Patrick Lichfield: His work, his life, his legacy
Although Patrick Lichfield didn’t think too much of his own abilities, his photographs tell another story. They are pristine, crystal clear moments that echo pages and people out of history, and no matter what he thought of himself, it is impossible to argue with his immense legacy and the vast body of work that he leaves behind.
"I am happier taking photos than doing anything else in life." -- Thomas Patrick John Anson, 5th Earl of Lichfield
Good photography is art, and I’ve always thought so. As a writer who has always strenuously objected to the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ thing, I have, nevertheless, also embraced the quote, especially over the last two decades or so, as photography has become more of a passion. My grandfather bought me my first serious camera when I was sixteen years old, and I’ve never looked back. I love playing with shades and light and capturing images of things people may not necessarily notice or look at twice, but that excites my imagination.
Like me, the gift of a camera changed the course of Patrick Lichfield’s life. Born into British royalty, he was the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas William Arnold Anson, Viscount Anson (1913–1958), the eldest son and heir apparent of Thomas Edward Anson, 4th Earl of Lichfield (1883–1960). His mother was born Anne Bowes-Lyon (1917–1980), a niece of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother. His parents divorced in 1948, and his mother subsequently became Princess Anne of Denmark after her remarriage to Prince George Valdemar of Denmark in 1950. His mother’s position meant that he was the first cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II. His family were from the Midlands aristocracy.
Born Thomas Patrick John Anson, he was known as Patrick Lichfield in his professional life as a photographer. When he was packed off to prep school at the age of six, he was given a camera as a present. It is unknown as to what he thought of the camera as a boy, but it is clear that he used it a great deal as he was punished for once taking an informal picture of Princess Elizabeth (who was not yet the Queen) at a cricket match.
After having been educated at Harrow School, in Harrow and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he became the 5th Earl of Lichfield when his grandfather died in 1960, his father having died two years earlier. He joined the Grenadier Guards in 1959, and upon leaving the Army in 1962, he began to work as a photographer's assistant. This was much against the wishes of his parents who considered his career choice as similar to his going into trade. They reacted the only way they knew how and promptly suspended his allowance. Looking back at this period of his life, he later told an interviewer: "My parents opposed me becoming a photographer, but I think that was because they thought if I felt strongly enough to go against their wishes, I might have a chance of succeeding at what I did." He built up his reputation, although some claim that this is partly as a result of his having had access to the Royal Family.
Funnily enough, his aristocratic background may have originally hindered him. He was a chronicler of the swinging sixties, photographing images of the rich and famous and beautiful all over London. At the time, his two great competitors were Terence Donovan and David Bailey, who were proudly and resolutely working class. Eventually, however, Lichfield's connections opened doors to him easily because he was commissioned not just to take photographs of beautiful models but also his peers - the Royals and other aristocrats. He once said that he didn't really have an advantage because he had to photograph them “through the tradesmen’s entrance, just like everybody else”. Reminiscing about this in 1996, he told the Daily Telegraph, "I used to think the lot of photographers like Bailey, Donovan and Duffy was easier than mine. The heterosexual, cockney working-class lad was the image of the time, whereas the privileged toff as personified by Beaton had had its day. But the 1960s were good for the upper classes because the barriers were broken down for us as well and we all came into contact with people we wouldn't normally have met. My son won't meet any parental opposition on grounds of what he wants to do."
He was incredibly good-looking and glamorous himself, not just for the life he led and the people he met – models, actors, and debutantes. He partied with the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, who remained lifelong friends, and other stars and models. He was the official photographer at the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer; the photographs of the event are world famous and well known. He was also responsible for the candid relaxed photographs of the notoriously reclusive Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who he managed to capture relaxed, smiling portraits of. His relationship with the family as one of their own helped immensely, no doubt, but it was also his humanity, his ability to see and capture the human spirit. He would sometimes clown around to get the Royal family to relax and smile for the camera. Of the picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he said, "I was rescued by the fact that I fell through one of their chairs as I took the picture. As luck would have it, as I went down I managed to get one shot."
Lichfield, with his aristocratic good looks and his impeccable charm, was romantically linked to jet-set beauties such as Britt Ekland, Jane Seymour, Gayle Hunnicutt and Dewi Sukarno; his premarital manifesto concluded that “fidelity is not essential. I’m sure I shall never be completely faithful to one woman.” But all that changed when he was hired to photograph Leonora Grosvenor. She was an 18-year-old debutante and the daughter of the fifth Duke of Westminster, one of England’s wealthiest landlords, whose estate was estimated at $1 billion. Seven years later, Leonora was invited by Lichfield’s sister Elizabeth to spend the weekend at Shugborough, the family’s ancestral home which the bachelor lord used for hunting, fishing and trysting. Soon after that she and Patrick began dating, and during a 1974 photo assignment in Los Angeles, he impulsively flew to Hawaii, where Leonora was vacationing, just to see her.
According to People, “Having spent years dating women he describes as “eminently unsuitable as long-term partners,” it was for Patrick love at long last. “I had to ask myself why I did that in the midst of all those girls in California,” Lichfield says. “It could only be because this was the person I wanted to marry.” Not long after, he proposed in a noisy London restaurant. Leonora mistook his “Will you marry me?” for “Another cup of coffee?” and said, “No, thanks.” After realizing her mistake, she promptly corrected herself. Their wedding was limited to a mere 1,500 intimates including Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.”
Three children followed: Lady Rose Meriel Margaret Anson (27 July 1976), Thomas Anson, 6th Earl of Lichfield (19 July 1978), and Lady Eloise Anne Elizabeth Anson (1981). The young family split their time between their five-bedroom Eaton Square apartment in London, Patrick's ancestral home Shugborough, where they occupied 30 of the 94 rooms, their five-bedroom house in Mustique, the royal playland in the Caribbean and their lodge in Scotland. The marriage was a happy one, although Leonora struggled to adjust to Patrick’s restlessness and his energetic lifestyle; he was logging about 250,000 miles a year on assignments for clients like Burberry, Cathay Pacific Airways and Olympus Corporation, to name a few. Eventually, the marriage collapsed, after rumours of infidelity emerged, and Leonora left him, leaving him to deal with emotional upheaval and heartbreak for the first time in his life. "Until my marriage break-up I'd never had any form of emotional upset", he said, of the divorce. "I might have broken a few hearts, but my own was pretty much intact. That shows how spoiled I was."
Patrick threw himself into his work with renewed vigour; he was determined to make a name for himself. "My greatest thrill is that I am now shooting pictures for the British Tourist Board; at last something I am proud to identify with", he said, of a new assignment, before concluding wistfully that, "I'd like to be taken seriously before it's too late." He also wrote several books. At his holiday home on Mustique, he entertained friends such as Princess Margaret, the Jaggers, David Bowie and Raquel Welch. It was there that he sustained serious injuries in 1991 after falling 18 feet over a wall while helping a fellow guest to remove their boots. He survived this accident, although he died of a major stroke in 2005, passing away at the age of 66.
Although Patrick Lichfield didn’t think too much of his own abilities, his photographs tell another story. They are pristine, crystal clear moments that echo pages and people out of history, and no matter what he thought of himself, it is impossible to argue with his immense legacy and the vast body of work that he leaves behind. His home and estate have been taken over by the National Trust. Visitors to the UK’s only complete working historic estate can now tour his private apartments, which have been conserved, restored and filled with memorabilia relating to him and a photographic exhibition of his photographs featuring celebrities and royals pictured on the Shugborough Estate. His studio spaces have been recreated and his equipment is on display, and it is well worth a visit.