How we discovered a celebrity photographer at the end of an ancestor hunt.

While writing my quick blogpost to celebrate the birthday of renowned photographer Cecil Beaton Born #OnThisDay January 14 1904 I remembered another well known photographer also born in 1904 who’s been rather overshadowed by Beaton.

We stumbled on the grave of Angus McBean when we were ancestor hunting in Debenham, Suffolk a few years ago.

We’d gone to Debenham to try and find my Gooding ancestors and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the pretty Debenham streets and investigating the gravestones in the churchyard.





We found the gravestone of my great, great, great, great grandfather, William Gooding, who was born in 1774 in Brockford, Suffolk.  I’ve never been able to pinpoint with any certainty William’s actual death date and the gravestone didn’t help.


Although I was confident that this was my 4 x great grandfather’s grave as it was possible to decipher his name with a bit of manic ancestor hunter’s peering.


We’d realised there was another more contemporary cemetery at the other end of the village and it was while we were searching there that we came across Angus McBean’s gravestone.


Despite his name, Angus McBean was actually Welsh. While attending Newport Technical College he developed an interest in photography. He sold a gold watch he’d inherited from his grandfather to buy some photography equipment.

After his father’s death in 1925, Angus and his mother moved to London and he went to work in Liberty’s department store in the antiques department where he started to learn restoration. His interest in photography continued but McBean developed an ability to design and make masks which came to be greatly admired  in theatrical  circles. The society photographer, Hugh Cecil, offered Angus an assistant’s job. From this Angus acquired more photography skills and established his own studio a couple of years later.

In 1935, Angus McBean was commissioned by Ivor Novello to make masks for a new stage production and to take photographs of a young actress, Vivienne Leigh. Consequently McBean became one of the most significant celebrity portrait photographers of the 20th century. Through the late 1940s and 50s McBean was the official photographer at Stratford, the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells, Glyndebourne, the Old Vic and all the West End productions of H. M. Tennent.

In the 1960s McBean began working in the emerging record cover business with companies such as EMI. He was commissioned to create Cliff Richard’s first four album sleeves and the cover of The Beatles’ first album Please Please Me.

In later life McBean continued to undertake celebrity photo portraits and to explore his interest in surrealism. He became ill while on holiday in Morocco and after returning home he died in hospital on his eighty sixth birthday.

We enjoyed our visit to Debenham and learning about Angus McBean was an unexpected bonus. Recently I’ve found a One-Place-Study of Debenham which includes a page devoted to my 4 X Great Grandad which gives his death date as 1851 along with some other interesting information.

Thanks for reading my blog today.

You might also like Born #OnThisDay in 1904 – photographer Cecil Beaton


Book of the Day at with details of a free Kindle download.

(If you missed your free copy  of Michael’s literary novella, Julia’s Room, it will be available on another freebie at the end of January.  Check the website for details.)


6 thoughts on “How we discovered a celebrity photographer at the end of an ancestor hunt.

  1. Thank you for this lovely post! I enjoyed it and the photographs of Debenham’s pretty streets and churchyard. Especially interesting for me because my ancestors, past and present, also called Suffolk home. I have been there many times and love Suffolk very much. I’ve also been lucky enough to visit my great x 1, 2, 3 and 4’s gravestones, in both the Cretingham and Otley churchyards; and the photos to prove it! Your lovely post brought all those pleasant memories of wandering around the pretty Suffolk villages and countryside flooding back to me. I enjoyed learning about Mr. McBean, and especially about his mask making prowess. Thank you!

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      1. Yes, at least, “cultivated”! I visit Suffolk fairly regularly, as my grandmother’s siblings still all live there, along with their offspring and grandchildren; they welcome me as one of the family, and to me it is a very familiar place. Many of my English cousins have come here to visit, and I think they are always a bit shocked at how “uncultivated” this place, and the way we live, is! Thanks for your nice comment.

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