Icons / March 2016

Great Escapist

The wild life of “half Byron, half Tarzan”, high-born photographer, adventurer and bon viveur Peter Beard.

It’s rare enough, in these straitened times, to find truly dedicated aesthetes or adventurers; to chance upon one man who embodies both qualities is even more uncommon. Step forward Peter Beard — internationally acclaimed photographer, equally at home in the most louche of Manhattan nightclubs and the most remote reaches of the African bush; serial caution-flaunter who’s swum in crocodile-infested waters and been flattened by a charging elephant; prodigious diarist whose densely accreted volumes have influenced artists as diverse as Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon; inveterate playboy whose madras shirt sleeves are always insouciantly rolled; trust-fund spendthrift who traverses continents in vagabond shoes. Four decades ago, Bob Colacello, in his book, Holy Terror, described Beard as “half Byron, half Tarzan”. Beard himself is more sanguine. “I’m an escapist,” he told one interviewer. “I’m not a planner; I’ve never made a decision about anything in my life.” He added, with a triumphant flourish: “I’m the most irresponsible person you’ll ever meet.”

Of course, irresponsibility is benevolently facilitated by an independent income, and Beard comes from a long line of WASP nobility. His grandfather, Pierre Lorillard IV, was a tobacco tycoon credited with inventing the tuxedo (thus Beard’s scrubbed-up sprezzatura when red-carpeting can be ascribed to birthright). Beard and his two brothers grew up on Manhattan’s East Side in a nine-room apartment with Daumiers and Corots on the walls, and his parents tried to cajole him into advertising, but young Peter, inspired by reading Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa, first travelled to the continent when he was 17, and, as he put it, “I was changed for life.” He began photographing the wildlife, and before he was 30, had bought Hog Ranch, 45 acres of brush in Kenya that adjoins Blixen’s old property, where he tickles his warthogs (“I have between 15 and 20”), and sleeps under the stars.

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Stuart Husband