Developing the right image

Pangbourne College: the imposing Devitt Housewas home to Harbinger and a young Angus Thomas
Pangbourne College: the imposing Devitt Housewas home to Harbinger and a young Angus Thomas

I had no idea at the time. None at all. I’m not sure any of us did. Not least Richard and Angus. When they marched out of Pangbourne in the long, hot summer of 1981, all they had in common, or so it seems from this distance, was a shared interest in the Boat Club.

But beneath that they both possessed a passion for the camera which was to lead each of them on different but fascinating paths.

We were just schoolboys, of course, interested in rugby, music and girls (not necessarily in that order) but preoccupied with avoiding ackers, laying your hands on a decent cure for acne and perfecting the art of spit ‘n polish. Those number one shoes, kept back during the week, had to be sparkling for Sunday parade.

Nadia Comaneci swept all before her in the 1976 Olympics including our schoolboy hearts
Nadia Comaneci swept all before her in the 1976 Olympics including our schoolboy hearts

Actually, we were preoccupied with girls as well – from Debbie Harry and Olivia Newton John to Charlie’s Angels, Nastasja Kinski and Nadia Comineci. I know she was only 14 when she swept the board at the 1976 Olympics but we were kids, for heavens’ sake. Nothing wrong with having a crush on a girl of our own age.

I should explain. We were at Pangbourne College, a private school in Berkshire founded in 1917 by the Devitt & Moore shipping line as a merchant navy equivalent of Dartmouth.

Along the way it switched allegiance to the Royal Navy and it has retained its traditions although these days parades in full officer cadet uniform are no longer held every Sunday. And when they are held, girls take a full part. Oh yes, things have sure changed since our day when the nearest we got to girls was roping in a few from Canford House, St Helen’s and Theale Green to play the female parts in our plays.

Does ackers still exist? Not sure. This was a punishment handed out by the duty Cadet Officer (prefect in any other public school world) usually for feeble infringements such as beating up a mush – third former – after Lights Out or, to borrow from our contemporary Not the Nine O’Clock News, “looking at me in a funny way”.

Ackers involved an early start for the villain, a run down to Illawarra, another Division (House) about a mile away from the main part of the school where we were.

Once there he would report to that day’s duty CO. As this generally involved waking him up, the offender was usually rewarded with a box around the ears before the CO would sign his card.

"Bravely and faithfully"
“Bravely and faithfully”

The offender would then have to run back up to his own Division, wake up his own CO, receive another box around the ears and then clamber into a five-minute cold shower. Not funny at the best of times; miserable in mid-January.

There were other punishments such as Extra Parades – another early morning favourite – and CP. Not corporal punishment but corrective punishment. This was an RRPA – right royal pain in the arse.

It involved reporting to the duty CCC (Chief Cadet Captain or Head of House) and getting him to sign an attendance card about five times during the day. Each time he would inspect you taking special notice of your shoes which had to be gleaming.

Often, offenders would use their number ones – the only problem being that other boys could be pretty careless what they did with their feet. And vindictive.

The final inspection would involve reporting in full number one uniform to your own CCC prior to turning in. Shoes, stiff collar, lanyard, cap cover, all would be checked with an attention to detail that would bring a lump to the throat of any self-respecting, humanity-loathing Chief Petty Officer. A fail on any inspection during the day would result in an extra day’s CP.

Yes it was tough but you quickly learned it was better to stay on the side of the law. Alternatively if you were going to pick up a punishment, make sure it was for something worthwhile, not for minor acts of petulance.

AN INTERVIEW WITH HELMUT NEWTON

Richard Morrell at Pangbourne in the summer of 1980
Richard Morrell at Pangbourne in the summer of 1980

Richard Morrell was in my division, Hesperus. As in “The Wreck of…”

For five years we were on good terms. Never buddy-buddy close but always friendly. I certainly never tried to pick a fight with him although that may have been because he was twice my size.

My cousin James gave him the nickname Raymond. I suspect it was in honour of another Yorkie, Ray Illingworth, who had until recently been captain of the England cricket team, but I cannot be sure.

Richard was the strong, silent Heathcliff-type from Yorkshire that all of us soft southerners were just a little bit wary of. He sweated hard in the Boat Club, reported for second row duty on the rugby field and generally mucked in.

He may have had a few punishments along the way but I always had the impression that he steered a pretty sensible course.

The 1981 Pangbourne College First VIII: Angus Thomas is kneeling secnd from left next to James Witter who would go on to win a Blue for Cambridge
The 1981 Pangbourne College First VIII: Angus Thomas is kneeling secnd from left next to James Witter who would go on to win a Blue for Cambridge

The same goes for Angus Thomas. He was a Harbinger lad which obviously made him a bit suspect – the only hint of homosexuality at Pangbourne during my five years there involved two Harbinger lads who were allegedly caught in flagrante in a broom cupboard – although us very butch, manly, 100 per cent heterosexual Hesperus men were happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Angus was a fine musician – he was drum major in the excellent college military band – and, like Richard, fell in love with rowing which was the sport in which Pangbourne took most pride.

Angus would finish his time as Captain of Boats and represented GB in the junior world championship of 1981.

Good lads the pair of them but none of us had any idea of their hidden depths. We had no idea they would both develop, if you will excuse the pun, into seriously good photographers.

Peas from a pod, you might say, although they took very different routes to realise their potential behind the lens.

“I wasn’t exactly into photography at Pangbourne,” admits Richard.

“But it always fascinated me, the preparation and care that went into the college photos. Getting everyone to pay attention and smile at the correct time. Quite a feat in itself.”

Stacked Office Chairs --- Image by © Richard Morrell/Corbis
Stacked Office Chairs — Image by © Richard Morrell/Corbis

Richard chose to study photography and then headed to the US to learn his craft. That involved an internship at Playboy and a little bit of glamour work for Penthouse.

‘Yes I started in Hollywood, photographing models for agencies and wannabe actors.

“Being English and turning on the charm, I used to talk my way into using famous locations as backdrops to the models for nothing,” says Richard who is now a sensibly married man with one young daughter.

“I have always had a particular interest in film noir and art deco. California is full of it. So I built up a portfolio around these architectural gems.”

In between times, there was also a job interview with the great Helmut Newton at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood.

“It was to be his first assistant, which is basically running his studio and doing everything from lighting sets to camerawork. He had seen some of my work and was impressed enough to ask me down.

Helmut Newton's study of Margaret Thatcher
Helmut Newton’s study of Margaret Thatcher

“He was extremely pleasant but firm. One felt very much in his presence. He was a truly great photographer.

“I can see how he commanded attention. Photographing Margaret Thatcher, for example, requires a definite authority. Many people don’t actually like to be photographed.

“I have since looked at her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery and Helmut managed to capture a true sense of power but also a vulnerability and humility in her face.

“I think that is a truly great photographer, being able to break down those barriers of your subject. It’s a very special feeling being able to develop a trust with a complete stranger in a few moments and get the best from them photographically.”

The interview, though, was slightly bizarre in that Newton conducted it wearing nothing more than his underpants.

“I don’t know why,” says Richard who still seems a bit shell-shocked by the experience. “I guess we will never know.”

Richard, who sadly didn’t get the job with the legend that was Newton, found his niche with the agency Corbis in studio-based digital imagery, much of which you will see illustrating brochures, ads, book covers and so on. On the side, he also channelled his artistic side into setting up a card design company Sophie Morrell, named after his daughter.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

He remains adamant that the 20th century was the heyday of photography as a craft and an art form.

“It really was a time of smoke and mirrors,” says Richard who specialises in stylised corporate work from his Stone Studio in Yorkshire.

“Today you have only to go on YouTube, learn a few techniques with your £500 camera and you’re up and running as a wedding photographer. If you click the shutter enough times, you will get one in focus.”

The snapper snapped: Angus Thomas at the end of a shoot (photo: Benchmark furniture)
The snapper snapped: Angus Thomas at the end of a shoot (photo: Benchmark furniture)

Which in a way is what Angus Thomas did.

“Everything I know about photography I know from YouTube videos, websites and terrifying experience,” he admits.

“My heart sinks when I hear youngsters going to university or college to study photography. What they need to study is business because artistic endeavour has very little to do with putting food on the table to most photographers.”

Angus admits he was not particularly academic at Pangbourne; his proudest achievement remains a B in O Level Navigation.*

However, he ploughed on to achieve a place at Oxford Poly where he picked up a degree in Estate Management.

A career in retail warehouse development followed before he moved into property with his father’s company Thomas Homes. This brought its own demons.

“In 2000 I finally conceded that I was a hopeless valium addict and after long spells of poor mental health checked myself into the Priory Clinic in London.

“From there I went into a 12-step fellowship to which I still stick very close and thanks to the love and support of my first wife during those horrendous early days I am 13 years sober of any mind or mood-altering substance.”

Harbinger can have that effect.

One of Angus’ many subjects: Dave Aldrich of Whitesnake (copyright Angus Thomas Photography)

Six years ago, Angus made the move into photography.

“It was so liberating. I was a square peg in a round hole and at last I found my vocation.

“This was quite an impulsive move following a comment from a photographer friend in Australia to the effect that he thought I was quite good. Luckily I had turned a profit on my last property scheme and was able to set myself up in a new career.”

Angus specialises in portraiture, lit photography and finds plenty of corporate work to put bread on the table. He has also braved the mosh pit to go rock ‘n roll; in the last couple of years he has shot many of his childhood heroes including Walter Trout, Whitesnake, Def Leppard and Slash.

Happily remarried to Tanya, with whom he has set up a magazine business, he now claims three children and two step-children, not to mention a bit of smoke, one or two mirrors and a high speed internet connection to YouTube.

Richard and Angus have yet to work together on a project although with the centenary of Pangbourne College coming up in 2017, don’t count against it.

© Barney Spender 2013

*For the youngsters out there O (for Ordinary) levels were the precursor of the GCSE, taken around the age of 15 or 16 after which kids would go on and take A (for advanced) levels.

A version of this story appeared in the 2013 edition of the Old Pangbournian

Advertisements