Obituary: Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer and ex-husband of Princess Margaret

Lord Snowdon, former husband of Princess Margaret, photographer and campaigner for disabled rights. Born: 7 March, 1930, London. Died: 13 January, 2017, aged 86

Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon waving to the crowds on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Picture: PA
Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon waving to the crowds on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Picture: PA

The Earl of Snowdon will largely be remembered for the failure of his marriage to the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. But he was also an acclaimed photographer and a passionate campaigner for the disabled.

With his legendary charm and a string of lovers over the years, his tangled affairs of the heart often hit the headlines.

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He was a slightly Bohemian character who, in the anything-goes Swinging Sixties, married into the royal family, becoming Princess Margaret’s handsome groom at a grand wedding in Westminster Abbey.

The couple became style leaders of the decade, leading a glamorous lifestyle and mixing with famous faces such as Peter Sellers and Noel Coward.

A celebrity photographer who rode a motorbike, had divorced parents and was born without a title, Lord Snowdon was dubbed the “first royal rebel” for his dislike of convention. He was the first real commoner to wed a king’s daughter for 450 years.

Antony Armstrong-Jones was the son of barrister Ronald Armstrong-Jones QC and society beauty Anne Messel, who went on to become the Countess of Rosse.

His parents separated when he was young and at 16 he contracted a form of polio, called poliomyelitis.

He overcame his disability by making a study of leg muscles and then devising exercises, but the experience was to make him a life-long campaigner against the discrimination of disabled people. He recovered well enough to be able to cox the Cambridge University rowing crew to victory in the 1950 Boat Race, one of the most dramatic, during which the boats’ oars touched.

Following education at Sandroyd School, Salisbury, and then Eton, the young Armstrong-Jones went to Jesus College, Cambridge, to study natural history, but switched to architecture after only ten days.

After failing his second year exams, he embarked on a career as a photographer, serving first as an apprentice under the court photographer, Baron, and then branching out on his own.

He photographed actors and actresses for theatre publicity shots, including Laurence Olivier and Marlene Dietrich.

His distinctive style of society photography helped him meet – and hide – his friendship with Princess Margaret, for he was able to slip in and out of royal residences without arousing suspicion.

His first official royal assignment was for the Duke of Kent’s 21st birthday, with picture sessions with Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh following soon after.

He worked from a Pimlico studio and a small house in unfashionable Rotherhithe on the banks of the Thames.

But he was far from obscure. He held a one-man exhibition in 1956, and published two books the following year.

Over the years, he photographed many famous faces from Baroness Thatcher, Dame Maggie Smith, Rupert Murdoch and Diana, Princess of Wales to actors Jack Nicholson, Dame Joan Collins and Clint Eastwood.

The public stage, which was to bring glamour and marital disaster, was fully his on 26 February, 1960, when his engagement to Princess Margaret was announced. The wedding, on 6 May, was an impressive occasion at Westminster Abbey, after which the couple sailed around the Caribbean islands on honeymoon.

The following year it was revealed that Princess Margaret was expecting a baby – the future Viscount Linley – and shortly afterwards the Queen brought Mr Armstrong-Jones fully into the royal fold by conferring an aristocratic title on him. His title, Earl of Snowdon, was chosen because of his family associations with Carnarvonshire, where his father was a deputy lord lieutenant.

The royal couple’s second child, Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, was born on 1 May, 1964.

Rumours of a rift in the marriage began as early as 1967, when foreign newspapers began to carry stories of a private “battle royal”. Lord Snowdon vigorously denied the reports, telling reporters: “I love my wife.”

Then, in August 1970, an article appeared in the prestigious Ladies Home Journal in America, claiming there were severe problems in the marriage.

Buckingham Palace issued denials of reports that separation was being discussed by December of that year.

In January 1971, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret returned to the scene of their honeymoon in the Bahamas, and the fuss died down for a while.

Over the next five years the couple were seen together less and less, and almost all the press attention was directed to speculation about Lord Snowdon’s “romances” with society ladies like Lady Jacqueline Rufus-Isaacs and Lady Harlech. At the same time the popular press was concluding a romance was on between Princess Margaret and landscape gardener Roddy Llewellyn, fuelled by their spending a holiday together in the Caribbean.

As the relationship became increasingly bitter, Lord Snowdon reportedly would make lists of “things I hate about you” and leave them in books Margaret was reading.

By March 1976, the rift had gone too far to be mended, although many observers close to the royal family appeared to believe separation was unthinkable. It was assumed the couple would simply lead separate lives without taking a formal decision. But the split came on March 19, 1976, with the Palace announcing they had “mutually agreed to live apart”, adding that there were “no plans for divorce proceedings”. They had been married nearly 16 years.

Lord Snowdon moved to a cottage in Sussex – and fresh speculation grew that his four-year friendship with film production assistant Lucy Lindsay-Hogg had triggered the official separation.

Divorce was announced on 11 May, 1978, while Princess Margaret was in hospital suffering from gastroenteritis and hepatitis. She became the first royal to divorce since Henry VIII.

The uncontested decree nisi was made in the High Court on May 25, 1978, and gossip columnists and writers settled into an account of the couple’s lives as the “black sheep” of the royal family.

She, it was claimed, had lost interest in his arty friends, while he became bored by the constant round of royal pomp.

Princess Margaret had custody of the children; divorce left Lord Snowdon free to wed Lucy Lindsay-Hogg in December 1978.

Despite the difficulties of their split, the pair remained friends in later years, becoming closer in the prolonged run-up to Margaret’s death in 2002.

Lord Snowdon had led an active royal life. His first taste of public controversy came when he complained, with Everest climber Lord Hunt, about conditions at the Snowdon Hotel on the summit of Snowdon in North Wales.

As chairman of the panel of judges of souvenirs for the investiture of the Prince of Wales, he caused a storm by saying most of the 450 designs were a “load of rubbish”.

In 1966 he had contributed to a design of a very different kind when he created the aviary at London Zoo.

Hints of a privately tempestuous nature came through a row with freelance photographer, Raymond Bellisario, who alleged that Lord Snowdon had complained about him to the Badminton Horse Trial authorities.

And in July 1971 stories telling how he had thrown two glasses of wine over the Queen Mother’s horse trainer Peter Cazalet began to appear.

But there was clearly “the joker” in him too. He admitted in 1974 that he had acted as a butler at a New York party, serving drinks, as a bet to see whether he would be recognised. He was not.

That year he made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, on the Sharp Report on the mobility of the disabled.

It led to his being invited to chair a parliamentary working party on the integration of disabled people which reported in October 1976.

His distance from the Royal Family was evident during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. He was given no official role, and sat eight rows behind Princess Margaret and his children at the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Shortly after his divorce, he set up the Earl of Snowdon Award Scheme to provide bursaries for disabled students, using £14,000 from fees he received for photographs of the royal family.

In September 1980 he was appointed president for England of the International Year for Disabled People committee. He attacked a decision to bar disabled Falklands soldiers and sailors from the City of London 1983 victory parade, and criticised the Princess of Wales’s father, Earl Spencer, for failure to provide public wheelchair access at his Althorp home.

He also continued with his photographic career.

In 1983 Snowdon received nominations for the National Business Calendars Award and the Kodak Colour Calendar Awards for his tasteful black-and-white calendar, entitled Kindness, featuring portraits of hospital workers.

He was the first to photograph the newest member of the royal family in October 1984 when he took pictures of the one-month-old second son of the Prince and Princess of Wales, Prince Harry.

As a photographer, Lord Snowdon was in great demand commercially and in 1985 spearheaded a £500,000 autumn promotional campaign for London Weekend Television, taking black and white photographs of the company’s stars which were then used in a sequence of silent advertisements.

Lord Snowdon sparked controversy when he conducted an interview with Design Council chairman Simon Hornby for Vogue magazine in 1987. It led to bitter arguments within the Design Council when, according to Mr Hornby, the article took his comments about the Design Council services out of context, presenting them as condemnatory. Snowdon was later forced to resign as consultant to the Council, a position he had held for 26 years.

In 1987 he became the UK patron of Rotary International’s worldwide campaign against polio.

On good terms with his ex-wife, he took the official photographs of her and their two children on the eve of her tour of China in 1987, and nursing her back to health as she recovered from a lung operation in 1985.

On 8 October, 1993, his son Viscount Linley married the Honourable Serena Stanhope, in front of the Queen and other members of the royal family at Westminster Abbey. Seven months later, his daughter Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones announced her engagement to her long-time boyfriend, artist Daniel Chatto. Their subsequent marriage followed a year later and gave Snowdon his first grandchild in 1996.

Despite walking with an increasingly pronounced limp, forcing him to use a stick, Lord Snowdon continued his career as a professional photographer.

In 1995, he produced photographs for a 56-page celebration of British theatre for an edition of Vanity Fair magazine. It entailed 85 sittings, often up to three a day, with the top actors in British theatre.

His love affairs remained colourful throughout.

He met his second wife Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, 14 years his junior, in 1974, and they worked together in Australia on a BBC series called The Explorers for six weeks during that year.

Throughout their romance, including publicity surrounding Lord Snowdon’s separation, she remained discreet. She became the Countess of Snowdon on marrying him on December 15, 1978. In April of the following year it was revealed that she was expecting a baby, which was born prematurely in July, 1979, and named Lady Frances Armstrong-Jones. There was sadness – and scandal – when, on New Year’s Eve 1996, his long-term mistress, journalist Ann Hills, took her life with a drugs overdose.

And Lord Snowdon’s private life hit the headlines again in 1998 when, at the age of 68, he had an affair with Country Life journalist Melanie Cable-Alexander, 35, who bore him a son, Jasper.

Lucy, Countess of Snowdon, left him just weeks before the birth and their marriage ended in the divorce court in September 2000.

It later also emerged that he fathered an illegitimate daughter just before marrying Princess Margaret.

According to biographer Anne de Courcy, Polly Fry was born in 1960, in the third week of the royal newlyweds’ honeymoon. She was brought up as a daughter of Jeremy Fry, inventor and member of the Fry’s chocolate family.

A DNA test in 2004 apparently proved Lord Snowdon’s paternity, but at the time Lord Snowdon denied knowledge of any claims or of a DNA test.

He went on to have a five-year relationship with Marjorie Wallace, the founder of the mental health charity Sane, but this cooled in in June 2008 after she talked too freely to the newspapers.

Lord Snowdon was frail in his later years, using a wheelchair or sticks because of a recurrence of his childhood polio.

Although his granddaughter was a bridesmaid, he was not invited to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding in 2011, but he was unfazed, apparently remarking: ‘’I haven’t been invited. Surprised? No. Will I be watching it on TV? I shouldn’t think so.’’

Laura Elston