HE WAS the black sheep of the Royal Family, an outsider and a rebel who wooed, wed and later divorced the Queen’s sister, and who courted women and scandal with the same abandon.
The death of Lord Snowdon at 86 closes the final chapter in a story that had outraged polite society but delighted the gossip columnists of two generations.
Tony Snowdon was one of the most flamboyant figures of the swinging Sixties, a talented photographer who charmed everyone around him – not the least of whom was Princess Margaret, one of the most eligible women in the world, and, following her reluctant parting from her first but forbidden love, the divorcee Grp Capt Peter Townsend, a free soul.
When they married, at Westminster Abbey in 1960, he became the first real commoner to wed a king’s daughter for 450 years.
The Snowdons were the most glamorous and modern members of the Royal Family, but their marriage began to collapse quickly and publicly.
There had been a string of liaisons on both sides, and after the final split in 1978 – in which she became the first royal since Henry VIII to divorce – his biographer claimed he had fathered a daughter shortly before the marriage.
Born Antony Armstrong-Jones and ennobled upon marriage, Snowdon was the son of a barrister and a society beauty, Anne Messel, who went on to become the Countess of Rosse.
His parents separated when he was young and at 16 he contracted polio, an experience that fuelled a life-long campaign against the discrimination of the disabled.
He recovered well enough to be able to cox the Cambridge rowing crew to victory in the 1950 Boat Race, one of the closest ever. At one point, the boats’ oars touched.
Following education at Sandroyd School, Salisbury, and then Eton, the young Armstrong-Jones went up to Cambridge, to study natural history, but switched to architecture after only 10 days.
After failing his second year exams, he embarked on a career as a photographer, serving first as an apprentice under the court photographer, Baron, and then branching out on his own.
He photographed actors and actresses for theatre publicity shots, including Laurence Olivier and Marlene Dietrich.
His distinctive style of society photography helped him make – and hide – a friendship with Princess Margaret, allowing him licence was to slip in and out of royal residences without arousing suspicion.
He worked from a Pimlico studio and a small house in unfashionable Rotherhithe on the banks of the Thames. But he was far from obscure, with two books already to his name.
The public stage was fully his on February 26, 1960, when his engagement to Princess Margaret was announced.
They honeymooned in the Caribbean islands, and the following year it was revealed that Margaret was expecting a baby. But he needed more stimulation that royal life could provide, and in 1962 he was appointed artistic adviser by The Sunday Times – a contract that brought accusations of misusing his royal connections.
Yet he seldom toed the official line. As chairman of the panel of judges of souvenirs for the investiture of the Prince of Wales, he caused a storm by saying most of the 450 designs were a “load of rubbish”.
After his death was confirmed yesterday, Buckingham Palace said the Queen had been informed, but did not comment further.