Houghton Library

The Angus McBean Photographic Archive

Vivien Leigh as Aurora

Vivien Leigh as Aurora

The period stretching from the 1930s through the mid-1960s is generally considered a golden age for British theater. Renowned actors such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton, and Alec Guinness performed in impressive and popular West End productions. British opera came into its own as a first generation of British singers took to the stage, and appearances by international stars of ballet and modern dance rounded out this flourishing of the performing arts. The celebrated photographer Angus McBean (1904-1990) was there to capture it all, and his photographic archive now forms part of the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library.

McBean’s career began with an apprenticeship to high society photographer Hugh Cecil. Under Cecil, he not only honed his technical craft but also began to develop his own aesthetic, one that departed dramatically from that of Cecil and the other photographic  portraitists of the day. McBean’s first theater photographs, for the 1936 production The Happy Hypocrite, made a splash on the West End: they were set apart from other theatre photography of the time by the chiaroscuro effects and deep blacks that became McBean’s trademarks. His work was soon appearing in magazines such as The Sketch, The Theatre World, and The Tatler, in addition to being posted outside theaters to advertise productions.

Richard Burton as Henry IV

Richard Burton as Henry IV

McBean claimed to have photographed at least one production of every Shakespeare play, and with the exception of The Two Noble Kinsmen, every Shakespeare play is currently represented in the digital archive. Most of McBean’s Shakespeare photographs were taken either in the West End or at Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. He also photographed many productions throughout Great Britain of contemporary plays, revues, and operas, including the works of Noël Coward, Ivor Novello and Benjamin Britten. More than 3,000 of the photographs in the collection are studio portraits. McBean’s portrait subjects included actors, singers, musicians, composers, directors, dancers, and writers.

Part of McBean’s success stemmed from the loyal support of performers (including his favorite subject, Vivien Leigh) who trusted that his photographs would always flatter. He was known for retouching the large-format glass negatives he favored to enhance the appeal of his subjects. Some of McBean’s work also involved more avant-garde editing. Many of his most famous images have a surrealist character. They feature plaster dresses, bodiless heads, and floating cotton “clouds.”

TR reading in tent: TR in Kenya, June, 1909. Roosevelt 560.61-164. Theodore Roosevelt Collection.

A 1955 production of The Lark

Harvard acquired the archive of McBean’s work in 1970. The archive consists of over 30,000 images, whose fragile glass negatives (weighing over eight tons) were transferred from Britain by ship. The collection also includes reference prints for most images, and pamphlets for many of the productions McBean photographed. In addition to McBean’s theatrical photographs, Harvard also has some of his other work, most notably his photographic albums from travels around England and Italy. 

The McBean archives are among the most heavily used visual materials in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Digital reproductions of every image in the collection are in the process of being made available through VIA, Harvard’s visual information access system. The easiest way to find photographs of a particular production is to search in VIA for “McBean” and the title of the play, opera or review. It is also possible to search by director or designer. Searches for a particular actor will reliably deliver portraits, but may not return all the photographs featuring the individual in question.

McBean’s photographs may also be found in the Mander & Mitchenson Collection at the University of Bristol, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Theatre Archive, and the Royal Shakespeare Company Archive. Frederic Woodbridge Wilson’s The Theatrical World of Angus McBean (Imago Mundi: Boston, 2009) includes many photographs from the McBean archive and an introductory essay by Richard Traubner.

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