Shooting in the paddock… Society snapper’s Goodwood archive. Racing stars caught off-guard. Desmond O’Neill’s wonderful collection of Goodwood photographs has lain unseen for more than 50 years, says Mick Walsh as he investigates this exciting find… Photography Desmond O’neill.
Heroes caught on film… Inside an amazing archive…
Society press photographer Desmond O’Neill is best known for his iconic studies of the rich and famous. The National Portrait Gallery in London is among the prestigious collections that exhibit O’Neill’s famous shots of Lord Lucan, Maria Callas and The Rolling Stones. This popular figure died in 2003 and his huge, highly organised archive was taken over by his son Dominic, who continues the family tradition behind the lens.
Last year, an unknown motorracing element came to light among the hundreds of transparency boxes. “My father had never mentioned Goodwood and Silverstone,” recalls Dominic, “then by chance I came across the negatives. I could see the quality, and soon recognised some of the drivers. I mentioned the discovery to a few car enthusiast friends and they became very excited.”
There’s no shortage of Goodwood shots, but, because of O’Neill’s expertise, the work offers a fresh viewpoint on the social side of this dangerous sport. The meetings represented range from the early-1950s visits of Italian champions through to the last International fixtures in 1965.
O’Neill brilliantly captured, with his Rolleiflex, the lighter atmosphere around the paddock and pits. The stars and teams seem undisturbed as he snapped the moment. Be it Moss chatting up an admirer, Hawthorn laughing with a sponsor’s wife at a prize-giving, or team owner John Coombs in deep discussion with Graham Hill, they all appear relaxed. Over years of following the glitterati, Desmond developed a great eye for composition while gaining the trust of subjects.
O’Neill was born in Manchester in 1923, the son of an optician who later moved to London. His keen interest in photography prompted him to enlist with the Army Film and Photography Unit, where his superiors demanded coverage of both the serious and light-hearted moments of war. Often at the sharp end of the action, O’Neill landed at Sword Beach in Normandy to record D-Day. He was shot in the arm while filming, but, other than a jolt as the bullet hit, O’Neill continued to work as the dramatic footage subsequently shown by Pathé News confirms.
After working for Soldier, O’Neill went freelance. His shots regularly featured in The Tatler, Queen and later Hello! magazines. His key assignments included Prince Rainier’s wedding to Grace Kelly, visiting Ian Fleming at Golden Eye, Jamaica, and portraits of Edward VIII after his abdication in France. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he attended Goodwood and Silverstone meetings in his beloved Jaguar. A gentle and deeply religious man, O’Neill’s nature quickly put people at ease.
No one was more thrilled by the find than Charles March, now the Duke of Richmond. The connection goes way back because both generations of O’Neill have photographed family weddings and exclusive events at Goodwood.
Once alerted to the website, the former photographer Duke was hugely impressed by the images. He invited Dominic and wife Maria to lunch and, at short notice, offered them a prime exhibition space at the Revival. The Duke, like many other enthusiasts, was captivated by O’Neill’s wonderful studies including many of his grandfather. The reactions of visitors proved fascinating because the figures in the background were regularly identified. “It was great fun,” says Maria. “One man was looking at the Phil Hill paddock portrait and suddenly recognised his dad standing at the side. The feedback was so rewarding. It was packed for all three days.”
More photographs are still being discovered in the remarkable archive, including many racing shots that will eventually be added to the website. As well as exhibiting at select events in 2018, the O’Neills have opened a gallery (visits by appointment) at their home in Holmbury St Mary.
See the collection at www.oneill-classics.co.uk; call 07798 830054 or e-mail [email protected] to visit. There’s an exclusive C&SC 15% discount until 31 January with the code ‘classic 2017’