Telling it how it really was

Terence Donovan's life was not all famous friends and fashion shoots. His widow Diana gives Rose Aidin the full picture of a man driven by self-doubt

When he died in 1996, the photographer Terence Donovan left tidy packages of almost a million prints and exposures spanning his 40-year photographic career.

'They were everywhere', says his widow Diana Donovan. 'In boxes all over the house, in the studio, and in a house in the East End.' The photographs revealed an unexpected range of work - not just the familiar glamour shots but tender snaps of his children enjoying their childhood's and powerful photo-essays documenting the under-belly of London life. This week they go on show at the Museum of London.

Mention the name Terence Donovan and most people think of his naked, slightly startled Julie Christie, his iconic Princess of Wales, or his technically impeccable fashion photographs for publications like Vogue.

No one was better at capturing partly-dressed models in expensive hotel bedrooms. His video of Alaia-clad mannequins strutting to Robert Palmer's hit Addicted To Love - for which he was nominated one of Vanity Fair's 'Men of the Decade' in 1989 - seemed to epitomise everything that Terence Donovan represented. But his first retrospective sets out to challenge all that.

'Everybody thought Terence was just a fashion photographer, and these photographs show that he was a great deal more,' says Diana Donovan, his wife of 26 years.

She is understandably reluctant to discuss her husband's death, yet it - as much as the forgotten photographs - overshadows our view of his legacy. Donovan committed suicide in November 1996, at the age of 60. At the inquest, it emerged that he had been taking steroid drugs to treat a skin condition, which had caused depression.

Unlike the current Rothko and Pollock exhibitions, it is hard to see any trace of this in Donovan's work; yet the fact of Donovan's suicide hovers over the exhibition, if only because it touches something within all of us. A Alvarez wrote in his study of suicide, The Savage God, that this manner of death 'has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out', quoting the writer Cesare Pavese: 'No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.'

Robin Muir, ex-picture editor at Vogue and curator of the exhibition, says: 'Some said that Terence was depressed with the state of photography today, but someone who had just had a 20-page spread of rock'n' roll heroes in GQ that other photographers would have killed for was not depressed with photography. His death was very unexpected and very unnecessary.' Diana Donovan appointed Robin Muir as archivist of her husband's work shortly after his death, and has been involved with every stage of the exhibition. She is also working on a book of her husband's photographs, to be published next year. 'Terence was incredibly busy doing the job, taking the photographs,' she says, 'and now this has fallen to me.'

An ex-debutante from a colonial family, Diana Donovan is an accomplished woman in her own right, who has been involved in charity and fund-raising work for many years. She inspires strong emotions, and those who know her well are very protective of her. She was working as a film publicist when David Puttnam - whom she describes as her husband's best friend - introduced her to the photographer in 1968. They married in 1970, and went on to have two children, Terry and Daisy - now a TV presenter. Donovan also had a son, Dan - a rock musician - from his previous marriage.

Although he seemed to court the limelight, Donovan rarely exhibited. 'Terence didn't want to look back,' says Robin Muir. 'I think it is very much part of his generation's way of approaching photography not to see themselves as artists, but as people who pick up the camera and then move on. I also don't think he considered his work was up to a retrospective, although he was absolutely wrong. The documentary work that he allowed himself to do is up there with the best, but in the end recording life was not his interest, and that is our great loss.'

While David Bailey - Donovan's contemporary and fellow cheeky-East-End-chappie made good - is about to be given the high-glamour treatment in a Barbican retrospective, this exhibition is very personal. It is a kind of visual biography of Donovan's London existence: shots of the East End in the early sixties give way to portraits of Swinging Londoners such as Terence Stamp. Photographs from the late sixties and early seventies are thinner on the ground as Donovan concentrated on film and video work (he made 3,000 commercials).

The later years are dominated by high-fashion or private photographs of family events. The family snaps are charming in their intimacy: Donovan's small daughter racing down the road outside their house with her friends, or a low-key shot showing Diana Donovan's classical blonde beauty, which she used for her passport photo.

A small room at the end of the exhibition is almost a shrine to the Donovan family, with private photographs of Donovan's wife and children, and his final self-portrait. A single photograph from 1994, meanwhile, epitomises the contrasts in Donovan's life: it is a shot of the Princess of Wales at the Serpentine Gallery on the night that Prince Charles's Dimbleby interview was broadcast. Charles Saatchi stands in the foreground. It's a moment of high glamour, but also of high pain: Diana's shoulders are hunched as if the weight of the world is crushing down on her. Terence Donovan, the working-class photographer who had left school aged 11, was a guest that night and so was able to record the moment. 'Terence loved the princess, and she loved him. He really understood about glamour and about women,' says Diana Donovan.

But the sympathy went further. 'Like the Princess of Wales, Terence was very approachable. Everybody has a Terence story. Everybody has a little bit of Terry, and everyone wanted a little bit of Diana. And both died suddenly and in shocking circumstances.' It is difficult to separate Donovan's character and personal history from his work. 'Terry casts a large shadow,' says Muir. Even the exhibition title, The Eye That Never Sleeps, suggests an on-going presence. The concrete complex of the Museum of London is a far cry from Vogue House, yet its lack of glamour serves as a reminder that Donovan was one of the first fashion photographers to take models out of the studio and into industrial landscapes. 'This is the show that he didn't give himself,' says Muir. 'He had so many different ways of seeing things, and that, I think makes a great photographer. And I think somebody who does such great documentary pictures but thinks so little of his ability in that area, that is also a greatness of its kind.'

• The Eye That Never Sleeps opens on Wednesday at the Museum of London, London EC2
(0171-600 0807).

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Wearing Lycra really turns me on, but I'm worried about telling my girlfriend

16 Sept 2010: You're not weird – but not everybody will understand your particular passion, says Pamela Stephenson Connolly

Pamela Stephenson Connolly

16, Sep, 2010 @8:00 PM

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.

Sally Vincent

16, Sep, 2000 @3:36 AM

Xinran: Telling it like it is...
Xinran: Chinese honesty means telling the bald truth. But do we really want that degree of sincerity?


28, Nov, 2003 @2:20 AM

Article image
Telling the truth about schools
The school a pupil attended should clearly be considered alongside their grades when they apply for university. Why is the idea so controversial?

Deborah Orr

28, Sep, 2011 @6:59 PM

Article image
Viv Groskop reports on whether motherhood makes you more or less opposed to the idea of abortion

Does having a child make you more or less inclined to support the idea of abortion on demand - or indeed have one yourself? Viv Groskop reports

Viv Groskop

21, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
'He's just sleeping, I kept telling myself'

On Sunday, 13 Iraqis were killed and dozens injured in Baghdad when US helicopters fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. G2 columnist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who was injured in the attack, describes the scene of carnage - and reveals just how lucky he was to walk away.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

14, Sep, 2004 @1:54 AM

Article image
Telling stories: how LinkedIn took on office banter
The professional platform is the latest social media site to offer a service where posts expire after 24 hours. But do we really need this kind of fleeting work-based chat?

Elle Hunt

10, Mar, 2020 @4:44 PM

Article image
Stop telling women they’re doing feminism wrong
Calling out Robin Wright or Beyoncé for flaunting the wrong kind of feminism won’t bring us closer to equality. This is the politics of purity

Suzanne Moore

18, May, 2016 @5:57 PM

Eddie Mair's diary

Eddie Mair's diary: Since the arrival at the BBC of Sir Greg Dyke (as he deserves to be known), the change in atmosphere has been remarkable.

15, May, 2002 @6:33 AM

Article image
Ed Miliband: really, really nice – but totally useless

Westminster digested: Ed Miliband is in trouble, border control are on high alert and David Cameron is on holiday (again)

John Crace

21, Aug, 2013 @5:21 PM