The Times tribute to Downing 25th April 2020

It was 3am on the last day of the Conservative Party’s 1984 Brighton conference. An IRA bomb had just gouged a hole in the Grand Hotel. John Downing climbed out of a front window and saw the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her husband, Denis, coming down the fire escape.

“They got in the car and I knew this was it,” he said. “I had one chance. She went past me and I banged the window with the camera.”

The picture went round the world, showing the anxious Thatchers in their dressing gowns and their companion Cynthia Crawford staring wide-eyed into Downing’s camera. “We got the exclusive that night,” he said. “It’s not a great photographic picture, but it was a really important picture on the night. I phoned the Daily Express, and it was the only time I was able to say, ‘Hold the front page.’ They stopped the presses and got it in the last edition.”

Downing shot Mrs Thatcher and her husband, Denis, after the Brighton hotel bombing


In the office the tall, lean Downing had a favourite darkroom printer and usually framed his pictures with a black border to give them more impact. “He could be a bit of a prima donna,” said Alan Frame, the former Express executive editor, “but that was because he was the very best of the best. He was incredibly competitive.”

John Elfed Howell Downing was born in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, in 1940, the eldest of four sons of Welsh-speaking parents. His father, Kenneth, was a school teacher who became a colour sergeant in the Royal Marines in the Second World War. His mother, Glenys, was a nurse. The family moved to Stockwell, south London, after the war. John’s Welsh accent, which he later largely lost, got him into fights at school. The photography bug struck at 13, when he saw a friend developing a photograph. “He put a bit of white paper in liquid and suddenly a picture appeared. I thought that was magic,” he recalled.

Downing left school the next year to start a five-year apprenticeship at the Daily Mail, then moved to the Express. “I remember the excitement of walking down Fleet Street after midnight when I’d finished my shift,” he said, “and seeing the Express vans, knowing my picture was in there. That never left me.”

Downing had a brief marriage to Barbara Gregory, with whom he had a son, Gareth, who died of cancer in 2007, aged 42. In 1968 he married Jeannette Claes, a model, whom he met photographing for an Express feature. The relationship also ended in divorce. Their son, Bryn, runs a film and TV production company. His third wife, Anita (née D’Attellis), whom he married in 2007, is a concert pianist and teaches piano at Eton. They met when she played for the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, one of Downing’s great passions.

He caught a clash between skinheads and bikers in Southend, Essex, in 1980


He felt guilty about being away from his family so much, but there were compensations. “My childhood was very fun and loving,” said Bryn. “I was fortunate he had an exciting career. There’s not many kids that can say their dad was drinking a toast to their son on his birthday while locked up in a Kampala jail on the orders of the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.”

Downing had been imprisoned by Amin’s henchmen in Uganda in 1972 while covering the expulsion of all Asians. When he was arrested the guard forced his head on a table, held a gun to him and demanded: “Why you spy on our country?”

“I was absolutely at this man’s mercy,” said Downing, “and I could start weeping and whining and begging for my life but I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ I said, ‘I’m not spying, I’m here as a journalist’, and he just took all his soldiers and left.’’

Having hidden his camera, Downing managed to take harrowing images of the prison conditions. He could not let the guards hear the shutter going off so arranged for his fellow prisoners to cough on cue.

Over five decades he visited more than a hundred countries. In the 1980s he was smuggled into Afghanistan by the mujahidin, who were fighting the Russians, wearing a burqa in the back of an old ambulance, and he later photographed the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

In 1981 he covered the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. “She was standing in kind of a peculiar way,” he said, “but back in the office the first question was ‘where is the ring?’ I realised Diana had been showing it and I was able to blow up the picture,” giving a close-up of the ring.

                               Downing, pictured with Anita in 2019 

Downing won the British press photographer of the year award an unprece- dented seven times and was appointed MBE in 1992 for services to journalism. He became an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 2011. Last November, knowing that he was dying, he published Legacy, a collection of his work.

Aside from classical music and singing with the London Welsh choir at the Royal Albert Hall, his great love was the Welsh rugby team. “The only sport job he would ever volunteer for was at Twickenham whenever Wales played England,” Bryn said.

Downing’s ambition was to capture a photograph that would last beyond his lifetime. “You won’t know until I’m gone if I’ve taken a picture like that,” he said, “but I feel there are a couple of pictures I’m proud of.”

John Downing MBE, photographer, was born on April 17, 1940. He died of lung cancer on April 8, 2020, aged 79

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre