The mystery of Terence Donovan

Terence Donovan was a photographer who created the look of the 60s and then moved on. His legacy has been his wonderful portraits, faces of their time, and a mystery that even his wife, Diana, has not solved, as she reveals in her first interview since his death four years ago

The 60s were not all they are cracked up to be. It was just that things looked different. And the look was invented, as it usually is, by the fashion trade, the print media, by models and those who style and photograph them, but dictated by money and whose pockets the money is in.

Mid-20th-century man was either poor or he had a tailor. Model-man was Nigel on the knitting pattern, captured by the potting shed with his teeth clenched, his sartorial splendour dependent on his old mum's willingness to buy wool and have a stab at Fair Isle. His female equivalent, known as the mannequin, was a lady of indeterminate age and equine physicality, a highly cosmeticised parody of the sort of middle-class, middle-aged married woman thought to have the wherewithal to purchase cocktail frocks by the score.

As the second half of the century shifted, as it were, its gear, we miraculously became young. The Pill, the proliferation of specialised further education and the erosion of class barriers produced a new generation of wage earners, which meant the young were now a market force. As though by imaginative design, the natural gawkiness of extreme youth replaced Nigel and his lady as an idealistic frame for the display of consumer goods. A new breed of iconographer emerged, superseding the elitist gentleman-portraitists of high-societal aspiration; working-class boys who could see in the darkroom, talked all any'ow, drove flash motors and used their cameras like penis extensions.

What they produced was heady, sexy stuff, technically flawless and as limitlessly promising as the midnight chimes of Hogmanay. Glossy magazines became biblical in terms of the compulsion of their imagery and influence. The young believed in what they saw, as though they were looking into a mirror and recognised themselves as both real and invincible. It was no longer inevitable that they would replicate their parents in form or in content. They made the rules. They also made what the media were pleased to call the generation gap. They were on their own. And at the epicentre of their quasi- revolution were three photographers, David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, a sort of holy trinity of modernity, unchallenged arbiters of all that is true and beautiful.

The problem for those who innovate at sub-culture level, who literally make things look different, is that they tend to get impaled on their own cutting edge, enshrined for future decades in the awesome reputation of the cult they subscribed to. If you imply revolution, show that something that seemed to be indelible is washed out and something else has been born, you set a date for yourself and others. The higher you hoist your petard, the more unequivocal its salute, the quicker the imitators move in to date you. That is the nature of sub-culture. Bailey knew this, hung on and survived. Duffy knew it, fancied he heard the muffled march of the philistines coming to trample him and buggered off to pastures new before they came anywhere near. Donovan knew it and railed against it till the day he died. "These are the 90s?" he'd roar at anyone remarking upon the celebrity of his youth. "That was then, this is now."

It is questionable that he would have much relished the resurgences of his work in exhibitions and coffee-table collections since his death four years ago, all of which somehow serve to increase rather than mute the enigma of his personality. His widow Diana, his colleagues and their friends have collaborated to produce these memorials as though they themselves were looking for a better understanding of the man himself.

The morning after his death was announced, with the chilling undertow of its self-infliction, five men counting themselves as members of his most intimate circle telephoned each other in utter consternation. Anyone else, they said one to another, one times five and five times one, anyone else but Donovan. They'd have understood if it'd been a man with observable volatility. Just not Donovan. Not in a thousand years. He was too controlled, too balanced, too centred in his own skin, too philosophical, the very obverse of a suicide. They say so to this day. The more astute of them conclude that, perhaps, he was simply unknowable, that the sweet, equable, funny, generous, diligent, well-mannered Terry they knew merely chose consciously to guard his private self from all-comers. There was nothing they could have done

Diana Donovan prefers not to dwell on the circumstances of her husband's death. To this effect she raises a slender white hand, palm outwards, and affirms, in a curiously well-bred version of the Jerry Springer show vernacular, that she will not go there. Suffice it to say that one day she wandered into his studio and found him casually perusing colour transparencies and muttering "every one a Bruegel" as he dropped them in the bin, and another day she went there and saw that he was dead. Her devastation is her own affair.

She has negotiated her own emotional survival by concentrating on the positive, happy aspects of her marriage and by immersing herself in the task of bringing the enormous diversity of Donovan's contribution to the visual arts to a forgetful public.

Her account of their first meeting is succinct and quaintly illuminating. You have to imagine the pair of them. She wasn't a model, but she was pretty and tiny and blonde and very earnestly middle class, thrilled to have landed a job as picture editor for one of the many hopefully seminal glossies that came and went in the mid-60s. He was, well, he was Terence Donovan, the Terence Donovan; built like a brick outhouse, spoiled for choice sex-wise, unreconstructed East End accent, open-top Bentley with white-wall tyres parked outside, Savile Row suit all buttoned up, minions bearing equipment, the full monty. They wouldn't normally have afforded him, but he was a friend of the proprietor and a jolly nice bloke, and besides, they were saving on model fees by using the girls in the office. They combed their hair, did their lipstick and dressed up in raincoats and sou'westers and did what they were told.

When the session was over he offered her a lift home. She thought that was rather splendid until they got to Knightsbridge and he said that's it, we're home. As she lived in Earl's Court at the time, she pointed out that it wasn't her home. No, he said, but it is mine. So she thanked him, got out of the car and took a bus the rest of the way. No, he didn't ask her in. No, definitely not. And no, she wasn't remotely offended. All gifted people are eccentric, she reasoned with the impeccable logic of one who would doubtless attribute ego-centricity to the same gesture by a non-gifted person. You had to accept it from such a great photographer.

Years later she accepted the rules of their engagement in a similarly deferential manner. No holidays, he said to her. No shopping. Perfectly reasonable, she thought. She is particularly delighted with the episode of the graphologist. While debating with himself whether or not to propose marriage, he sneaked a recipe she'd jotted down in her kitchen and sent it off to a pal of his who interpreted handwriting for the edification of Scotland Yard crime-busters.

The resultant report, ill-spelled and typed on a manual typewriter from which the bogeys had not been removed from the "a"s and "e"s, she continues to treasure as an intuitive and accurate character analysis of herself. It describes a young lady of exceptional taste and refinement, particularly good at colour matching; self-reliant, detached, practical, discreet, loyal and instinctual, an ideal partner for an artistic, enterprising, active man. It is anyone's guess what Donovan made of it; the western equivalent of a gentle geisha, perhaps, but at all events he popped the question, doubts dispelled.

He was never nebulous about his expectations of her as a wife. "Di-di", he would say to her, it being his special name, "Di-di, we are all alone in this world. You've got to learn to be alone." She didn't understand at first. Having been brought up to imagine that marriage meant an indissoluble togetherness, a belonging with and belonging to, she found it a little daunting to be thrown on her own resources while her husband spent his days in the exclusive company of the world's most beautiful and alluring women. It did not pass her by that her newly acquired husband might easily acquire a new wife.

"You've got to think about things, Di-di," he'd say. "You've got to think things out." So she thought about it and concluded there wasn't much point in whining. "Poor old Terry," she'd say, "stuck in a studio all day with Celia Hammond/Jean Shrimpton/ Cindy Crawford/whoever. Ah well, somebody's got to do it."

When their first child was imminent, he drove her to Queen Charlotte's Hospital, walked her into reception and drove himself home. There was never any question of him being there. No point in being sad about it, either. It was her business, childbirth. The doctor woke him from a deep sleep to tell him his son had been born. That was just the way he was. Horses for courses, sort of thing. She felt he wanted a family, wanted in some way to replicate the closeness of his childhood family group, with mum and dad downstairs, and Aunt Doll and Uncle Bill and Cousin Roy upstairs. Not that he saw that much of them. He was evacuated by himself to Devon during the war, his father was a long-distance lorry driver and his mum worked full time as a Woolworths floor walker and Cousin Roy was too old to be a companion.

So he was very much a loner. He did his very best to train her, as she puts it, in the same mode. And she's grateful now, she really is. It wasn't always easy. Sometimes, she'd fly off the handle about something, get rattled and express anger. "Hang on," he'd, say, "let's get the right perspective on this. Let's get the whole picture. Let's not pretend it isn't what it is or it is what it isn't." And, of course, she'd sometimes feel like giving him a slap, but he was always right, always correctly focused.

She never really understood his religious proclivities. Not then, anyway, perhaps a little more since his death. They didn't scrutinise each others' psyches, you see. He was a Zen Buddhist, she was Roman Catholic. These things are private, and besides, he always said there wasn't much difference between the two, apart from the guilt. So far as Diana was aware, he'd been to see The Seven Samurai at about the same time he did his National Service and came out of the cinema with an abiding passion for Japan and all things Japanese. It happened to a lot of people in the 50s. You either fell for La Dolce Vita or, if you were of a more deeply romantic, soulful stamp, Seven Samurai did it for you.

Like all morality tales, it is about suffering humanity and what it takes to struggle through this vale of tears with some degree of dignity. The fact that orientals appear to have a different physical centre of gravity from ours, particularly noticeable when they're running about bashing each other with sticks, makes it all seem new and exotic, but the messages are all there, all the good old enduring, universal clichés, writ large and bleak in subtitles beneath the seething paddy-fields of another time and another country.

There is strength in unity. Selfishness makes you weak. Don't stew in your own juice. A problem shared is a problem halved. If you need help, ask for it. Defence is more difficult than attack. Choose your own battlefield. The enemy is as afraid of you as you are of him; use this against him. Courage is only an attitude you strike. Bravado is better than nothing. Pride goes before a fall. You can't win 'em all. Don't be a willing victim. Kill or be killed. Go down fighting. The next world is a very nice place; there are no bandits there.

In effect it is the philosophy of the judo mat. And Donovan was a black belt. The tenets of Zen are so amorphous, as much about what they're not as what they are, you are in danger of ballsing up any attempt to verbalise them. The original Buddha, bless him, never wrote anything down, he just sat there minding his own business until he was good and ready to go public with whatever part of his tangled web he was weaving. This probably accounts for the plethora of bastardised versions that prevailed in the 60s, vapid souls who imagined their personal path to enlightenment lay in expanding their self-consciousness, babbling about their innermost f-f-f-feelings and being bloody rude to everyone with their home truths.

What was so difficult to assimilate was the yin and yang of it, the balance: the pesky fact that we are all huge bundles of contradictions, polarised monsters whose backs are always exactly and invariably as broad as our fronts.

Top and bottom, though, it means we're supposed to try to be good. According to Diana, this was Donovan's avowed intent. He just wanted to be a good man, to help and not hinder his fellows. He would also argue ad nauseam with himself and with anyone who'd listen about the meaning of good. "He could," Diana said with something akin to maternal pride, "tie you in knots."

Donovan was never ostentatious about his Buddhism. So far as Diana ever knew in their 28 years together, he didn't meditate so you'd notice, nor did he light incense sticks and make a song and dance at an altar, chanting and what have you. Every evening, though, he went to the Budakwai to practise his judo and just be in a safe place, nobody asking him to account for himself, a man among other men trying to up the grade of their judo belts, trying, literally, to better themselves. White belt, yellow belt, green belt, brown belt, black belt; all very Mickey-Mouse on the face of it, but it took hard work and dedication.

The hierarchic structure of his chosen discipline made sense to him so there is no paradox in the fact he was politically Conservative. He adored Margaret Thatcher. His portrait of her owes something to Annigoni's highly romanticised painting of the young Queen Elizabeth; noble, heroic, yawningly portentous. He enjoyed her company and, unsurprisingly, she enjoyed his. He had all her party political broadcasts with no hint of cynicism. They got on together like a house on fire; the grocer's daughter and the lorry driver's son, escapees of obscurity, subscribers to the principle of "If I can do it so can you and if you can't you have only yourself to blame."

Donovan's value system was founded, like Thatcher's, on the Protestant work ethic, which is all the more potent for being tacit. Work hard, and you get rewarded; idle, and you don't. Pure pragmatism. Donovan had no patience with lazy students in his teaching days. Right, he'd say, anybody not feel like buckling down, sod off out of it. As the 70s and 80s dripped by and his profession was over-run with would-be Donovans, his scorn was boundless. Look at them, he'd say, running off 90 rolls of film in the hope that one of them will have a picture on it. Not one of them has seen the inside of a darkroom and most of the buggers don't know how to load a fucking camera. And he was right.

There is nothing morally wrong with having the Midas touch in Zen ideology. In a way you're duty bound to make as much loot as you can so that you can redistribute it where it's needed. Terry would empty his pockets for anyone down on their luck, Diana says. He never passed a beggar on the street . . . Donovan made a great deal of money. His business ventures always came good and a quarter of a century spent making commercials for film and television made him a rich man by anybody's standards. His money wedge, he called it - as in "You all right for wedge?" - also defended him against disparagement.

Once, while mooching around the National Portrait Gallery, he was greeted by an upper-class aesthete of his acquaintance. "Why Terence," said the man, "fancy seeing you here! I didn't know you were interested in this sort of thing."

"I'm not," Donovan replied, whipping out a hefty wedge. "These are all the portraits I'm interested in."

A lot of loyal friends felt that Donovan compromised his artistic integrity with so much commercial work. He always insisted he was a craftsman, not an artist. Perhaps he longed to be contradicted. His advertisements were technically brilliant, of course, they had the requisite style and punch, but they could always only be a triumph of form over content. And even a craftsman wants to say something louder than Wear Tuff Boots or Drink Guinness. His foray into feature film making was singularly unsuccessful. He made a movie about a Japanese spy in London. I haven't seen it. Very few people have. Those who had the privilege variously opine "He was having a joke", "It was fantastically interesting" and "Crap". Donovan had no option but to shrug it off. "I believed in it," was all he ever said. He did not invite sympathy, nor did he get much.

It is considered axiomatic that a man who gives the impression of being completely in control of himself is somehow immune to the anguish of disappointment. Particularly if he has a sense of humour. There was an unseemly hoo-ha, for instance, over his Robert Palmer promo. For this effort he gathered together a tribe of his favourite models, the thin but bosomy types who precursed the supermodel, dolled them up in next to nothing and had them zombying about like a bunch of identical, porny automatons. By way, I imagine, of ironic comment upon the socio-sexual mores of the pop scene. How would I know? At all events, those more deeply entrenched thereabouts than I took a certain umbrage. Surely this was insulting to women? Not only were they showing their bits, they were clearly inept musically since they weren't really playing their guitars. It was rather as though Donovan had taken it upon himself wilfully to pimp the wretched promo. Then the supreme irony came as various seedy entrepreneurial hopefuls began their moves to book the backing group, which was nothing if not unconsciously Zen of them.

When Donovan decided to return to still photography, he found that art editors, like policemen, had become absurdly young. "They've never heard of me," he confided to his peers. "Or the Beatles. What a load of wankers." But he had been right all along. These really were the 90s. During their course he privately - intensely privately - took himself back to the drawing board and embarked on the process of becoming what he always said he wasn't, an artist. As though laughing at himself before anyone could get a snigger, he was overtly shy and wry about it, but obsessive, earnest, perfectionist. They're all in storage now, packed away in a warehouse somewhere with their faces to the wall, evidence of years spent trying to nail his concept of Japanese art to his own flag-pole.

Perhaps he had chosen, at the unpromising hour of mid-life crisis, to take himself back to the original passion of the lonely, teen-aged boy who wanted to be a Samurai warrior, to focus finally on the place inside himself he liked the best and cut out the middleman of technology. Diana Donovan remembers the day he sold a painting. It hadn't been for sale, none of them was, but an acquaintance saw it, liked it, wanted it and a deal was struck. It's a funny thing, Diana said, but she had never seen him so thrilled to have earned money in his life.

In 1996, the year of his death, he was working for the glossies again, bad-mouthing picture-desk wankers and generally doing what came naturally. In his spare time he keyed in his word processor to capital letters and began to write. He planned a series of vignettes, apparently, to expose his thought processes to a wider public and have a bit of a laugh. In one of them, which he has archly entitled The Curious Power Of Yellow, he rails against the complacency with which the British have allowed their beautiful cities to be fouled up by madmen who rush about scribbling ugly yellow lines on our lovely streets. What has happened to our British fighting spirit? Are we fit only to be footie-drunks? Why aren't we ashamed not to be more like the French, who boldly put a stop to vehicle clamping by the simple expedient of roughing up the clampers in the first week of their incarnation and throwing their stupid gadgets into the Seine?

Another heart-cry centres upon the freedom and ease with which middle-class Englishmen abuse women. The abuse he pinpoints is the mindless, aggressive "joshing" manner with which certain "pink-faced twits" who are not "secure in their souls" make derogatory personal remarks to pretty girls who don't know how to defend themselves. Then, with Samurai precision, he outlines the remedy for this offence of offences. What you do, he wrote (in capital letters), is this . . . Place the left hand firmly on the back of the abuser's neck. With the finger and thumb of the right hand firmly grip the windpipe. And pinch.

The abuse, he concludes with the penchant for overstatement possessed of all keen amateurs, "WILL STOP WITH A SLIGHT GURGLE AND NEVER OCCUR AGAIN".


Sally Vincent

The GuardianTramp

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