantams and foxes. So she is a bucolic. Yet she is also a town mouse, to be seen at surprising parties. Sometimes she says she could have happily spent her life in London, and her evenings in London pubs. She can seem a little chaotic, as her heroine Mechthild seemed, yet her passion is for order and she has spent the last two years in The Observer's new offices in Farringdon Road, filing and cataloguing five decades of prints and negatives.
Maybe Anthony Sampson does best when he calls her a Romantic, enraptured by gypsies, hoboes and the brilliant auto-destructives that The Observer once had a talent for employing. Against this, she is a nester who has made her home - into which, admittedly, she invites a variety of waifs and strays, not all of them animal - a treasure house of beautiful objects.
However one defines her, Michael Davie is surely right when he calls her the least phony person he has ever met, and the least pretentious. She does not believe that photography is an art or, as others do, that her camera, set almost permanently at a 60th and 2.8, looks into her subjects' souls (she prefers reportage photography, anyway). She sometimes calls it a trick, even a con, but doesn't mean that really. 'Anybody could do what I can - I just choose a black background,' she once told me.
If photography would not now have been her first choice of career - a doctor more use, a farmer more rewarding - and if she makes few claims for it, it is, nevertheless, extraordinarily well-suited to her temperament, which views the world and its faces primarily aesthetically. I recall an autumn evening we were sitting outside the Cafe Deux Magots in Paris drinking Pernod, watching the world go by. Most people when they say they are watching the world go by mean they are day-dreaming, as I suppose I was. Jane, I noticed, really was watching - and judging too.
It would be silly to say the Bown-Observer love affair has always run smooth. Like everyone, she mourned the passing of the paper's affluence, the era when the annual staff party was held at the Cafe Royal. Like many, she was suspicious of the introduction of a magazine in 1964. Like a diehard few, she still disparages colour photographs, which, nevertheless, she has been inveigled into taking. She endured The Observer's move to Queen Victoria Street and then to an office block opposite the Mermaid Theatre in 1969. Nearly twenty years later she made the journey across the river to Battersea, where the paper was supposed to have enjoyed a new dawn (but didn't). Two years ago, at the behest of the fourth proprietor who has met her risibly small pay demands, she migrated with us to the Guardian's loft. Of all the stars of Astor's golden era, only she is left.
She has seen out three editors - Astor, Donald Trelford, Jonathan Fenby - and is now working for her fourth, Andrew Jaspan, a fervent admirer. What has affected her more, she says, has been the succession of ten picture editors, some of whom, such as Gary Wodehouse in the Sixties and Tony McGrath in the Eighties, served long enough to become their own legends. If at some times she was used less than at others, this, she now realises, was only to give her strength for these last few years in which her full-page portraits have appeared against the main interview slot in Life, the colour magazine's successor.
She has never, anyway, been out of fashion with the readers. Perhaps they understood better than any of us that Jane embodies the best of The Observer tradition. It is, after all, an opinion-changing paper and Jane's are perception altering portraits. It is the purveyor of subtle humour, and Jane's snaps - one thinks of the Ascot toff reading a paper his brolly has pinned to the grass - are, as Astor once said, 'very like a Betjeman poem'. It is a paper that loves the arts, from the Diaghilev ballet exhibition it sponsored in the 1950,s to the photography prizes it bestows now, and Jane, though she may pretend otherwise, was taught at Guildford that photographs had more than commercial worth. It is also a family paper, not in the bland sense that its content is innocuous, but in the sense that its writers believe they are part of a family; Jane is a family person, a mother to three, grandmother to four.
Above all, in her unpretentious, pomposity-pricking photographs, taken in daylight, in a few minutes, without assistants, Jane Bown has managed to be what David Astor believed The Observer should always aim to be: an enemy of nonsense. In her unspoken mission of demystification, The Observer, down to its very name, has been her perfect accomplice.