A Hundred Different Lives: The Extraordinary Life of Philip Townsend
20.03.15 / Words: Kieran Morris / Images: Phil Townsend
I thought this piece would write itself. When I was first told I’d be interviewing Philip Townsend, it was under the instruction of cultivating a simple, cut-and-shut piece on a man who hung out with rockstars in the 1960s.
It’d be conventional, it’d be entertaining, I could get an angle on it. We could spend an hour or so, chatting about sex, Soho and the Stones, then I’d whack up a neat little article on ‘Mister Sixties’ – indeed, that was the title I had in mind as I left for the interview. Alas, nothing’s ever that easy. Nothing good is ever that straightforward, and within five minutes of this interview, I was very much aware that my notes would have to be discarded. Philip Townsend was more than a mere photographer.
You may not have heard of Philip Townsend before now, so allow me to give you a potted summary.In a career spanning only ten years from 1960 to 1970, he was a man almost unwittingly at the height of the cultural epoch. He was a tabloid journalist for Tatler and the Daily Express, a freelance fashion photographer, and the first band photographer of the Rolling Stones.
To this day, he still prides himself on being “the only photographer the Stones still get on with”.
But despite his associations, he was not a rock photographer. Despite his schooling, he was no academic. Despite his legendary status, he did not manoeuvre his way to the top. Every preconception I had for the interview, he quickly and effortlessly dispelled without a care for how I’d write this thing. He’d diced with mobsters, media magnates, politicians, models, actors, rockstars, debutantes; you name it, he’d experienced it. This was a man of a hundred different lives.
I met Philip in his bijou gallery in Hampstead on a beautiful early-Autumn afternoon. He was incredibly tall, but advanced in his age and quite frail. We were sat slap bang in the middle of this space that was around the size of a small back room, with two chairs and a makeshift pedestal for the tape recorder.
He was exceedingly posh in a way you wouldn’t think still existed, but his stories still radiated with vim and vigour.
After a few standard-issue pleasantries, we settled in and started talking about his youth…
Phil Townend: I had a mad mother. In 1931 she inherited a large fortune from her family running Cobbold’s, a brewery in Suffolk. Essentially they’d run out of male heirs and so they decided to give her a few million pounds as the next in line.
From then on in, she set about trying to spend as much of it as possible - through gambling. In fact she moved me around schools, to twenty-seven different schools, so that she could go to the discretionary trust asking for money for my school, when in truth she would spend it in the casinos. On days she’d ring them up and say “I’m afraid my Philip is terribly sick, could I have a few pounds to take him to Monte Carlo?” and they’d hand her five-hundred-pound, and we’d set off in the Standard Eight. Of course, cars were nearly impossible to get back in those days, so she lied and said she was a doctor just so she could have one.
Kieran Morris: “And so you’d just head out there with her?”
PT: “Yes, and if she was winning we’d stay in The Hermitage – not the Hotel de Paris because that was frightfully expensive. But what you have to realise here is, I was going here when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, when I should’ve been going to school.
As a result I couldn’t read until I was fifteen.
But even before we started going across Europe to the different casinos, she would bring me over to Ireland with her so that she could gamble with the priests. They would try their best to ply her with gin and tonic to knock her off her stride, but she’d always pass them straight down to me to pour into a plant-pot, whilst continuing to take all their money off them.
Her favourite casino, however, was Esmeralda’s Barn in Knightsbridge, which she said was owned by “a terribly nice couple of brothers”, who were in fact The Krays. She was even so pally with Ronnie and Reggie that they asked her if she’d like to be Secretary of the club – because of course they couldn’t hold anything in their own name. She declined, but pulled some strings to get a bent peer to do it instead. I remember when the Barn was raided, and she said to me,
“Oh, that is a shame. They were terribly nice gentlemen. Tell me, Philip, hand on heart, are Ronnie and Reggie really crooks?”
KM: “Did these trips together bring you closer to her?”
PT: “Well, not really. She had six children, to which I was the youngest, and my brothers had gone into the army and won the Military Cross and so on and so forth, and so they had very much excelled.
But she didn’t want to let go of me in her later years, because I was her last remaining contact with ‘the good life’, as it were, as my career started to take off. She was a careful gambler, with her own sort of nonsense systems in place for each game, and so the casinos didn’t like her. But still, she lost most of the money. She’d bet on two flies climbing up the wall.”
After an unconventional start in academia, it was time for Phil to find something to do with his life. Photography wasn’t an automatic choice…
PT: “So I’d gone to twenty-seven schools, I couldn’t read, and so my mother decided to send me to Bournemouth Art School. Indeed a few years ago, they made me a fellow of the school, and I felt obliged to tell the headmaster that I’d been thrown out.
I quickly found out that I couldn’t draw, and so I fell into photography.
I knew I couldn’t get a degree, because obviously I had little in the way of reading and writing ability, so my mother said it would be best if I got a job as a photographer’s apprentice. Lo and behold, she read an ad in The Times saying ‘Society Photographer Requires Apprentice - £500’, and I began working for a woman named Pamela Chandler – who was terrible, and yet the woman who I learned my trade from.
In another casino on Shaftesbury Avenue called the Golden Nugget, my mother got speaking to another woman whose niece was Muriel Bowing, Social Editor of Tatler, and so she arranged for me to speak to her. I rang, expecting to arrange a meeting for months in advance, only for her to say “Thank god you’ve called! I’m leaving to cover who’s who on the Riviera and I need a photographer.” And that afternoon I was in Monte Carlo, without the slightest idea of what to do.
Essentially I was told to just go out on the beach and find someone famous.”
Exotic travel has been a highly enjoyable yet standard part of Townsend’s life. The trip to Monte Carlo was one of his most fruitful, however, as his path would cross with Andrew Loog Oldham (the first manager of the Rolling Stones).
PT: “I was sat in this café in Monte Carlo chatting to a friend, when this man strolls in wearing riding breeches and holding a horsewhip – for some reason or other. I got speaking to him, and he told me that he was wearing the breeches so he could hitchhike across the south of France pretending to be a rider who had lost his horse. He was completely mad. He told me he was heading back to England because Rock ‘n’ Roll was going to be the new big thing. I said “Rock ‘n’ Roll, what the bloody hell is that?”
He said he was going to head home and find a band and turn them into the greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band in the world, to which we agreed platitudinously, nodding along.
He said we must keep in touch, and so we did, going out a few times, pulling a couple of scams here and there.
After one time, he said to me that he’d seen a band called The Rolling Stones play Eel Pie Island, and that he had to sign them at all costs.
Apparently, that Monday they were going to sign with Giorgio Gomelsky (manager of the Crawdaddy Club where the Stones were house band) but he had gone to his mother’s funeral in Paris and would only be returning on the Monday morning. In that time, Andrew managed to meet with the band, draw up a contract and have them signed by Sunday evening.”
A chance encounter would lead to an inevitable meeting with Mick and co.
PT: “Andrew contacted me saying that the band needed a photographer, and so he brought me in. I went up to their flat on Highfield Road in Golders Green on the Friday, where Keith and Brian lived, and put them in my Ford Capri MK One to drive around finding places to photograph them. I was about to set off before Mick said “We’re not going anywhere until I’ve had some chicken. We’ve got no money, we’ve had very little to eat, will you buy us a chicken?” and indeed I did. I bought them two whole chickens from the rotisserie to share between them.”
KM: “What were your first impressions of meeting the group?”
PT: “Well I just walked in, and they were still only just waking up, and on the side table I saw a note that said ‘Well done boys! You’ve got into the top fifty before us. You’re at forty-eight, we’re at forty-nine, but we’ll beat you in the end. Love, The Beatles’.
On a personal level, they were making use of me, since I was the only person they knew with a car, and when they did their first TV show in Birmingham, Mick and Keith refused to go in the van, and so they drove there with me.
I remember Andrew saying that they had no money, and so they couldn’t pay me, but because they were going to be the greatest band in the world, I could keep the copyright on the photos and make money that way. As it turns out, he was right.”
Townsend naturally became pals with The Stones, and would tour with them extensively.
PT: “I went on their first UK tour, which was a mini-tour, and oddly enough, Rolf Harris was their warm-up guy. I remember once, he came up to me and said “You’re very tall, aren’t you?”, six-foot-five, you see, and he said “would you be kind enough to have your photo taken with me?” And so you’ll find that photo somewhere, of me and the young Rolf Harris.”
KM: “How were they backstage with each other?”
20- PT: “Well by that time, they’d already started taking the piss out of Brian Jones. I’ve always said that it took them five years to get rid of him, and he did it himself in the end. I got plenty of pictures of Keith backstage, but the rest were too busy stuffing their faces at the service trollies.”
The professional rivalry between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones is well documented. At the height of their success, Philip was in a good position to appraise the individual merits of the two, and would go on to photograph The Beatles first meeting with the Maharishi.
PT: “By this time I was fairly well-known, and had photographed the Beatles a few times – they were nothing special. But I was contacted by their PR guy who told me that they were about to meet the Maharishi in London, and asked whether or not I would be interested in the shoot.
I said yes, and so I turned up to this multi-million pound house, walked through to find the place completely empty. The only distinguishable feature was the lingering smell of incense, otherwise it was very much uninhabited.
This was all, until I saw a crack of light from beneath one of the doors, to which I opened to find The Beatles, and their girlfriends, and the Maharishi, sat on the floor in silence.
I took all the pictures I could. In fact, there’s a brilliant one of Lennon sat on the floor, eating a flower that he’d bought for the Maharishi. I thought they were going to throw me out but they didn’t, and so I took as many shots as possible.
The Beatles were difficult, though. They kept themselves to themselves, and were very much their own group. That shared background and shared environment, all being from Liverpool, meant that they were quite close-knit. Not like the Stones, they all hated each other. They still do.
When Andrew Loog Oldham got them writing songs, because he knew that’s where the real money was, Brian Jones came forward and said “I should be writing the songs because I can read music”. When Andrew brought in Gene Pitney to teach Mick and Keith how to write songs, Brian threw a tantrum and demanded that Pitney should teach him also. After three days of teaching, Mick and Keith came up with three songs, and Brian came up with none. No one liked Brian Jones.”
After music and the headiness of the Sixties, life had more interesting turns for the much-sought-after-snapper, who had aspirations aside from photography.
PT: “I’ve photographed many Prime Ministers: Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, so on and so forth, and they’re all quite funny. They get very nervous. They’re not like the musicians who’ve had their photo taken a thousand times. So they’re always incredibly cagey, incredibly shy. For the power they hold, they’re often quite shy.
From 1970, I packed in photography and went sort of delving into other careers. Bits of journalism here and there, just tabloid stuff for the Daily Express.
I was Rupert Murdoch’s butler, actually. For five years, my wife was his cook, and she can’t even cook, and I was his butler.
I know everything about Rupert Murdoch, everything. Here’s a story actually:
Anne Diamond had gone up to Murdoch at a party for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of The Times, and said “Mr Murdoch, do you enjoy destroying people’s lives?” to which he said “I don’t, they destroy their own lives”. And for the next few months, any time his editors came to him, he would say “I am very angry with Anne Diamond”, and they had free rein to go to town on her.
Murdoch once said that I was a very strange bird, but I kept the flat tidy, although I’d say we were a lot closer than that, especially after five years. I remember him saying to me one time: “The problem with me, Philip, is that I lack confidence”. Would you believe that?”
I wrapped up the interview, head scrambled about how to write it all out.
Here was a man whose childhood was lifted from a picaresque novel, career from a Hollywood film, and adulthood from the backend of Private Eye.
There is no doubting he was ‘Mister Sixties’ – just one look at his collection proves beyond doubt that he captured the era – but it would be daft to limit him to one decade when he was so prominent in so many, skulking in the back, yet first on the scene.
Time and time again, he seems to have found himself in the right place at the right time, being at the centre of events, not imposing or altering, but noting and observing.
He has done it all, and lived a hundred lifetimes, seeing things we’ll never see again, save for the images he took when he was there.
When I was leaving the gallery, the curator was commenting on some photos he had taken of her for her website. “Philip, these are amazing” she said, “How do you still do it?”
“I don’t know!”
You can see the work of Philip Townsend exclusively through Gabrielle du Plooy at www.zebraonegallery.com
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