|This exhibition ran from March to August 1999|
the eye that never sleeps is the phrase used by the family of Terence Donovan (1936-96), regarded today as one of Britain's greatest photographers, to describe his dedication to photography. It has been borrowed for use as the title of a new major exhibition of Donovan's photographs. The Museum of London is a most fitting venue for this, his first retrospective, which displays just a small part of an archive of almost a million negatives, and concentrates on Donovan's contribution to the cultural history of the city he loved. 'Through his London photographs', writes Simon Thurley, Director of the Museum of London, Terence Donovan has 'shown the glamour, the charm, the grit and the seediness of modern London.'
Born in Stepney in London's East End, Donovan was as comfortable in the ateliers of Paris couturiers as he was in the streets east of Aldgate. But it was the chaos of these streets, the swathes of bombed-out terrain which was 'vital', as photographic historian Val Williams writes, 'to the construction of a new fashion iconography'. Donovan photographed men's fashion in a gritty, grimy style years before it was de rigeur for men's fashion photography. He took his models to East End tenements or placed them wreathed in steam high on the platforms of gasometers. He took them to the bomb-damaged docklands, and balanced them on the girders of steelworks and iron bridges, motifs of an age of industry.
Donovan also delighted in the beauty of the female form, adorned or not. Amongst the array of beautiful women who appear in the exhibition, Julie Christie stares out intensely over her naked shoulder. Diana, Princess of Wales, is glimpsed ostensibly in the background, but her smile forms the focus of the image; Madonna, every inch the glamorous star, relaxes in an exclusive London restaurant.
In a long career that started at 15, Donovan was astonishly prolific. He was a feature film and documentary maker, he directed some 3000 commercials, produced music videos, and was an accomplished painter. His work took him around the world, photographing for Elle and Marie-Claire in Paris, and Harper's Bazaar in Milan and New York. But Donovan never let London go. His last published photograph - of the London-based design team Clements Riberio - was for Vogue, with whom he had an association that began in 1961. The intervening years did nothing to diminish Donovan's technical skill or obscure his unerring eye.
From grainy documentary work set against bleakly urban backgrounds, to stylish models in elegant lingerie in sumptuous surroundings; from portraits chosen for their connection to the life of London - Terence Stamp, Peter Blake and Francis Bacon amongst others - to personal work, lovingly capturing the photographer's wife and children, the eye that never sleeps shows for the first time the vast range of this dynamic man, who for nearly 40 years defined the spirit of his times.
An exquisite 132-page catalogue reproducing many of the exhibition images and with an informative introduction by the exhibition curator, is available for £9.95. Buy it from the Museum shop, or by mail order: telephone 020 7814 5600.