Field Days: Patrick Lichfield

Originally published in Issue 45 of The Rake, James Medd writes that he was the working-class aristocrat who became a self-made man with the help of his blue-blood friends. But Patrick Lichfield, the dandy with a bouffant hairdo, had a gift for connecting with people, and he used it to great effect to create photographs that still resonate today.

Lichfield on his motorcycle in London, circa 1970.

Patrick Lichfield, or the 5th Earl of Lichfield, or just Lichfield, was, like Churchill’s view of pre-war Russia, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. How could the royal family’s in-house photographer, the King’s Road dandy and the assiduous objectifier of the female form be one and the same man? With his permanent Cheshire-cat grin, shirt at half-mast, and bouffant hair, he was a tireless worker, shameless self-promoter and something of a hack — even, for all the breeding, a bit of a wideboy. Look, however, at a careful selection of his many photographs — Talitha Getty turned on and dropped out on a roof in Marrakech in 1969; Prince Charles rushing to embrace Lady Sarah Chatto (then Armstrong-Jones); Mick and Bianca Jagger as the just-married king and queen of the new decadence in 1971; the Duke of Windsor getting himself ready — and you find images that still resonate and surprise. The same is true of his royal portraits: who else, after all, caught the Queen smiling as often as the sly Lichfield did?

If he was unappreciated, it was perhaps because he didn’t always take photographs like these, the kind that win prizes. As he told one interviewer in 1971: “I have spent time photographing down-and-out drunks in east London drinking meths, but given a choice I prefer to take romantic photographs.” Easy to forget that he was one of the key chroniclers of the 1960s, both in formal line-ups arranged for Queen magazine featuring Tom Courtenay, Twiggy and Joe Orton, and in his portraits of the era’s bright and beautiful, from George Best to Jane Birkin. Often the fact that this committed socialite was as much participant as observer didn’t matter; at other times, as when he was able to capture the newlywed Jaggers in the back of a Bentley, it did. Here, he was not the photographer but the friend who had given away the bride; through him, we are not just in the car and in the moment but one of the party.

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James Medd

Published

January 2021

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