A frame in time

Though he led an abnormal, nomadic lifestyle as a child, photographer Philip Townsend discovered the chance of a lifetime when he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The beatles 521 (photo credit: Philip Townsend)
The beatles 521
(photo credit: Philip Townsend)
If you had to choose a decade in which to take photographs of British pop and rock groups, the 1960s would have to be it. Philip Townsend’s archives from those 10 years are a glittering array of many of the UK’s rich and famous, most notably The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Some of the results of those happy coincidences are currently on display at the Minotaure Gallery at 100 Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv.
But, while Lady Luck certainly appeared to have a generous hand in leading now 71-year-old Townsend to where the action was, he had to endure some pretty challenging childhood experiences before he got there.
“My father was never around as he was in the Navy,” said Townsend. “My mother said that every time he came back from the war [WWII] he’d put his braces [suspenders] over the bottom of the bed and she’d get pregnant. Then he’d go off again.”
It wasn’t just his father who had itchy feet. Townsend was the youngest of his parents’ six offspring by some distance and, to all intents and purposes, was brought up as an only child, by a mother who had a weakness for gambling.
“Actually, I was a mistake,” Townsend notes. “My mother said she wanted to stop at five.”
This was the postwar period when no gambling was allowed in Britain and you had to cross the English Channel in search of casinos.
“I had two brothers who were 20 years older than me, and the nearest one to me, in age, was a sister who was six years older than me. My mother was always hauling me out of school and taking me with her as we traipsed around Europe, from casino to casino,” Townsend recalls. “We’d go to places like Monte Carlo, and if we did well there she would stay, but if she didn’t do [well] we’d go somewhere like San Remo [in Italy] which was a bit cheaper, and [where] the stakes were lower.”
Considering the poor state of the British economy in the aftermath of the war, and the stringent limits on various commodities and products, including fuel, it is amazing that Townsend’s mother procured the means to get out and about at all.
“She got hold of a Standard Eight [car] and we went down to the South of France, which took us about two days,” he says, adding that the fuel rationing of the time was no obstacle either. “That didn’t bother her. She always did deals. She was good at chatting people up and getting what she wanted.”
The financial means were available, although not always readily accessible and sometimes obtained at the gambling tables.
“My mother was the only heir to a brewery fortune, and she was a good gambler,” says Townsend. “There was also money in a trust for her which she could take out for herself, as long as she allocated some to her child – me.”
This frequently involved a degree of inventiveness.
“She’d tell the trust people that I was ill and needed to go somewhere for my health, or she’d say she needed to pay my school fees, none of which was true. It is amazing they never asked for proof of all these ‘outgoings.’ The trustees must have been idiots. But, as I said, she was good at sweet-talking.”
All this to-ing and fro-ing had an unsurprisingly detrimental effect on Townsend’s social life and education.
“I didn’t have any friends, because we’d move on before I had the chance to make any friendships, and I only learned to read and write when I was 15.”
While having to endure such a peripatetic lifestyle in one’s highly sensitive formative years could have child psychologists pulling their hair out – or rubbing their hands with glee at the prospective income – Townsend says he does not have bad memories of those years. He notes that his limited life experience at the time formed the context for his photographs.
“It’s like, people ask me that the whole time, in relation to the photography – didn’t you realize in the Sixties how fantastic this was? And how everything was different back then. But of course I didn’t, because I hadn’t been around, I didn’t know what life was like. So if my mother said ‘let’s go to Monte Carlo,’ I thought ‘OK, let’s go.’ I had no friends or peer group to act as a reference. We also generally lived in large houses in their grounds, with no neighbors.”
TOWNSEND’S ACQUIRED laissez-faire take on life seemed to have left him none the worse for the wear, but did leave him with no formal education and very little knowledge about anything. His mother’s equally loose handle on “real life” prompted an artistic departure which, in a very indirect way, eventuality brought Townsend to the cusp of great things, by way of a fortuitous encounter in the South of France.
“When I was 16 or 17 my mother thought I should do something and, as she saw me do a drawing one day, which she thought wasn’t bad, she suggested that I should go to art school.”
Despite the teenager’s lack of educational track record a place at a school in Bournemouth was duly procured.
“My mother sweet-talked them into accepting me,” says Townsend, adding his tenure at the school didn’t last long.
“After about five months they realized I couldn’t draw.”
That proved to be a watershed moment which led to Townsend’s claim to fame.
“The trustees of my mother’s inheritance suggested I try photography, so I did a course at the art school,” he recalls. Unfortunately, that experiment also ended prematurely, due to Mrs. Townsend’s gambling habit.
“She still took me off to casinos the whole time so the art school decided, as I didn’t attend the course much, that I should leave.”
In the end, formal education had very little to do with Townsend’s eventual emergence on the British pop and rock scene, at its very inception.
“My mother was chatting to a friend in The Golden Nugget [casino in London’s Picadilly district] who mentioned that her niece was social editor of Tatler magazine.”
Tatler was founded in the early 18th century as a literary and society journal and was revamped in 1901 as a glossy magazine. The 19-year-old Townsend duly went along to meet the editor, with a very thin portfolio.
“I only had about 10 10-by-8s, but the editor wasn’t interested. She just said how fortunate it was that I’d popped in and that she wanted me to go the south of France, as a photographer had let her down.”
It was in Monte Carlo, Townsend’s old stomping ground, that Townsend hooked up with the Daily Express correspondent in Monte Carlo, called Peter Kingsley, and started taking pictures for the newspaper. A short while later, as the two were hanging out in a square in the seaside principality, a young Englishman wearing riding breeches sat down at their table and introduced himself as Andrew Loog Oldham.
“He said he was going back to England ‘because rock and roll is where it’s at now’ and that he was going to find a rock and roll band, and he said ‘I’m going to turn them into the greatest rock and roll band in the world.’ He got that right. I was in his pocket from that moment onwards, because he was so believable.”
While Kingsley hardly managed to keep a straight face, Townsend told Oldham he should get in touch when that discovery came to be. The band Oldham discovered was the Rolling Stones and, luckily for Townsend, the two stayed in touch and became firm friends after the photographer returned to London, a year or so later.
ONE DAY the call came that was to change Townsend’s life.
“Andrew phoned me and said ‘I’ve [found] them’ and I said ‘found what?’ And he said, ‘the band that’s going to be the greatest rock and roll band in the world.’ But he said there was a bit of hurry.”
Oldham was trying to preempt someone else who was keen to get the Stones signed up. Oldham managed to get in first.
“Andrew’s mother was Jewish and she knew a lawyer who quickly drew up a contract and got the deal done,” Townsend recalls, and within a matter of days he found himself taking the very first photographs of the band. Mind you, the relatively long-haired youngsters only agreed to pose after Townsend bought the starving musicians a chicken takeaway. That first photo, outside 113 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, near the Thames, is one of 40 prints on display in Tel Aviv.
A few of the prints show the Stones in a standard Sixties pop band uniform, but that appearance was soon discarded.
“The Beatles were the good guys and the Rolling Stones were the bad boys, so I took pictures of them outside a pub in Earl’s Court, with empty beer glasses,” says Townsend. “They were too young to drink then, so that was considered naughty.”
Despite his lack of formal training, Townsend evidently had an innate sense of aesthetics and many of his shots show parts of houses and streets and passersby, and convey a sense of the time and ambience. That was an unusual approach in an era when most celebrity shots were portraits and showed little other than the stellar subjects themselves.
The Tel Aviv exhibition also includes a number of prints of The Beatles, all taken in 1966 when the Fab Four met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his meditation center in London. Townsend was summoned to the gathering by the Maharishi’s PR man and, as it turned out, luckily for Townsend he wasn’t paid for his efforts.
“That meant I kept the copyright to the photos,” he noted. “A lot of photographers did not own the rights to their work.”
Unlike most of the Stones prints, the Beatles pictures are not posed and they reveal a lot about their initial approach to the mysteries of the East, as proffered by the Maharishi. In most of the photos all four look distracted or bored. Interestingly, one shows George Harrison and Ringo Starr looking like their mind was anywhere but with the Indian guru, Paul McCartney has a look of disbelief on his face and only John Lennon appears to be engrossed in what the bearded teacher has to say.
Townsend only stuck around at the meditation center for an hour or so, but he came away with some momentous pictures. As always, he happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Townsend stopped taking photographs in 1970, when he felt the field was getting a bit too cynical, but he’d made his mark in time.
“My life has been like that throughout,” Townsend muses. “Things have always worked out for me.” ■