Racing stars caught off-guard

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.

Racing stars caught off-guard

Racing stars caught off-guard. A jubilant Jim Clark takes Colin Chapman for a victory lap after a brilliant wet drive in the 1965 St Mary’s Trophy to beat Jack Sears and John Rhodes. Clark jumped straight into his Lotus 25 and won the International Trophy Race.

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; 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’

Racing stars caught off-guard

Racing stars caught off-guard . Above: Stirling Moss pretends he’s waterskiing behind a Lotus-Climax 15 ahead of the 1959 Goodwood RAC TT, while Graham Hill, Alan Stacey and Colin Chapman enjoy the joke. Moss’ Aston won, but the 15 broke after running third among the big guns. Far left: dashing Brits Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins spot an attractive young fan in the Silverstone pitlane at the 1958 British Grand Prix. The Ferrari teammates finished 1-2, but two weeks later Collins would fatally crash at the German GP. Left: the flamboyant Harry Schell enjoys a laugh and a cuppa in the back of the BRM transporter at Goodwood, Easter 1959. Schell led the 42-lap Glover Trophy from the start in his P25 before the Coopers of Moss and Brabham squeezed past.


Racing stars caught off-guard
Racing stars caught off-guard. O’Neill was a master of composition. Here he captures Californian Dan Gurney getting into his Grand Prix Brabham BT11 in preparation for the televised International Trophy Race. He held second until low oil pressure forced retirement. Inset: O’Neill’s trusty Rolleiflex. Left: Americans were always a glamorous feature at Goodwood race meetings. Here the Texan hotshoe Carroll Shelby gets ready for his winning Aston Martin DBR1 co-drive in the 1959 Tourist Trophy. Note his signature striped dungarees and natty two-tone racing boots. Above: an Italian mechanic loading up the Scuderia Centro Sud OM transporter at the ’1959 Goodwood Easter meet. The team ran two Maserati 250Fs for Jack Fairman and Hermano João da Silva Ramos. Left: Graham Hill looking apprehensive in the works Lotus 16 before the 1959 Glover Trophy at Goodwood. The race was full of incident, including motorcyclist Ken Kavanagh’s Maserati 250F shunt. Hill retired early after a brake failure scare.

Racing stars caught off-guard

Racing stars caught off-guard. A pensive Giuseppe Farina in his Alfa-Romeo Tipo 159 alongside Reg Parnell’s Ferrari Thin Wall Special. The Italian ace won the ’1951 Woodcote Trophy, with a new fastest lap of 1 min 28.4 secs. Was a stone placed under a wheel to stop him jump-starting?.  Far left: John Cooper in cricket jumper and smoking a pipe, with his team drivers Bruce McLaren and Masten Gregory while Bridgit Russell listens in. The American finished in fifth place but was lapped by winner Moss. Note the fan leaning over the fence trying to spot his heroes. Left: Goodwood circuit founder Freddie March presents Ken Wharton with the Chichester Cup after his winning BRM V16 drive at the 1954 Easter Meeting. 

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