Philip Townsend’s own life reads like a picaresque novel. His well-born mother inherited a fortune in trust but spent a lifetime trying to prise it from the clutches of reluctant trustees. She blagged money ostensibly for the welfare of her six children but used it instead to feed her gambling habit. Philip, the youngest, trailed in her wake to most of the casinos in Europe, waiting outside while she worked the gaming tables – or they worked her. He attended 27 different schools and lived in a succession of houses because the fees and the rents were never paid.
In one of those fortuitous encounters which have peppered his life, the teenage Townsend teamed up with Lord Christopher Thynne, brother of the Marquess of Bath, and the two toffs toured the country photographing young debutantes. A year later he was working for Tatler magazine, and by the age of 20 he was an agency stringer based in the South of France.
Over the next two years he photographed the beautiful people who wintered and watered on the Riviera: Prince Rainier and his Hollywood wife, Princess Grace; a rare photo of Sir Winston Churchill with Aristotle Onassis; Marlon Brando and Joan Fontaine. Years later, when the sixties were losing their swing, he returned to capture a memorable shot of a visibly out-of-love Richard Burton at a party with Elizabeth Taylor. Townsend was always much more than a party snapper: he had a journalist’s flair for a good story. When Rex Harrison was marrying for the fourth time, to actress Kay Kendall, Townsend door-stepped his home in France and followed him to Italy, eventually bagging a picture which earned him one of many highly paid exclusives in the Daily Express.