Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Ms Welch and Mr Chips

Thanks again to Mrs Trefusis for a fabulous exhibition recommendation (Beauty Through A Lens). This lady's intimate knowledge on all things to do and see in London is too enviable, but equally she removes all the hard work for the philistines, such as myself. 

It is a wonderful exhibition of the work of Terry O'Neill, one of Britain’s most popular photographers at the Chris Beetles Art Gallery in St James's. Some of the images are quite breathtaking, such is their intimacy.

I was also rather struck by how very seamlessly the subjects would fit into a modern context of fashion and beauty. Such people are so extraordinary timeless, the magic translates across the decades, the generations. Or perhaps it is cyclical? To me, the people in the photographs could not merely be limited to the London of yesteryear, but could be quite easily seen promenading the streets of my London.

O'Neill is a wonderful photographer because he truly knew his subjects. As such, he had no trouble capturing that very human sense of vulnerability. Something so intimate could only be offered to a friend.

One such human was Raquel Welch. At one point she was the most famous and desired woman on the planet, but it was only at home that I was treated to a lovely tale featuring Ms Welch. (Such an hilarious name, it reminds me of Wellington boots.) My friend's grandfather spent a long time as headmaster of one of England's public boys' schools, Sherborne. During his leadership, the musical film Goodbye, Mr Chips, starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clarke was filmed at Sherborne. As headmaster, he was quite involved with the production and often O'Toole would join him for lunch.

The American production team decided to ship the headmaster and his wife to America to help with promoting the film. His role I presume, was to be the stereotypical Englishman that Americans would consider quaint and charming and therefore spend money at the cinema on the film. While not so commercially successful, the film was nominated for Academy Awards and O'Toole won the Golden Globe that year (1970) for his role. It is the Academy Awards that brings me to Ms Welch. This wonderfully innocent and very English headmaster was sat right next to this American deity. Naturally, he had absolutely no idea who the woman to his right was. The photographs show him animatedly discussing something, which my friend tells me was most like something meta-philosophical or some such thing. Despite much of the world's press snapping away at them, he seems oblivious. And Raquel, for her part, seems genuinely interested. Perhaps for the first time in years, somebody was speaking to her without any idea - nor care - of who she was. And about something other than her films, or Hollywood in general. I rather love this.

Breaths of fresh air, physical and metaphorical can be wonderful. They energise with vigour and give us the impetus to carry on, somehow renewed. Both the film Goodbye, Mr Chips and the photographer Terry O'Neill reward us with such a feeling, so go; do!

Images: copyright Terry O'Neill.


  1. Thanks both to you and to Mrs T for heads-up. I am, as am sure many of us are, fascinated by a kaleidoscopic view of celebrity through a lens. Fantastic, as always xx

  2. I like so much your view of how art lifts us--its freshness! Surprises do too, like the English schoolmaster oblivious of Raquel Welch's fame. If he noticed her stupendous body and dramatic face, I suspect he pretended he did not.

  3. I just love the thought of some eccentric old man chatting to an incredibly glamorous woman. I rather think that as he was happily married, and so of course her body and face would have been of little consequence. Though it is Raquel...