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An interview with Lord Snowdon from the BJP archives

Marlene Dietrich, Cafe de Paris, shot by Lord Snowdon in the early 1950s and described by him as his "first important sitting" in this 1983 interview with BJP © Snowdon Archive

Antony Armstrong-Jones passed away on 13 January; to celebrate his life, we're posting an interview with him first published by BJP in September 1983

In the summer of 1943 a small boy, with more enthusiasm for hobbies than for lessons, left Sandroyd Prep School. The Headmaster’s report read: “[Antony] Armstrong-Jones may be good at something but it’s nothing we teach here.”

Now, 40 years on, it is still fascinating to see the fulfilment of this…prediction. Boyish enthusiasm lives on in a healthy freckled complexion, pale blue eyes and a steady white smile. Dressed for the summer in beige cotton trousers and matching open-necked shirt, Lord Snowdon seemed to have weathered two decades of public life quite well.

“I’m trying to do twenty things at once,” he says, but settles in his swivel chair to be helpful and affable for as long as required. Sunlight filtered in through the blinds of his glass-roofed studio. Breeze and birdsong wafted in through a window which opened on to a walled garden. Only the muted hum of traffic from nearby Gloucester Road spoilt the illusion of being in an elegant country retreat.

Could Lord Snowdon pinpoint the time when he first took interest in photography? “When I was seven or eight. I was working for my uncle Oliver Messel, the stage designer. I think I started with a Box Brownie, most people do, don’t they? But photography came second. I was never going to be a photographer.”

Did the photography continue at Eton? “Oh yes. I re-started the photographic society there. We had three members and worked in a room which was all of four feet square, this was in a chemist’s in Windsor High Street. Photographic paper was very scarce during wartime, and, strangely enough, we bought it from a jeweller’s.

“What I liked most about Eton was having my own room: the opportunity to be private. The room was full of silly gadgets which [I had] just for the fun of it….After a year’s illness I built a crystal set inside a walking stick. The aerial went up the sleeve and into my top hat where I could listen to the Home Service.”

In 1948 Armstrong-Jones went to Cambridge to read natural sciences; this lasted ten days. He tried architecture but that too was not for him, so after failing his exams he left. Later, when he decided to be a professional photographer, his father paid Baron, the famous society photographer, £100 to take him on for a three-year apprenticeship.