Thursday, 6 May 2010

General Election Special 3: Michael Peto and Politicians

As promised in our post last week describing the material Archive Services holds on British politicians, the final post in this series looks at photographs of politicians contained in the Michael Peto photographic collection. Many people will be aware of the Hungarian-born Michael Peto’s superb photographs of stars of music, film, theatre and ballet such as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Margot Fontaine and the Beatles. However, this represents just a small sample of Peto’s diverse work which gave him a reputation as one of the best photographers of the 1950s and 1960s. It is unsurprising that Peto, who worked for The Observer on a freelance basis, photographed most of the major figures of British politics in this era, including eight individuals who served as Prime Minister - Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, Alec Douglas Home, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan. Peto also captured images of other senior figures including Chancellor Reginald Maudling, Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker, Lady Megan Lloyd George, Tony Benn, Deputy Labour Leader George Brown, Chancellor and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, future Lord Chancellor Quentin Hogg and Barbara Castle. Photographs of all these people are in the University archive collections.

Peto’s photographs often capture these figures in a relaxed or informal state. His photographs of Harold Wilson are typical of this, as can be seen from this example. This picture shows Wilson smoking his trademark pipe, which he was rarely pictured without (indeed in he was voted pipe smoker of the year in 1965 and pipe smoker of the decade in 1976). Similarly, some of Peto’s photographs of the then Shadow Chancellor Ted Heath, taken in March 1965, show him seated at the piano, which is appropriate for a man who had strong musical interests and who, as prime minister, would install a grand piano in 10 Downing Street.

Some of Peto’s photographs were taken in more formal and historic settings such as his photograph of Harold MacMillan leaving the Four Powers Summit in Paris in 1960. Another photograph shows Alec Douglas Home, in conversation with Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India. Both men seem relaxed, although Douglas Home seems distracted by the camera.

Peto photographed Winston Churchill on more than one occasion and also took a number of photographs of his funeral in 1965. These are particularly interesting because, as well as showing the pomp and ceremony associated with a state funeral, they also show the reactions of ordinary people to the death of Britain’s wartime premier. Another interesting series of photographs show Churchill campaigning in the 1955 General Election, including this image of him addressing an election rally. Churchill had stood down as prime minister a few months earlier, but campaigned both to retain his Woodford seat and in support of his successor as prime minister, and long time heir-apparent, Anthony Eden. Although by this time he was over eighty, Churchill still seemed to be an energetic campaigner, and he would remain in parliament for almost another ten years.

Michael Peto died on Chistmas Day, 1970, at the age of 62, and his family donated his work to the University of Dundee short after his death. The University of Dundee Archive Services is now the custodian of the entire photographic work of Michael Peto, a collection that comprises more than 130,000 prints and negatives. As well as UK politicians several figures from the international stage like Nelson Mandela, Golda Meir and Nikita Khrushchev were photographed by Peto. We will return to this subject in a future post.

Dr Kenneth Baxter

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