The Sixties Swinger

The young Armstrong-Jones – known for bad language, practical jokes, fiery temper and cavalier style.

27 June 2017

On 13 January 2017, Cambridge lost their 1950 cox with the death of Antony Armstrong-Jones, aka Lord Snowdon. Chris Dodd met the bohemian royal a couple of times.

Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones was famous for marrying Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, after a clandestine affair conducted in his docklands bolthole. He spent 18 years in an increasingly stormy wedlock, while becoming famous as a photographer and bohemian spirit.

Before all that, however, the young Armstrong-Jones of aristocratic stock – his father Ronald was an accomplished barrister and his mother, Anne, Lady Rosse, was known as ‘Tugboat Annie’ because ‘she drifted from peer to peer’ – contracted polio and coxing as a schoolboy. School was Eton, followed by Jesus College, Cambridge, where he studied architecture but fell into taking pictures. Perhaps typically for a cox, he was also known for bad language, practical jokes, fiery temper and cavalier style. A veritable bundle of charming arrogance.

His 1950 Blue Boat won the Boat Race on the Middlesex station by three-and-a-half lengths in 20 minutes 15 seconds, using a boat made by Banham, the Cambridge boatyard, and known as the ‘Banham Bombshell’. The crew contained several who would become notable heavies, including Dr David Jennens, who went on to be general practitioner to generations of students and coached Blue boats into the era when Topolski’s Oxford took Cambridge apart.

Cambridge coach Ronnie Symonds gives cox Tony Armstrong-Jones a briefing before the 1950 Boat Race. Symonds had rowed in the Light Blue boat that won the 1931 race and coached several winning Cambridge crews.

Armstrong-Jones’s lesson from Eton was that ‘the rudder is your enemy, because every time you use the rudder you lose something.’

Tim Koch’s HTBS account of the 1950 race may be found here.

The charming joker and cavalier failed his second year exams and went down, begging the question of whether a Blue who does not complete his course is entitled to keep it. I seem to remember a recent case of a Blue being withdrawn, but in that instance the culprit did not sit his finals, and in any case he already had a Blue from the previous year. Whatever, A-J failed his architecture but kept a Blue in his CV.

So Armstrong-Jones set out to become a photographer. His Independent obituary writer describes him as an advance guard of what would be known as the Swinging Sixties, ‘a modern man, dressed in hip-hugging slacks, suede shoes, roll neck jumpers; fair, blue-eyed, lean, a diminutive figure prowling London in pursuit of subjects, camera clasped in his fist.’

He met his princess in 1958 and married her in 1960. In 1962, he became artistic advisor on the Sunday Times’s new colour magazine, which is where I first encountered him, though only by reputation, because the Guardian, where I worked, shared a building with the Sunday Times. Editors and photographers muttered in corridors over the appointment of Lord Snowdon – as A-J he had become – for bringing a slur on photography and the royal house simultaneously. Did title and royal connections open doors? Undoubtedly.

There was no doubt, however, that Snowdon was talented behind a lens. There are a hundred of his portraits to prove it in the National Portrait Gallery, and over the years his work appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair and other prestigious outlets. He also designed furniture and theatre sets, and the crown placed on Charles’s head at his investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon in 1969, the golden orb of which was made out of a ping-pong ball. He shared the design of the aviary at London Zoo, and produced an electric wheelchair among other aids for the disabled.

Inevitably, Snowdon and his princess put in occasional celebrity appearances at rowing events. They attended Henley Regatta in 1964 when the Harvard Grand winners of 1914 rowed over. They followed the Boat Race in 1960 and again in the Tab launch in 1965, a year when the Daily Express’s William Hickey column published the fake news that Oxford hit a rock on the night before the race (the fickle finger of fate points at Hickey leg man Patrick Robinson, co-author of the famous work of fiction, True Blue). Prince Charles was there too, in the BBC launch.

Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon visiting the 1964 Henley Royal Regatta. As Armstrong-Jones, he had coxed Jesus College at the regatta in 1949 and 1950. Snowdon is seen shaking hands with Senator Leverett Saltonstall of the Harvard 1914 crew. From Chris Dodd’s book “Henley Royal Regatta”.

I first met Snowdon when researching illustrations for my book on Henley, shortly after he had divorced Margaret and married Lucy Lindsay-Hogg in 1978. He was welcoming and engaging, but did not have a deep reservoir of rowing pictures. I did, however, prize one photo out of him, a view from the umpire’s launch during a Henley race. Such images were extremely rare then – there was no photographers’ platform by the progress board, no camera-phones, and no snappers’ access to umpires’ launches. The picture appears on the first page of illustrations in Henley Royal Regatta (1981). 

My second meeting with Snowdon was to interview him for the Boat Race documentary in Larry Keating’s series entitled Great Sporting Duels (Mediawave Productions). The Earl was hospitable and forthcoming, and described the Cambridge ‘needle’ as he leafed through his album of the 1950 encounter from Putney to Mortlake: ‘You had to hate anyone with Oxford [connections] whether they were in the boat or not, it didn’t matter. It’s like during the war, you have to hate the opposition.’ At one point he flips over an album page to show a blank spread. ‘That’s Oxford,’ he quips.

A blank spread, ‘That’s Oxford’. From “Great Sporting Duels”.

The documentary, incidentally, was luckily shot in 2003, a year full of incident when Cambridge’s Wayne Pommen was injured on the day before the race, two sets of brothers from Hampton School – the Livingstons and the Smiths – rowed against each other, and Oxford won by a foot in a thrilling encounter. The film is packed with telling interviews with the likes of Daniel Topolski, Boris Rankov, Robin Williams and yours truly. The legendary Cambridge coach James Crowden relates CUBC’s prayer: ‘Please may Oxford win the Boat Race, but not this year.’

Snowdon remained popular in the royal family, liked by the Queen and the Queen Mother. It was said that he revitalised the monarchy, updating it to an age of fast cars and short skirts. He led a colourful sex life, but least one of his relationships ended in tragedy. The journalist Ann Hills, his mistress for twenty years, killed herself in 1996.

The congregation at the Earl’s memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster, was wall-to-wall Debrett’s. For starters, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, princes William, Harry, Andrew and Edward and the dukes of Kent and Gloucester were all present – not bad for an amiable little bloke who divorced his princess and forwent the grasp of rudder strings for a finger on the shutter. The assembled company ‘Swung, Swung together’ to the Eton Boating Song, chiming with their pioneer Swinger of the Sixties.

And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round them now

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