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November 14, 2005

Patrick Lichfield, 1939 - 2005: A Memoir by Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Patrick Lichfield
born 25th April 1939, died 11th November 2005

Richard D. North remembers the Patrick Lichfield he knew and worked with.

I shall always be grateful to Patrick Lichfield. Beneath the bouffant (which, according to the Daily Telegraph, caused Craig Brown to speculate that he was the long-lost brother of Lionel Blair), Thomas Patrick John Anson was quite tough. Men who drive big motorbikes and don't kill themselves on them deserve respect, and Patrick was one such. From where I sat, he was funny, sharp - and, back then in the early 80s when I met him most - very good for business.

In 1982, I was beyond broke. I had spent a decade as a passionate and peculiar green. I was developing a decent line in arts profile-writing. I say "arts", and I am pretty sure I did once interview John Berger on the phone. But I was just as happy dashing off a word or two after encounters with the likes of Pete Townshend or Joan Collins. Anyway, doing these things for The Observer, and as the gossip-column's legman rather than its star, I was neither solvent nor prominent.

I was in the Tottenham Court Road when I picked up Robin Baird-Smith's message on my pager (BT, and all the rage at the time). He worked for William Collins then, and he invited me to pick up £4,000 to write some text to go with some of Lord Lichfield's photographs for the Unipart Calendar, Britain's poor relative to Pirelli's much hotter operation. This was serious money then and even now I do a fair amount for as much.

Naturally, I pedalled as fast as anything over to Lichfield's studio and was soon stitching together a text recording the ups and downs of the post-production work for what would be the 1983 Calendar. He was always skinny as a whippet (and got positively gaunt later, after a bad fall in – or is it "on"? - Mustique). If there was Lionel Blair in him, there was also Roger Daltrey. It is said that he was bullied at Harrow. I've no idea whether it's true, but the point is anyway that public school produces very sensitive antennae in its alumni. We understand power at the level of the dog pack. Call it the Flashman Effect. Lichfield and I found it very easy to deal with each other because it suited us. If I didn't actually grovel, I was only lightly challenging and only when we were alone together. He turned on the easy charm which was second nature to him. I imagine being liked by Tony Blair is much the same: seductive even when temporary.

Lichfield was of a generation and background which in those days was pretty open with journalists. He was used to people knowing the game, and playing it. He must have known that nothing I would write would go un-checked to the press. But in any case, it wouldn't have occurred to him to have been totally open with me, nor to have been overly cautious. It was the same with all those people who had been big in the 60s: it makes interviewing the likes of David Bailey a breeze. Printable indiscretions flow out. It is said that, way back then, Lichfield had some difficulty being taken seriously by the likes of Terence Donovan and Terry O'Neill. They soon came, I think, to see the old similarity between the likely lads of the East End and those of the West End. They will also have spotted that he would remain a fixture and never be a threat.

The great merit of Lichfield was that he was a proper aristocrat. They do of course come in all shapes. He did, too late, want to be useful in the House of Lords. In his prime, he was that curiously English and well-worn phenomenon: the Lord with the common touch. He was that well-known figure - the sporting grandee. He was also the discreet courtier: so far as I know, he was on genuinely friendly terms with most of the Royal Family. He was a little flashy: the urban cowboy. The Levi's, the belt buckle, the cowboy boots. He was, and it is a common aristocratic trait, a little bit gypsy. He knew everyone, and by that I mean he knew people in the rather deep vein of social life where bohemia meets the aristocracy. He was not an eccentric, but he understood eccentrics.

Having offended no-one (and therefore having failed the first test of being likely to make a reputation out of such a project), the next year, I was booked for a second Unipart enterprise. But this time, the stakes were higher. I was to be part of the team which jetted off to Ibiza. Three models, a make-up man, a stylist, a charming artistic director - we were quite a large crew. There was a very good-looking locations-finder and travel manager who, I fancy, either hailed from Africa or lived there. Anyway, he had that bronzed manliness which speaks of the better end of Nairobi crossed with the middle reaches of the King's Road. And there were Lichfield's assistants, Chalky Whyte and Peter Kain. Getting on with these two was easy and necessary: they were at least the glue of the Lichfield enterprise, and were capable of all of the routine glamour portraiture which was the meat-and-potatoes of Patrick's career.

Patrick was probably a rather complicated man, but he hid it well. He had two modes, at least that I saw during those book-writing encounters and then, in the mid-90s, when I invited him to be the star of a business I was trying to start. He could be, and to most people was, a very funny, direct and charming figure. However, I learned to dislike what I thought was a bullying streak, which he showed towards people he knew could be no threat to him, or whose usefulness was guaranteed.

He was not a shallow man, but he chose to swim in shallow waters. Lichfield sometimes claimed that being an aristo made it harder to be taken seriously as a professional. This is of course nonsense. Indeed, Lichfield's career would have been an altogether more slight affair if he had not had the most amazing cachet and access. Tony Armstrong-Jones, who became an aristocrat when he married Princess Margaret, produced strong pictures and a large reputation: it is fascinating to speculate how much bigger or smaller it might have been if he had remained merely an upper class aspirant.

In Patrick's case, the problem hardly arose. He never seriously challenged the public's perception of him as a boulevardier, happy amongst the upper echelons of the British social and fashion scenes. Not for him the Cecil Beaton knack of photographing people of lasting interest. He might have been a Lartigue, and chronicled a way of life. It is a mark of the level he was content with that even in the fashion field he was in effect the house photographer for Burberry, before it was taken into the stratosphere by Rosemary Bravo (and into the gutter by the Chavs). He was not a Parkinson, or a Bailey, let alone an Avedon. His pictures of John Gielgud or Mick Jagger show both what he might have done and that he didn't concentrate.

Let's complete the things he wasn't: he wasn't a McCullin. And yet, with a short military career behind him - and his connections - he could have achieved things there. It is hardly likely to be physical courage that he lacked. Perhaps he just didn't fancy failure. Perhaps he was just too keen on the next income stream and the next stay at his house on Mustique.

Was he any good? It's hard to tell with photography, which requires patience and attitude more than obvious artistic talent. It is fair to say that Lichfield was good at producing a note of informality in pictures, especially of the royals and even of Margaret Thatcher, whom he photographed very recently. He was no Karsh, shoving pomposity into every pore. He didn't have the focus to produce a signature effect: disarming perfection became the hallmark of Mario Testino, and it might have been Lichfield's. Michael Winner says that Lichfield enjoyed the flattering effects which he could produce with digital photography: he would have been deliciously sly in suggesting which effects might have been applied to his illustrious subjects.

I always thought, and of course didn't write, that the Unipart pictures were mostly curiously sexless. They could not have been Playboy-like, still less Penthouse-like. These calendars (and the books) had to be tame enough to be acceptable in mixed company, and - more importantly - in the sitting room and in daylight hours. They needed a U-certificate. Lichfield could not have got away with a Helmut Newton effect, but it is interesting how little he seemed to want to try to get away with anything very much. These shots don't have the power of the kind of pin-up which Hollywood produced, and that might have been available to him.

I fear I have always made the mistake of lecturing those I was supposed to be interviewing. I told Bob Marley that Rastafarianism was a silly diversion for young blacks. I told Sting he should develop the operatic quality in his voice. I may have had the bottle to tell Pete Townshend that his obsession with violence was itself ugly. I told Lichfield that he should work harder at seeing the merit of women of his own age and class. He told me that I could only think that if I had not properly explored the pleasure a man could have with a bottle of baby oil and a young enthusiast.

Basting bimbos seemed quite a big part of his life then. Somehow or other it was clear that his hankering for very young women, and perhaps especially for rather "common" girls, was already straining relations with his wife Leonora (of the mighty Westminster family). Later, there would be a "kiss-and-tell" go-round in the tabloids, and a divorce. But it might have been the long trips and the partying as much as infidelity which did for his marriage. His constant hunt for commercial wheezes which used the family name may have palled. Years before the end of the marriage, my impression was that Lichfield regretted the misery he caused his wife. I was pretty sure, and it is widely said, that he remained a devoted father.

The Unipart shoot revolved round long and lively lunches and out-door suppers. Patrick would hold forth. He was one of the top ten funniest men I have met. Aristocrats produce an unfair share of good talkers. They entertain in the manner of men in sledges throwing the picnic over the back in bits and pieces to try to distract the following wolves. For all the fifth earl's wit, I was useful to the crew because I was hearing these stories for the first time, and perhaps because Lichfield could take his racconteurship up a notch with this nearly-literary fellow who was his Boswell for the nonce. The hospitality was generous, and compulsory. Lichfield liked the clubbability of the shoot, and he demanded that we provide it.

One night, after supper, Lichfield disappeared to see an old friend on the island. We woke up next day to find that he had been in a car crash, and was bruised. Some teeth had been re-arranged. He was in a good deal of pain. The anxiety was heightened by the realisation that the driver of the other car was holed up in a hospital room. It was unclear whether he would try to sue. Luckily, it seemed that he was also frightened that Lichfield would. The police declared it a knock-for-knock matter and that was that, apart from the men from the Express and the Mail, who had bowled up to see if there was decent mischief to be had. Lichfield was, I thought, rather magnificent. To get rid of the hacks, he dosed himself up with pain killers and favoured them with half-an-hour's full-on charm. I wasn't there, but I imagine that he gave them drink, jokes, and - above all - quotes. (The picnic over the back again.)

The ease with which his team went on taking photos without him makes one wonder how necessary he ever was. No matter. It's not enough to say that Lichfield was a fair photographer and an interesting 60s gossip column figure. He was made of sterner stuff than that. If we had a Thackeray, and if the novel was Vanity Fair, there could be a useful part for Patrick Lichfield. I think he would have been cast as a fop with an edge. He would, for the sake of the plot, know the very great, and keep some of their secrets, and those of other friends he cared about, and be useful as well as decorative and amusing.

It is said that he calmed down and was content in the last decade or so of his life, not least because he was attached to Lady Annunziata Asquith. Certainly when I went to see him in the mid 90s about a business venture, he was as friendly as ever, but not interested. I had wanted his imprimatur on a series of the very softest of soft-porn movies. They would be, I said, more frock than…. the other thing. I thought, and still think, the world could do with such a venture. But in his grand flat, with its super-grand address, I saw an almost chintzy taste at work. Lichfield was in his comfort zone, and nothing seemed less likely than that he would risk it. Even if heaven continues this calming effect, he'd be very high on the list of those to contact when one arrived at the Pearly Gates.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

In the early 80s Richard D. North wrote the text for Lichfield's Calendar Book and Creating the Unipart Calendar.

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We have someone writing - this fellow Richard D North - for "the right-wing Social Affairs Unit" who proposed to Lord Lichfield that he gave "his imprimatur on a series of the very softest of soft-porn movies".

This follows on from the Conservative Party all but certainly electing someone as leader who has all but confessed to using cocaine at university.

The world is going to the dogs I say. It is enough to make one choke and splutter. If even the Social Affairs Unit cannot offer one the old moral certainties where can one turn?

Posted by: Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells at November 14, 2005 03:17 PM

This is a brilliant profile - an elegant piece of writing, aside from anything else - and by far the best, most vivid, most moving thing I've read anywhere about Lichfield.

Sometimes I daydream about an anthology of the best SAU essays. If it ever happens, do reserve a place for this elegant survey, as good on its times and mores as it is on its subject.

Posted by: Bunny Smedley at November 14, 2005 04:15 PM

Never mind Patrick Lichfield, how many blokes must be insanely jealous of Richard D. North. Not only to hang out with Lichfield's models, but much more importantly to be able to say:

"I told Bob Marley that Rastafarianism was a silly diversion for young blacks. I told Sting he should develop the operatic quality in his voice. I may have had the bottle to tell Pete Townshend that his obsession with violence was itself ugly."
Wow - what would I not do for that.

Posted by: David at November 15, 2005 03:11 PM

The quote in the last comment reminds me of that great statement by the late Woodrow Wyatt:

I so hate name droppers, and the Queen Mother agrees.

Posted by: James at November 15, 2005 04:48 PM

Richard and others might be interested in the below:
Renowned photographer, Patrick Lichfield, photographed 17 years of the world-famous Unipart calendars and was working on his favourite selection of images before his sudden death in November
In his own words, the idea was to produce “a best of the Unipart Calendars.” After consulting his family, Unipart has agreed to honour his memory by producing a limited edition, 2006 calendar, featuring the Lichfield Selection. This unique calendar will be made directly available to the public.
The last Lichfield Unipart Calendar will be sold to raise funds for two charities, Acorns and automotive industry charity - BEN. Lord Lichfield was the founding patron of Acorns, a Midlands-based charity which supports three children’s hospices as well as providing home-based services. He remained a committed patron and supporter until his death.
Unipart is equally committed to supporting BEN especially in 2005, its centenary year. The calendar is available directly from Unipart at a cost of £18.99 including post and packing. Cheques and postal orders only should made payable to Unipart Group and sent to Unipart Calendar Offer, Unipart House, Cowley, OX4 2PG.

Posted by: mark howard at November 28, 2005 04:21 PM
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