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My life in focus – Dorset magazine meets Jill Kenington

PUBLISHED: 17:28 21 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:23 20 February 2013

Jill Kennington

Jill Kennington

Annette Shaw talks to Jill Kennington about her extraordinary journey from Swinging Sixties supermodel to renowned portrait photographer

My life in focus Dorset magazine meets Jill Kenington


Annette Shaw talks to Jill Kennington about her extraordinary journey from Swinging Sixties supermodel to renowned portrait photographer

The photographer circled in asmall plane all the while taking pictures of me wearing on-trend culottes, at 300 feet, parachuting. As a fashion shoot for the Sunday Times it was one of the most innovative and thats how photographer John Cowan and I made our mark.

Now living in Eggardon, West Dorset, former supermodel Jill Kennington reflects on a life that has taken her to both sides of the lens. Once in the same league as Jean Shrimpton, Jill has also photographed a raft of famous faces including Andy Warhol on Long Island. This summer saw her in a collection of 1960s photographs in Salisburys Young Gallery. She features in three pictures held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, one with singer Adam Faith and fellow Sixties model Celia Hammond.

So how do you make it as a supermodel? As a teenager I was unsure about my future. I knew what I didnt want to do! Brushes with hotel management and nursing were not for me, says Jill with a smile, adding something instinctively pulled me towards London.


The most beautiful girl isnt necessarily the best model. I can only describe it as an inner thing

From her family home in the Wolds of north east Lincolnshire, Jill went to stay with an aunt who was a buyer for Harrods and helped her get a holiday job at the store. At a cocktail party I met an agent and he said Id got something. He gave me his card and arranged a meeting with one of his clients. That client was Norman Hartnell, couturier and official dressmaker to the Queen.

It sounds unbelievable now! Ihad two days of lessons including the basics of how to work the catwalk and found I was completely at ease being photographed. The most beautiful girl isnt necessarily the best model. I can only describe it as an inner thing. Diana Vreeland, editor of US Vogue in the Sixties is quoted as saying: In my opinion, Jill Kennington is one of the best models around She is not a beauty, but she has fresh air and dynamo

Jill starred in fashion shows in Geneva and Paris where she met the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Commissions in Africa followed with Peter Beard, then Terence Donovan took a head shot for English Vogue making Jill the face of 1963. But it was her professional relationship with John Cowan that produced ground-breaking and breathtaking results.

For a Daily Mirror spread Jill wore a red, white and blue swimsuit and rode on horseback with the Life Guards on Constitution Hill I remember lurking amongst the trees, on horseback, with a rug round my shoulders. As soon as the guards appeared I threw off the rug and John(Cowan), who was in front of me shooting from the back of a Landrover, started taking photos before the guards took us both out. We literally had seconds to do it! Jill also headlined with Lord Nelson and Queen Boadicea showing-off outfits by top designers of the day such as Mary Quant and Ungaro.


Jill has also photographed a raft of famous faces including Andy Warhol on Long Island

American Vogue sent her to the North Pole. Jill recalls the extraordinary journey that took her there. Flying in a tiny plane, and then a bubble helicopter, I watched the landscape change from trees to tundra to ice, broken only by blue whales and polar bears. We set up camp at a meteorological station. Our guide was a Canadian Mountie and I had to cope with mascara at 40 degrees below!

The resulting photographs from this Arctic odyssey are awesome Jillin a pure white, full-length cape silhouetted against blue-tinged icefloes, then prone, sequins competing with the glistening snow.

Leaving London in 1968 Jill worked for Elle and Marie Claire and French Vogue in Paris, whilst continuing globe-trotting on assignments, before settling in Rome for nine years and then the South of France.

Divorce brought Jill back to the UK, and it was at this point that she switched to the other side of the lens. At the age of 40 I was at a turning point. I met my second husband Richie and became a mother. My daughters, Charlotte and Christabel, were born when I was 41 and 44, so motherhood was pretty full-on. However, I was lucky to have more career peaks and I did seem to have an instinct and a good eye for a picture. Im fascinated by creative people, how they manage their work and their lives.

Jill also attributes much of her success to the way she grew up with a great sense of freedom and confidence. I think thats partly why I made it as a model I adapt easily to my surroundings.

Jill is modest about her skill, her sitting room is peppered with photos, some famous, some personal. Theres one that catches my eye, a portrait of a lady with a feather-boa around her neck. Her smile is broad and she looks as if something has touched a really happy chord. Theres a story about that one, says Jill. Shes my mother, the last picture before she succumbed to dementia. I wanted to do something for my sisters and a gift of the best photo I could take seemed the best tribute. As I snapped away I said to my mother to think of her daughters. Her face lit up and just for a second, and the dementia fell away.


Terence Donovan took a head shot for English Vogue making Jill the face of 1963

In 2011 Jill moved from East Sussex to Dorset. Her husband found the farmhouse they now live in and she fell in love with the rolling landscape that surrounded it. Within weeks of setting up home Jill was introduced to Dorset Art Weeks and found a launch pad for her work in her adopted county. Though her landscapes are stunning, it really is people that Jill captures best. The National Portrait Gallery acquired 21 of her images, the collection includes Jean Muir, Mary Quant, David Lean and Robert Bolt.

Jill is particularly proud of the study of the late writer/director Robert Bolt, the author of A Man for All Seasons and the writer of the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. They first met in Ireland when he was working on Ryans Daughter and reconnected years later when Bolt had not long since had a stroke. The image of Bolt sitting, framed by a solid, gnarled tree trunk conveys the depth and strength of the man, yet now in need of support.

A portrait needs time and through one-to-one you build a connection, says Jill. I was brought up to respect and value everyone, whoever they are. I always ask permission, I never steal a shot. I get below the surface and then at some point the sitter trusts me. The past never goes away and I believe the cumulative effect has made me the photographer I am today.

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