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  • Writer's pictureDavid Morris

INSIGHTS: The Agatha Christie Photography Collection at the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is an art gallery in London housing a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people. It was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856. The gallery moved in 1896 to its current site at St Martin's Place, off Trafalgar Square, and adjoining the National Gallery. The gallery's portraits are selected on the basis of the significance of the sitter, not that of the artist. The collection includes photographs and caricatures as well as paintings, drawings and sculpture.

The Agatha Christie collection:

This collection at the NPG comprises 27 photographic portraits (one pair of duplicates) under the entry of: Agatha Christie (1890-1976), Writer; former wife of Archibald Christie, and later wife of Sir Max Mallowan. Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (née Miller).

The NPG provides the following biography: Born in Torquay, Devon, Christie received a minimal formal education and largely taught herself from her father's library. During the First World War she worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment and qualified as a dispenser. Christie's first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was published by Bodley Head in 1920. Following the divorce from her first husband, Archibald Christie, she introduced the character Miss Jane Marple in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). She accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on expeditions, which inspired books such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937).

The 27 Images:

Below are the descriptions of each image, listed in the sequence the NPG uses in their archives, plus the image itself. Many will be familiar to fans of Agatha Christie, but some are certainly less common. Two images in the NPG archive are not viewable online. Below all the images are some insights on the photographers, as well as options for collecting the photographs.

Agatha Christie by Angus McBean, bromide print, 1949, NPG P294

Agatha Christie & Sir Max Mallowan by John Hedgecoe, bromide print, 1969, NPG P771

Sir Max Mallowan & Agatha Christie by Lord Snowdon, gelatin silver print, 1974, NPG P1859

Agatha Christie by Lord Snowdon, gelatin silver print, 1974, NPG P1860

Agatha Christie by Free Press, vintage print, 1920s, NPG x135637*

Agatha Christie by Bassano Ltd, half-plate glass negative, 15 January 1932, NPG x30729*

Agatha Christie by Bassano Ltd, half-plate glass negative, 15 January 1932, NPG x30727*

Agatha Christie by Bassano Ltd, half-plate glass negative, 15 January 1932, NPG x30728*

Agatha Christie by Planet News, bromide press print, 9 March 1946, NPG x199287*

Agatha Christie by United Press Photo, bromide press print, January 1946, NPG x199288*

Agatha Christie by John Gay, vintage glossy bromide print, February 1949, NPG x126501*

Agatha Christie by Unknown photographer, bromide press print, 1950, NPG x199289

Agatha Christie & Sir Max Mallowan by Unknown photographer, bromide press print, 1950, NPG x199290

Agatha Christie by Max Ehlert, for Camera Press: London: UK, bromide press print, 1950s, NPG x199291

Agatha Christie by Central Press, bromide press print, 1957, NPG x6026

Agatha Christie by Walter Bird, vintage print, 1958, NPG x183962*

Agatha Christie by Walter Bird, for Camera Press: London: UK, bromide press print, 1958, NPG x139871*

Agatha Christie & Dame Edith Evans by Press Association Photos, bromide press print, 5 March 1968, NPG x184311

Agatha Christie by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 1969, NPG x39713*

Agatha Christie by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 19 February 1969, NPG x6027*

(two copies of the same entry - image below)

Agatha Christie by Douglas Miller, for Keystone Press Agency Ltd, bromide press print, 13 October 1970, NPG x199293

Agatha Christie & Lyn Kramer by John Garner, bromide print, 1972, NPG x17073 (note: image shows the measuring of Christie’s head for the Madame Tussauds replica).

Agatha Christie by John Garner, bromide print, 1972, NPG x17074 (note: image shows Christie with the Madame Tussauds replica).

'Murder on the Orient Express' Premiere: Princess Anne; John Gielgud; Agatha Christie; Albert Finney; Sir Max Mallowan: by Syndication International Ltd, bromide press print, 21 November 1974, NPG x199292

Agatha Christie by Elliott & Fry, half-plate negative, undated, NPG x82104*

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (née Miller); Rosalind Prichard Hicks (née Christie) by Bertram Park, gelatin silver print, 1923, NPG x201313

(no image provided)

Agatha Christie by Walter Bird, halftone reproduction tear sheet, 4 May 1949, NPG x193351

(no image provided)

In addition to the portraits of Christie, four of which also contain Max Mallowan, there are three additional images of Max Mallowan under his own entry that do not contain Agatha Christie in the image.

The Photographers:

Godfrey Argent: Born in 1937, he began his photographic career while serving with the Household Cavalry; he subsequently became a royal photographer, taking portraits of, among others, the Prince of Wales at eighteen and Princess Anne at sixteen. In 1967, having purchased the business of portraitist Walter Bird, Argent was appointed as the official photographer for the National Photographic Record at the National Portrait Gallery. He was also the official photographer for the Royal Society and had a long-running assignment to produce portraits of the stars of The Mousetrap as the cast changed. He died in 2006. A Godfrey Argent award to promote the careers of young photographers was set up in 2007.

Walter Bird: Born in 1903. In the early years of his career Bird worked mostly on advertising commissions and portraits of actors, published in magazines such as Tatler and Theatre World. He published several books on photography including Eves without Leaves (1940), which proved popular with British troops during the Second World War. On the death of Walter Stoneman in 1958 Bird took over his position as chief photographer for J. Russell & Sons, purchasing the business in 1961. Bird superseded Stoneman as the official photographer for the National Photographic Record, initiated by the National Portrait Gallery in 1917 to record important and influential citizens. Died 1969.

Angus McBean: Began his career in the theatre as mask-maker and scenery designer before turning to full-time theatre photography. McBean is renowned for his theatrical and inventive photography of the 1930s and 1940s. Imitated throughout his career, his influence especially in advertising is still prominent today. In 1935 he opened his own studio; and his prominent style was soon being published in glossy magazines. The Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 was an influence on McBean's theatrical portraits. After the Second World War he opened a larger studio in Covent Garden, and in the 1940s and 1950s was inundated with commissions from theatre companies. In the 1960s McBean photographed the Beatles for their first album.

Bassano: In 1932 when Agatha sat for portraiture with Bassano Ltd in London. Alexander Bassano first opened his studio in 1850 in Regent Street, London, before moving to Old Bond Street in 1876. The studio was large enough to house an eighty-foot panoramic background scene mounted on rollers, which provided a variety of outdoor or court backgrounds. Bassano retired in around 1903, when the premises were refurbished and relaunched as Bassano Ltd, Royal Photographers. It was here that Christie sat for these images.

Max Ehlert: German photojournalist and press photographer. Born 18 October 1904, Berlin, Margraviate of Brandenburg, and died 6 September 1979, Hamburg, Germany (aged 74 years)

John Gay: Born in 1909 as Hans Gohler into a large family in Karslruhe, Germany, Gay became interested in photography when he left school. He attended art school in Paris and worked in photography in Germany before leaving in 1933 after Hitler came to power with the family of a friend Walter Stern and settled in Halifax, Yorkshire where the Sterns became his adoptive family. Martha Stern was later to photograph Gustav Holst and these portraits became part of the Gay bequest. In 1939 he joined the Pioneer Corps having adopted the English name John Gay from the Beggar's Opera. On his marriage to Marie Arnheim in 1942, (she had left Berlin in 1936), he settled in London, moving to Hampstead in 1951 where he spent the rest of his life, working as a photographer principally of architecture, railway stations and graveyards and producing six books of his work Gay also worked as a potter. He took portraits for the Strand Magazine, under the editorship of MacDonald Hastings, until its closure in March 1950 and thereafter for Country Fair. 20 prints were acquired from the photographer in 1993 for use in various displays together with copies of the Strand containing his published work for the magazine. He died in 1999. The remainder of his portrait work came to the Gallery as a bequest from his widow in 2003. Original negatives relating to most of the sittings were received by the gallery in May 2005.

John Hedgecoe: He joined Queen magazine as staff photographer straight from art college in 1957. In 1965, he established the Photography Department at the Royal College of Art, where he was Professor of Photography from 1975 to 1994. His photographs have appeared in publications such as Queen, Harper's and Queen, the Observer, The Times and the Sunday Times. He was the author of numerous books including Portraits (2000), which formed the basis of a display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Lord Snowdon: Armstrong Jones first began to take photographs while studying at Cambridge, encouraged by his uncle, the stage designer and artist Oliver Messel. After working as an apprentice to society photographer Baron (1906-56), he opened his first studio in 1952. He established his reputation by photographing theatre, fashion and society subjects, and became an official Royal photographer. In 1960 he married HRH the Princess Margaret, and was subsequently ennobled, taking the title Earl of Snowdon. He was photographer for The Sunday Times (1962-90), Vogue (from 1964) and the Telegraph Magazine (since 1990). He established the Snowdon Award Scheme (now Snowdon Trust) for disability projects in 1981.

Collecting: Any image above that has a "*" after the inventory number can be purchased from the NPG. The NPG sell reprints of these images in various sizes, which are typically extra small (102mm x 153mm), small (297mm x 210mm), medium (483mm x 329mm), and large (615mm x 432mm). They can usually be ordered as a rolled photo or a matt art-style print, and both can come unframed or framed. Prices are reasonable, for example a typical large rolled photo is £45.

Authentic period photographs do periodically show up at auction or for sale through dealers. Prices range significantly depending on the photographer, the quality, any association of importance, signatures or inscriptions. However, many bargains can be found as this area of collecting is relatively unexploited.

Image use: As a non-commercial site, focused on providing education to our readers, images from the National Portrait Gallery are being used under the Creative Commons agreement.

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