Obituary Reg Davis

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From The Times, 5 September 2018

Reg Davis spent almost 50 years photographing the rich, the famous and the glamorous, including Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Grace of Monaco. However, his best-known work was with the royal family, whom he accompanied around the world on dozens of royal tours and state visits. The Duke of Edinburgh would refer to him as “our Christmas tree” because he was invariably covered in cameras and flashlights.

Princess Margaret was his favourite royal subject. “She was just so vibrant and had these beautiful azure eyes,” he told the Daily Express last year. “She really was the Diana of her day. Everything I took of her was in demand.”

In 1969 Davis was invited to Windsor to photograph the royal family in the gardens of Frogmore House. He wanted to have them sitting on the ground, but the grass was wet and all that he could find was a Persian rug. “When Prince Philip saw it he remarked, ‘Whatever is a Persian carpet doing in the middle of Windsor?’ ” he recalled. “Thankfully the Queen eased the situation, saying to the younger two boys, ‘Come on, children, let’s sit on the magic carpet and fly away ...’ ”

On the same occasion Davis tried, at his wife’s suggestion, to get the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to swing Prince Andrew. “Unfortunately Philip wasn’t keen and Andrew was too heavy,” he recalled. “But again the Queen saved the day, saying to Princess Anne, ‘Come on, you and I will do it [with Prince Edward].’ ” Davis added: “I always saved these riskier ideas for last, just in case the subjects weren’t keen. But this worked beautifully.”

He captured Prince Charles on film from boyhood to fatherhood. “I first saw him when he was six years old and playing football and cricket at Hill House School,” he said on another occasion, adding that he thought Charles was frightened of his father. “My pictures show the face of an unhappy child, not because I took his picture only when he seemed sad. The expression is the way he was.”

The first time Davis noticed any reaction from Charles was during the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in 1966. “He was 18 and I watched him come out of his shell as he joked with female competitors,” he said. Ten years later, at the Badminton Horse Trials, Davis snapped the first picture of Charles with a beard, and in 1986 Charles introduced him to his son at Prince William’s fourth birthday. “I noticed he is a very natural caring father,” Davis said. “I think it’s the way he would have liked to be treated as a child.”

Despite being aware that Princess Anne had a reputation for being difficult, this was not his experience. Davis was sent to photograph her in the gardens at Buckingham Palace just before her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973. “She was perfectly happy to lie on the grass for me,” he recalled. “But when I asked if she would take a piece of straw and put it in her mouth, she replied, ‘I’m not that type of girl!’ ”

Reginald Davis was born in north London in 1925, the son of Sydney and Hannah Davis, who moved to St Albans at the outbreak of war. Young Reg was evacuated to Cambridge for a time and upon his return to St Albans he joined the local sea cadets, where he became head cadet.

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Called up by the Royal Navy in 1943, only days after his 18th birthday, Davis trained as a photographer, including learning the art of aerial photography, which he found “rather scary”. He later claimed to have chosen photography because he was conscious that the war would not last for ever and this vocation would serve him well in civvy street.

He was transferred to the Fleet Air Arm and joined 1836 Naval Air Squadron in the Pacific fleet on board HMS Victorious, which came under ferocious attack during the invasion of Okinawa.

“Kamikaze aircraft were all round the fleet, like bees round the honey pot,” he recalled. “Many aircraft were falling into the sea, theirs and ours. It was hell.” One day he was photographing on the flight deck when a kamikaze hit, and he recalled “seeing the sky full of white smoke . . . It was indeed a terrible day.”

After the war he spent another year in the navy, but found that life felt “flat” and was demobbed in 1946. He joined Dominion Press, a Fleet Street agency, which seconded him to take stills for the Boulting Brothers film production company that was making Brighton Rock (1947). He worked on The Guinea Pig (1948) and Private Angelo (1949), in the process getting to know Richard Attenborough and Peter Ustinov.

While in Brighton he met Audrey Fields, who was with friends on the beach; she had been a schoolteacher in Brighton during the war. He proposed on their third date and they were married in 1948. She survives him with their daughter Marilyn, who was a GP practice manager and is a magistrate, as well as three grandsons and two great-granddaughters.

In 1951, with the film industry going through one of its bouts of turmoil, Davis decided to go freelance, buying a typewriter for seven shillings. He was taken on by the Daily Express, where he was assigned to the night shift, photographing celebrities at film premieres and West End first nights. In June 1953 he covered the Coronation and went on to cover 14 royal weddings in seven countries.

The opportunity to photograph the Queen in person came in 1959 and from the outset he worked in colour. After that he never looked back. In 1963, while covering a state visit to Fiji, he fainted in the heat. When the Queen saw him in New Zealand five days later she asked him how he was. Two years earlier, in India, he and the rest of the media pack had left their shoes at a shrine to Mahatma Gandhi and arrived at a reception barefoot, which he recalled the Queen finding very funny.

In 1976 he photographed Elizabeth Taylor, recalling her “lovely eyes and skin texture”. However, it was a hot day and she was quaffing champagne throughout. “At the end she threw her arms around me and hugged me, which was terribly embarrassing as I was perspiring all over,” he said.

Taylor asked him to arrange for her to board the royal yacht. He could not help, but he did get her an invitation to a cocktail reception for the Queen at the British embassy in Washington. She asked if he would be her escort, but he had to decline because he was working. However, he “knew a chap called John Warner whom I had met at the Iranian embassy and who I was sure would be honoured to be her partner for the night”. Warner soon became Taylor’s sixth husband.

Sophia Loren was probably Davis’s favourite non-royal. “She was just superb, so vibrant and vivacious and natural, and she treated you as if you had been her friend for years,” he said. On one occasion they were in the middle of a shoot when Carlo Ponti, her husband, walked in and she immediately started kissing him passionately. “Naturally I averted my gaze,” he said, “until she insisted I photograph the two of them like that.”

Davis was never part of the paparazzi who chased celebrities the moment they stepped out in public, nor did he hide in bushes to catch them in a compromising position. Later in his career he told of how he had declined to cover the engagements of Diana, Princess of Wales, because of his belief that the “rat pack” was out of control.

In 1962 he won two awards from Encyclopaedia Britannica for his photography and in 1971 he was given first prize for colour photography in the Rothmans awards.

He had private audiences with royals from many countries and on one occasion was guest of honour at a banquet in Thailand, where he sat between King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.

Closer to home he was president of Hendon Rotary Club, helping to raise thousands of pounds for North London Hospice, and gave talks about his wartime service for schools and charities. Ten days before his death he was interviewed by the Royal Navy’s senior photographer in preparation for the photographic branch’s centenary next year. Davis published ten books, of which the most recent was My Life Photographing Royalty and the Famous (2017).

Not everyone was accommodating, notably Princess Grace of Monaco. “She only agreed to a private audience because I had previously had a private audience with the Queen,” Davis recalled. “When I ask her to play piano she claimed she couldn’t play a note. And then of course she lifts the lid and plays like a concert pianist . . . Everyone wanted to shoot Grace, she was such an attractive woman. Why be so haughty, arrogant and awkward?”

Reginald Davis, MBE, royal photographer, was born on March 5, 1925. He died on July 14, 2018, aged 93

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