Colin Smith pays tribute to Fiona Adams
IN APRIL 1963 photographer Fiona Adams took a picture with her old twin lens Rolleiflex that some 45 years later Terence Pepper, then curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s photographic collection, would unhesitatingly describe as ‘one of the defining images of 20th century culture’.
It records a moment, perhaps hardly more than a nanosecond, during a visit four young men in dark suits and fancy footwear made to one of London’s several surviving wartime bomb sites. This one was at the junction of Euston Road and Gower Street and its crater was still half-filled with calcified rubble. As instructed, the four positioned themselves a little behind the edge of the crater. Then at Adams’ command they jumped as high as they could.
‘I didn’t even think to check whether it was safe or not,’ the photographer told her friend Lynne Ashton in her native Guernsey, where she recently died aged 84, though not before Ashton had recorded her vivid memories of the sharp end of Swinging London. ‘I struggled down into the crater with my heavy camera case. There was a pile of fallen bricks and detritus at the bottom. The boys did their bit and stood patiently – beautifully silhouetted against the sky and the buildings. I set up my camera and shouted: “One, two, three – jump!” And they jumped – twice. Cuban heels an’ all.’
It was indeed her most memorable shot of The Beatles, although since she rapidly became one of their favourite photographers there would be many more. In addition, she was taking pictures of just about everybody else who made the top 20. London had become the publishing hub for about a dozen highly competitive pop music magazines.
One of her more discreet triumphs would be some off-stage pictures of Jimi Hendrix, but they mostly filled their pages with pictures and interviews of indigenous talent and in the process attracted some very lucrative advertising for everything from record players to acne cures.
What inevitably became known as ‘Fiona Adams’s jumping picture’ first appeared in Boyfriend, which as well as some surprisingly perceptive interviews published centre spreads entirely devoted to photo portraits ideal for a girl to cover her parents’ awful taste in bedroom wallpaper. Then came the ultimate accolade. John Lennon chose her picture for the cover of Twist And Shout – the group’s first four track EP.
Fiona was then 28 and had not long returned from two years in Australia, where she had helped make a documentary on wild life in the Northern Territories and done a little news work and advertising. In between she had married and lived just long enough with an Australian called Adams to retain his surname as half of her professional moniker for the rest of her career. It was John Lennon who spotted that apart from her first husband’s name she had also kept her wedding ring, which she chose, and teasingly addressed her as ‘Missus’. By the time she was working for Boyfriend she had been a professional photographer for 10 years, ever since she left Ealing College of Art and Technology with honours. She was creative and was getting better all the time. It had been her idea to take The Beatles to the bomb site. She was determined to get away from studio shots and stage sets. ‘Music was changing and I wanted to reflect this with a more dynamic, natural background.’
Fiona was born in London in 1935. It should have been in Guernsey, but it was a difficult pregnancy and her mother needed to see a specialist. On their return they carefully removed their London baby shopping from a local taxi, which after a little while came back with the sleeping infant they had forgotten. It was a story she enjoyed telling, though her admiration for her brave and talented parents was boundless. Both had trained as professional musicians but at the time of her birth the family were running a guest house on the island’s west coast with a loyal showbiz clientele. Her father Philip Clarke, Guernsey-born son of property magnate Angelo Clarke, who long before the Barclay brothers once owned the island of Brecqhou, had attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her mother Freda, whose roots were in the Lake District where her family were involved in starting the Windermere National Trust, studied music at the Royal Academy in London.
When in the summer of 1940 the Anglo-French armies were defeated and the Germans were poised to occupy the Channel Isles, Angelo arranged for his five-year-old granddaughter and her mother to be evacuated to England on a French ship. Told she was only allowed one toy, five-year-old Fiona chose Bertie, a 2ft 6in tall teddy bear who made a comfy pillow. To avoid the Luftwaffe, it was a night crossing and they slept huddled on blankets spread out in the saloon. Her abiding childhood memory of it were the red pom-poms on the French sailors’ hats and the kindness they showed her and Bertie.
Had he not been a St John Ambulance volunteer, her father might easily have seen out the Occupation with her grandfather but a medic was needed on a Weymouth-bound coal boat carrying stretcher cases from an air raid on Guernsey’s main harbour and he caught up with his family. Not that Clarke would be seeing much of them. Channel Island refugees were spared conscription and anyway his age group – he was 33 – had not yet been called up, but he felt uncomfortable out of uniform and enlisted in the artillery as a private. He ended his war as a major awarded an immediate Military Cross for the courage and leadership he displayed in a German village in April 1945 when his battery of self-propelled tracked anti-tank guns was ambushed and the casualties included two of his officers.
By 1946, the family were reunited in a liberated if threadbare Guernsey. Among the damaged areas was the seaside guest house her parents had abandoned in 1940, its granite consumed by the local stretch of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
The good news was that UK government grants were available for those interested in reviving Guernsey’s tourist industry. The Clarkes moved into the derelict Imperial Hotel with its panoramic view of Rocquaine Bay and a recent history as a German officers’ mess. Meanwhile, after five years of erratic evacuee schooling, and sometimes home schooling that at least offered the pleasure of long reads, their daughter began a formal education at Guernsey’s Ladies’ College, a fee-paying day school modelled on its Cheltenham namesake.
The school proved a good choice, but despite its stunning view the hotel was a disaster. Running costs were crippling and staff a nightmare: chefs couldn’t chef and barmen drank the profits. And when they tried to circumvent food rationing by mail ordering guinea fowl from Norfolk, the game birds rotted in the post. After four years her parents gave up and moved to London while they still had enough family funds left to buy a large house near the river at East Twickenham. However, they decided it would be unfair to disrupt their 14-year-old’s education. Ladies’ College had no boarding facilities so arrangements were made for her to stay with friends and remain in Guernsey for another two years until she took her O-levels.
Among the passes was one in art. Photography was the idea of her mother Freda, who when she was her daughter’s age, and in between her music, had enjoyed developing her own prints. Also under consideration as career prospects was window dressing, for which perhaps she had the eye, and modelling, for which she certainly had the legs, for she was turning into a tall and rather striking young woman who in a few years’ time would establish a strong working affinity with the model and actress Twiggy.
In September 1952 she was the only female among an eight-strong entry into the two-year photographic course at Ealing College, where the standard of instruction was high. Determined to hold her own, she won the 1954 Student of the Year Award. After that she walked into a job as an assistant to Douglas Glass, a talented and absent-minded New Zealander who among other things provided the Sunday Times with a weekly black and white celebrity portrait. When Churchill, towards the end of his second premiership, asked him to take his picture the photographer forgot his camera bag and his assistant had to rush around to Number 10 with it. Cordially greeted by Lady Churchill, she wanted to watch the session but Glass, who could be a bit of a curmudgeon, shooed her away. He promised to pay her £7 a week, which rarely happened, and warned her not to use him as a stepping stone – which of course she did.
Next step was the photo section of London City Council’s architectural department near Westminster Bridge. Compared with Glass’s studio the work was dull, and much of it in the dark room, but it was well paid with plenty of time off. Another plus was the number of dashing young architects who passed through, among them the half-French Roland, a celebrated man about town who possessed a bedsit in Onslow Square, a love of theatre, a passion for Fiona and, thanks to the Daily Mirror, the title ‘Gay Bachelor of 1956’. The trouble was, Roland no longer wished to be any kind of bachelor. It was Fiona who was in no hurry to marry. She gave him an ultimatum. They wouldn’t see each other for six months and see what happened. In the meantime she would go to Australia. Shortly afterwards Roland married somebody else.
In the early spring of 1963 she was back in London living with her parents and out with her portfolio looking for work. All she could find was an employment agency’s offer of a week’s temping for a trained photographer at something called Picture Story Publications, whose regular lensman was off sick. Orders were piling up from Boyfriend and other magazines. Her first portraits were of the singers Billy Fury and Adam Faith and her talent was immediately apparent. Happily for all concerned, it turned out the absent photographer wasn’t really sick but working elsewhere and she was offered a permanent job.
A few weeks later she spotted the bomb site she used for the Beatles picture from the upper deck of a bus. And so it began.
Fiona always pointed out Swinging London was ephemeral, with a life span no longer than the four years between 1963 and 1967. She thought the beginning of the end came in 1966 when the Kinks, whose lyrics were sometimes partly inspired by old English music hall, ridiculed the Carnaby Street fashionistas with a hit called Dedicated Follower Of Fashion. The success of groups like the Beach Boys heralded pop music’s shift from London to Los Angeles. The teeny-bopper magazines began to fold.
Just after the Six Day War, as part of a contract for American Express publications, she visited Tel Aviv and Beirut. Her personal life changed too. Guernsey connections had reintroduced her to Owen Le Tissier, who as a schoolboy had admired her from afar. Until his death in 2011 he was her husband for over 40 years and, accompanied by Fiona and their two children, mostly worked as a troubleshooter for a Texas-based construction company. From Norway’s North Sea oil fields to Japan, their postings included the kind of photogenic places that delighted Fiona’s London agent and were very different from where she started.
Nonetheless in 2009 the National Portrait Gallery decided to pay tribute to her ’60s work, along with four other photographers of that era, in their autumn exhibition ‘Beatles To Bowie: The Sixties Exposed’. As well as the famous Beatles shot, the main Bowie picture was also hers and she was described as ‘an unsung heroine of the decade now retired and living in the Channel Islands’.
Unsung maybe, retired not quite. Fiona and Owen were still well known for their regular stall at Sausmarez Manor Saturday farmers’ market, where they sold the various creams and juices extracted from aloe vera cactus. They had first discovered its beneficial properties while living in North America when a friend advised them to soothe their eight-year-old daughter’s huge chicken pox blisters with the gel extracted from its leaves. The plant is native to the south-western part of the United States but to their amazement, a Guernsey grower showed them some of it flourishing under glass. He said his patois-speaking mother and grandmother used it for various ailments, particularly rheumatism, though it was good for lots of other things. In Guernesiaise they called it curetout.
They had returned to Guernsey in 1986. That was the year when oil prices fell so badly that Owen, then in his early 50s, lost his job. He built Fiona a darkroom and with her usual enthusiasm she threw herself into being a local photographer doing advertising work for the finance industry and even the occasional wedding, with Owen acting as a willing gofer arranging the lighting. Few of her clients knew anything of her background.
. Fiona Adams/Le Tissier, born 26 September 1935; died 26 June 2020.
She is survived by her daughter Sophie and her son Clement.