Antony Armstrong-Jones, a British photographer who wed Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1960, a marriage that made the commoner groom the first Earl of Snowdon and an object of fascination in England long after the couple’s headline-grabbing divorce, died Jan. 13. He was 86.
His photo agency, the London-based Camera Press, confirmed his death to the Associated Press, which reported no other details.
Before he joined the royal family, and for decades after he left it, Lord Snowdon was known for his striking skill for photography, an art form he took up as a teenager recovering from polio.
In his 20s, he established himself as a savvy portrait and fashion photographer and began a 60-year relationship with Vogue magazine. His portfolio, exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery in London, ranged from a famous image of Margaret in a bathtub, bedecked by a tiara, to a series documenting the inside of a mental hospital.
But he was best known as the love interest, then husband and then ex-husband of Margaret. His artistic connections had led to assignments to photograph Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and their children. Margaret sat for him in 1958, when they began a secret courtship.
Their romance followed the first major royal scandal since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936: Margaret’s romance with the World War II flying ace Peter Townsend. The British establishment frowned on the relationship — Townsend was divorced — and Margaret was given the choice between marrying Townsend or keeping her royal privilege and income. She chose the latter.
Lord Snowdon was already an up-and-coming figure in the bohemian and aristocratic set in postwar London. It was a scene that the high-spirited and increasingly extravagant Margaret was drawn to after the Townsend debacle.
Lord Snowdon was dashing and suave and, as a commoner, was seen as bringing the royal family a much-needed touch of modernity.
The engagement was announced in February 1960, with a lavish wedding ceremony following in May at Westminster Abbey. The queen lent the royal yacht to the couple for a weeks-long honeymoon in the Caribbean.
Elizabeth also granted her new brother-in-law the title of 1st Earl of Snowdon, an allusion to Mount Snowdon in Wales, the land of his forebears. But he was widely known as “Tony.”
The title gave him a seat in Britain’s upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords, and he later used his political position to champion the rights of the disabled.
Margaret and Lord Snowdon were a part of the thriving social scene in the Swinging ’60s in London, but by the end of the decade — by which time they had two small children, David, Viscount Linley, and Lady Sarah — rumors circulated of marital discord. It became known that they kept private residences in Kensington Palace, and Lord Snowdon was often absent on photo assignments abroad.
Margaret was linked romantically to at least two suitors (one of whom later committed suicide). In 1973, she became involved with a young garden designer, leading to her separation and, in 1978, divorce from Lord Snowdon. Years later, there would be reports that Lord Snowdon had fathered a child who was born weeks after his marriage to Margaret.
Royal marriages had broken down before, but theirs was the first royal divorce in England since Henry VIII, and it set the tone for the salacious media coverage in the 1990s of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York.
Those controversies took the glare off Margaret and Lord Snowdon, although his life was not without its twists as he maintained his work as a photographer and filmmaker.
With his royal connections, he had access to the regal, the famous and the artistic, even after his divorce. In 1984, he was the first to photograph the newborn Prince Harry, and three years later he took an official portrait photo of Margaret and their two grown children. They were said to have been on good terms in later years.
He photographed the actor Laurence Olivier; Vita Sackville-West, the writer and lover of Virginia Woolf; David Bowie; the artist Barbara Hepworth; and novelists Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene. He was known for his brooding, black-and-white images. Some of his subjects regarded the camera; others didn’t. He didn’t dwell much on the psychology of his photographs, although he once told an interviewer that “I don’t like pictures of people smiling, because it’s a false facial expression.”
There was drama in his personal life as well as in his artwork. While married to his second wife, Lucy Lindsay-Hogg — with whom he had a daughter, Frances — he had a relationship with a journalist 33 years his junior, Melanie Cable-Alexander, and fathered a son, Jasper.
“It’s trite, but not wholly untrue,” writer A.A. Gill observed for Australian Magazine in 2014, “to say a great deal of Antony Armstrong-Jones’ life came out of the skillful double act of Tony and Snowdon, a mutual ventriloquism where one of them, then the other, plays the dummy.”
Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones was born in London on March 7, 1930. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was the sister of Oliver Messel, the noted stage designer.
Lord Snowdon had studied architecture at the University of Cambridge but was expelled after failing his final exams. He would go on, however, to design structures including the engineered aluminum aviary at the London Zoo, named after him and the first walk-through aviary of its kind. He also designed chairs for the 1969 investiture of his wife’s nephew, Prince Charles, as the Prince of Wales.
Princess Margaret died in 2002. A complete list of Lord Snowdon’s survivors was not immediately available.
In a 2014 video with his contemporary celebrity photographer David Bailey, Bailey put his arm on Lord Snowdon’s shoulder and asked, “So Tony, do you have any regrets?”
Lord Snowdon cleared his throat and gave himself a moment of consideration of a life lived in a rarefied world of fame, glamour and sex. He responded, “None.”
Emily Langer contributed to this report.
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