Snowdon In Focus

The name conjures up royal weddings, tabloid headlines, a red-hot center of Swinging Sixties style. A new exhibition looks at the photographer and designer whose work is forever entwined with pop and circumstance.

When Snowdon: A Retrospective opens at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven on June 16, it will remind Americans of the remarkable photographic career of a figure best known to most people as the ex-husband of Princess Margaret. That is both unfortunate, given Snowdon's significant professional accomplishments, and inevitable, given that his 1960 marriage to the Queen of England's sister thrust him into the international limelight at the age of 30, on the brink of the decade that for the first time made photographers into superstars. Along with John and Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon were among the iconic glamour couples of the sixties, and try as he might to efface that primary identification, he never will.

Apart from his first marriage and even his photography, Snowdon is a signal cultural figure of his times: a multitalented architectural designer, documentary filmmaker, product designer, reformer of royal pageantry, advocate for the disabled, stage designer, arts administrator and educator. For all that, he embodies the self-deprecating British manner that makes all achievements seem like some happy accident. "I'd always done different things," he says of his impressively varied résumé. "I love changing, although I'm not much good at anything."

At age 71, the chestnut-haired Snowdon still looks remarkably youthful, save for the trouble he now has in getting around. Several years ago he suffered a not uncommon late-life recurrence of polio, and he needs the help of a walking stick, a handsome circular-handled, laminated-wood one of his own design. "I think he's in quite a lot of pain all the time," says Nicholas Haslam, the London interior decorator who's known him for almost 50 years and also contracted the disease as a young man. But Snowdon's manner remains indomitably cheery, and when he unfurls his fabled charm, as he did when I visited him at his London home, he is irresistibly engaging.

A famous mimic, Snowdon in the course of our conversation delivered devastatingly on-target impressions of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, John Gielgud, David Bailey, Tatiana Liberman, Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton's mother, a Vogue editor, and the Cockney ringleader of a London theater claque. But forget about imitations of the eminently lampoonable royal family. As a precondition to this interview, Snowdon refused to speak about them or other aspects of his rather untidy private life. "I've never said anything about Princess Margaret except how wonderful she is," he emphasized, countering tabloid stories after her recent stroke. "There's no one better."

Wearing a heavy denim Gap shirt, navy cardigan, black jeans, black running shoes, and hot-pink socks, he came down the spiral staircase of his delightful Regency house in the Kensington section of London with difficulty. Moving into his ground-floor studio, he sat in front of his desk, dense with family photos and looking out on his tiny formal garden, which includes a bust of Michelangelo's David and a small Gothic gazebo he designed. For someone who cultivated the role of contemporary iconoclast during London's Swinging Sixties, this deeply traditional setting is surprising, but he quickly admits, "I would hate to live in a modern house."

"I'm a miserable photographer," Snowdon recently told Der Spiegel, but he doesn't think much of photography as a high medium either, though he greatly admires the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn. "I think it's all absolute nonsense how people talk about photography as being an art," he insists. "It's a very menial career that you do if you draw badly. Now they teach it at the Royal College of Art and get grand about it. It's the only course there that I don't understand."

Though Snowdon's self-criticism is wide of the mark, his output is indeed uneven, as demonstrated by the new exhibition and its companion volume, Photographs by Snowdon: A Retrospective (Abrams). His photos are at their worst when they're most contrived, such as the alfresco family group he did of the Prince and Princess of Wales and their sons in 1991, a year before the couple separated. Stiffly posed and propped to death with a picnic hamper, blanket, garden furniture, and a horse, the tableau resembles a bad Ralph Lauren ad. (Infinitely better is his spontaneous shot of a luminous Diana taken that same year.) A portrait of Georg Baselitz also features the painter's grown son, who bares his backside within a gilded picture frame. And Snowdon's setup of fashion designer Helmut Joop clutching a mannequin torso while sunning himself in Monte Carlo is a strained hybrid of Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton.

But in certain genres Snowdon shines. His photojournalistic work of the fifties holds up well today, especially his rapturous wedding snap of Leslie Caron and Peter Hall. He is exceptionally good with old women, as in his sympathetic portraits of the piercingly blue-eyed Agatha Christie, the elfin art potter Lucie Rie, and the 97-year-old Queen Mother, who positively twinkles in a simple blue coat and unexpected slouch hat. Snowdon's sensitive 1968 TV documentary Don't Count the Candles, on the loneliness of old age, won Emmys for him and his collaborator, Derek Hart. (With typical irreverence, Snowdon spray-painted his award black because he thought it looked better that way.)

Having been brought up watching ballet by his uncle Oliver Messel, Snowdon is a superb dance photographer. His memorable series of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev's 1965 Swan Lake in Vienna perfectly captures the evanescent magic of that incomparable pairing, and his thrilling shot down from the fly as the stars flee their curtain call to the applause of the corps de ballet is worthy of Degas. "It was Rudolf and Margot together who really rejuvenated the whole of the ballet," he says. "Rudolf was wildly, physically, sexually attractive to both men and women, and that widened out the audiences. He was wonderful but very wicked, in a harmless way."

Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones was born in 1930 to the Welsh barrister (and later King's Counsel) Ronald Armstrong-Jones and Anne Messel, daughter of a rich stockbroker and considered one of the great beauties of her generation. Along with her striking looks and fortune, Anne brought dominant artistic genes to the marriage. Her maternal grandfather was the celebrated Punch political cartoonist Linley Sambourne, whose daughter Maud was also a gifted artist. The Armstrong-Joneses, according to Harold Brooks-Baker, the publishing director of Burke's Peerage, were "a very conventional upper-middle-class family. But Snowdon's real strength comes through the Jewish side of his family, the Messels."

Alfred Messel was Anne's great-uncle, the early-modern German architect who designed some of the most important buildings in turn-of-the-century Berlin. Her brother Oliver was one of the most sought-after designers for the stage, screen, opera, and ballet from the 1920s onward, as well as an interior decorator and architect of neoclassical houses in the Caribbean, including Princess Margaret's on Mustique. Snowdon holds twice-yearly luncheons in the Messel Suite at London's Dorchester Hotel, decorated by his uncle in a fanciful neo-rococo style, entertaining an eclectic roster of friends ranging from the Queen Mother to John Galliano to Dame Judi Dench to Eric Clapton. "I adored him," says Snowdon of Messel. "The most marvelous man. He never got a color wrong."

When Tony was age five his parents divorced, and each quickly remarried--she to the Anglo-Irish Earl of Rosse, he to an Australian actress and then a British stewardess. (Interestingly, Snowdon, his mother, and his only sibling, Susan—who died of cancer a decade ago—all wed people with titles.) At 13, Tony was sent to his father's old school, Eton. While there he was stricken with polio, and went to recuperate for a year in Liverpool, not far from the Armstrong-Jones family home in Wales. The illness had a devastating effect on the adolescent, leaving one leg an inch shorter than the other and a limp that he artfully managed to hide with a bouncy gait.

In 1949, Snowdon entered Jesus College, Cambridge, to study architecture. Because of his disability and slight build (he is just five feet three) he became the coxswain of the Cambridge crew, leading it to victory in the annual race against Oxford in 1950. But his academic work didn't go nearly as well, and after failing his exams he left the university to begin an apprenticeship with the London society photographer Baron, a carousing chum of Prince Philip's. "I loved the gadgetry," recalls Snowdon of his new career. "I wasn't particularly interested in taking photographs. I liked all the cheating, the things that go on in the darkroom."

He got work on fashion and theatrical shoots, and, after doing portraits of some lesser members of the Windsor family, met Princess Margaret at a small dinner party given by their mutual friend Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, who thought he might appeal to her royal guest. The enterprising and ambitious Armstrong-Jones soon dumped his girlfriend, Jacqui Chan, a model and dancer, and began to court the headstrong princess, who was titillated by his bohemian way of life and by their secret trysts at the East End Thames-front flat he rented for that purpose.

According to Margaret herself, she accepted Snowdon's proposal of marriage on the rebound, the very day she heard from her former lover, Peter Townsend, that he intended to marry another. The royal news took the world by surprise, London insiders not least of all, "because no one believed he was interested in women," as the princess vindictively remarked years later. Shortly before the engagement was announced, the decorator David Hicks told his friend Tony about his own impending betrothal, to Lady Pamela Mountbatten, a cousin of Prince Philip's. "I'm having a rather grand marriage," Hicks confided, to which the ever competitive Armstrong-Jones coolly replied, "I don't call that grand."

Months later—in May 1960—the most glittering royal occasion since the coronation in 1953 united the princess and the photographer in a Westminster Abbey wedding. When Princess Margaret became pregnant with their first child, he agreed to accept the title Earl of Snowdon—a name he chose in honor of Wales' highest peak. He did so to give their children—David, Viscount Linley (now a fashionable furniture designer), and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones (now an artist who shows at London's Redfern Gallery)—titles befitting their royal lineage. Wags claimed the earldom was bestowed for Snowdon's "services to the nation" in marrying the impossibly difficult Margaret.

As many predicted, including Snowdon's father and several of his closest friends, there was trouble almost from the start. Spoiled, imperious, and capricious, Princess Margaret did not defer to her husband at home in the way that Queen Elizabeth successfully does with Prince Philip.

"Tony went through a terrible time during the period immediately after the marriage," a friend reported, pointing out the princess's indifference to Snowdon's work schedule, worsened by the convention that no one may leave a party before a member of the royal family. "Margaret insisted on staying up until two or three a.m., and there was nothing he could do about it. She very much had the upper hand."

What work was left open to Snowdon was a matter of contention. He accompanied Princess Margaret on her official duties—the couple bestowed independence on Jamaica in 1962, for instance—and his photography career dwindled. Cecil Beaton, who had feared that his own lucrative line in royal portraiture would be cut off by Lord Snowdon, cooed to Princess Margaret, as Snowdon now reports, " 'Thank you, Ma'am, for removing my chief rival.' " With a smile Snowdon adds, "He thought he'd got rid of me.

"They wanted me to have a safe job," he continues, referring to palace insiders who feared the taint of commercialism, and so he served on the worthy Council of Industrial Design. Starting in 1961, he devoted much of his time to collaborating with the architect Cedric Price and the engineer Frank Newby on the design of a boldly modern aviary for the London Zoo. That angular steel-and-mesh structure is now listed as a Grade II landmark, though Snowdon demurs, "I'm a failed architect."

Named constable of Caernarvon Castle in Wales by the queen, Snowdon was asked to design the rites held there for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969, a rare attempt at recasting royal ceremony in purely contemporary terms. Working with a budget of only 50,000 pounds, Snowdon art-directed a telegenic spectacle focused around a see-through plastic canopy emblazoned with the Prince of Wales' plumes and set above a Welsh slate circle—at the center of which stood severe slate thrones for the queen, her husband, and her heir. Red-stained laminated wood chairs bearing the Wales insignia were also used, and guests could purchase them as souvenirs for a mere 12 pounds.

Clichés such as red carpets and gilding were rigorously banned, to the opposition of traditional courtiers like the Garter King of Arms, whom Snowdon recalls as "an awful twerp." He remembers one fraught planning session at which he exploded, "Oh, Garter darling, can't you be a little more elastic?" The investiture turned out to be a notable success in bringing the crown into the Age of the Beatles, with the exception of the constable's own uniform, which he also designed: a turtlenecked, forest-green velvet jumpsuit that critics likened to the costume of a camp Robin Hood.

During the next few years, Snow-don reestablished his professional footing as a photographer, but his private life fell into disarray. The failure of the marriage between Snowdon and Princess Margaret stemmed—more than anything else—from the couple being an attraction of similars, not opposites.

"The thing is, they were too alike, and that's why it never worked," says Nicholas Haslam, a longtime confidant of Margaret's. "They were the same person, basically."

Not only did they resemble each other—diminutive stature, high-set eyes, retroussé nose, wide mouth—but their shared volatility and willfulness made for a combustible match, sometimes literally.

As their marriage deteriorated, the princess and her earl became notorious for their public fights. One London social figure recalls, "We were all at a party when they arrived and it was obvious that they'd had a terrible row, electrically horrible. Tony started lighting kitchen matches and throwing them around the room, and one of them landed on Princess Margaret's dress. And she said, 'Tony how could you do that? It could have set my dress on fire.' And he said, 'A good thing too. I've always hated that material.' And she said, 'We call it stuff,' putting him in his class."

All the while there were mutual infidelities, sometimes quite flagrant. But when photographs were published of Margaret on holiday with her young boyfriend, Roddy Llewellyn, her husband seized the moment to press for divorce as the injured party. As the princess later groused, "Lord Snowdon was devilish cunning."

Since their divorce, in 1978, Snowdon has maintained cordial relations with the royal family, continuing to photograph them and being included in ceremonial occasions, much to the chagrin of his ex-wife, who feels her relatives have never seen the nasty side of him that she has. For example, according to royal biographer Sarah Bradford, during the drawn-out demise of the Snowdons' marriage, he left a note for her in a drawer that said, "You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you," an odd characterization from someone with Jewish ancestors. As Haslam points out, "The cruel side of Tony is something absolutely astonishing. But then he can be incredibly charming. He's like Princess Margaret, the girl with a curl—when she is good she is very, very good, but when she is bad she is horrid.

"The royal family loves him," continues Haslam, "except for Prince Philip. The Queen Mother certainly does. And it has galled Princess Margaret." According to Harold Brooks-Baker, Snowdon won particular admiration from the royal family after the breakup with Margaret: "He has handled himself with such elegance and dignity. In the old days he would have been severely criticized for his illegitimate child, but he can do no wrong. In a way, Snowdon's been treated like a much-respected ex-mistress."

Playing down the Windsor brand definitely helped Snowdon in the royal family's eyes. As the London modern-art dealer Leslie Waddington (whom Snowdon photographed for Private View, his 1965 book on the art world) points out, "He's never used his royal connection to advance himself, even when he was married to Princess Margaret, which is very impressive. I only wish that the rest of the royal family's manners were as good as his." Of course, Snowdon had no need to trumpet his well-known link to the crown, and the high-paying commercial work that almost all art photographers do but very few admit to flowed in nonetheless. "The jobs that he got by the hundreds," states Brooks-Baker, "came through that connection, just as Lord Lichfield's come through his relationship to the Queen Mother, who's his great-aunt."

Soon after the divorce, Snowdon married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, a production assistant on one of his documentaries; seven months later their daughter, Lady Frances Armstrong-Jones (now an aspiring photographer), was born. But old patterns eventually reasserted themselves. Perhaps to reconfirm his élan vital as he approached 70, Snowdon two years ago fathered a son, Jasper, by Melanie Cable-Alexander, an editor at Country Life magazine. This precipitated a separation between the Snowdons, and once his second wife learned that he was still seeing the mother of the child, she sued for divorce, which was granted last year. "He just uses people, terribly, terribly," says a friend. "I saw the end of his marriage to that darling Lucy, who's a great person. I think she would have liked not to have gotten divorced. She had sort of learned to stand the pain."

Despite his own physical pain, Snowdon has pushed himself to do good for the cause of the disabled—designing several innovative wheelchairs and traveling to Angola two years ago to photograph polio victims. In 1980, he instituted the Lord Snowdon Award, funded by a trust set up with proceeds from his royal photo shoots, giving grants-in-aid to handicapped students. And he's used his seat in the upper chamber of Parliament to promote greater awareness of the difficulties the disabled face in daily life.

During the reform of the House of Lords in 1999, Snowdon caused consternation in Labour Party circles by accepting a life peerage, which was extended as a courtesy to peers of the first creation (the initial recipients of a hereditary title, often former prime ministers and other high officials). It was expected that Lord Snowdon would politely decline, as the members of the royal family had done. "I didn't know whether to accept it, but then they said it would be rude not to," explains Snowdon, referring to the queen and her prime minister. And when he speaks in the House of Lords, he says, "it's always about the problems of disability. It can be a catalyst. British Rail today still makes people in wheelchairs travel in the luggage carriage, with no heat, no light, and no attendant. And it's absolutely outrageous."

This is a vintage Snowdon mix of disingenuousness and earnestness: not wanting to reject the highest honors of the realm, but using them for purposes quite different from those of the craven social climber. Complex and contradictory, Snowdon is an emblematic transitional figure between the rigid social order of the Empire of his youth and the freewheeling multiculturalism of today's Cool Britannia.

"It always happened by chance, one thing led to another," Lord Snowdon says of his rather remarkable career. "The rules were much stricter then, because now you can cross the line," he adds, not acknowledging that he has been among the more notable movers of that boundary.

"Snowdon: A Retrospective" opens at the Yale Center for British Art (its only U.S. venue) on June 16 and runs through September 2. The exhibition catalogue, published by Abrams, is available for $75. 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-432-2800; www.yale.edu/ycba.

Martin Filler has written on photography for The New York Times and Vanity Fair.