Rare and previously unseen photographs by and of George Harrison offer a new perspective of his life in the Beatles
Throughout his time as a Beatle and beyond, George Harrison’s talents as a photographer were a well-kept secret.
But wherever he went he was seldom without a camera, whether it was on tour with the Beatles, capturing the group in the centre of the maelstrom that was Beatlemania and in their unguarded moments backstage, or recording his private visits to exotic places around the world.
There was one particular subject, however, to which Harrison returned again and again – himself, as if in search of the answer to the question that preoccupied him all his life: who am I?
A new collection of photographs – the ones on these pages are taken either by Harrison, or with his camera; most have never been seen before – and a forthcoming documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, directed by Martin Scorsese and co-produced by Harrison’s widow, Olivia, provide a fascinating answer to that question, casting new light on his complex character and on his place in the Beatles.
George Harrison’s photo album
Harrison once described himself as ‘living proof of all life’s contradictions’ – the rock star who freely indulged in all the pleasures which that life had to offer, but who was always drawn to questioning their worth and searching for something more.
In the simplistic caricatures that were drawn of the Beatles in their early days, Harrison was ‘the quiet one’ – the most introspective and the most watchful. Consider the self-portrait taken when he was about 17; the proto-teddyboy quiff, the cigarette between the fingers suggest a studied teenage insouciance, a James Dean manqué – but the eyes reveal a deeper self-possession, a curiosity about the world, someone who is thinking about things.
‘You realise he was more mature than the rest,’ says the artist and musician Klaus Voorman, who met Harrison at around the time the photograph was taken, when the Beatles first went to Hamburg, and who became a lifelong friend. ‘He was calm. He looked you straight in the face.’
It was in Hamburg, performing for up to six hours a night, sleeping in a broom cupboard behind the screen in a porno cinema, and later at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, its atmosphere vivified by the stench from the overflowing lavatories and the smell of rotting fruit from neighbouring warehouses, that the Beatles phenomenon was born.
No other group or artist before or since has excited the attention and hysteria that the Beatles did. And Harrison’s photographs would vividly capture the surreal experience of being caught in the eye of the storm – the absurd motorcades laid on to transport them from remote airfields in Australia, the crush of hysterical fans, and the ravenous camera lenses at the limousine windows.
For Harrison, the thrill would be short-lived. Early on he began to cultivate a detachment from the distorting sense of unreality that adulation breeds, and to recognise that the ‘Beatle George’ who was being worshipped by the fans was, as he put it, ‘just a little part that got played through in this life’ and had little to do with the person that was the real George Harrison. Few people can ever have been as well-placed to appreciate that fame and success were only fleeting consolations.
It was a meeting in London in 1966 with the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar – ‘the first person who ever impressed me in my life’ – that first awakened Harrison’s interest in Indian music and spirituality. What most affected him about Shankar, Harrison said, was his humility. ‘That realisation that no matter how great you are, how big you are, there is always something else to know, there’s always more to come.’
In 1967 Harrison and the other Beatles met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and a year later followed him to his ashram in India. For the rest of the group spiritual search was to be a passing fancy; for Harrison it would set the template for the rest of his life. ‘Each person has to find for himself a way to inner realisation,’ he said. ‘I still believe that’s the only reason we’re on this planet. Everything else is secondary.’
Even as he was pursuing his other loves of playing music, producing films or following the Formula One circuit around the world, meditation and chanting were the central activities of Harrison’s day, and he was a regular visitor at Bhaktivedanta Manor, the mock-Tudor manor house near Watford in Hertfordshire that he bought as a gift for the Hare Krishna movement to use as its headquarters.
His ultimate refuge was Friar Park, the neo-Gothic mansion in Henley-on-Thames that he bought in a state of chronic dilapidation in 1970. He would spend the next 30 years painstakingly restoring the house and cultivating its extraordinary 35-acre gardens, which featured Alpine meadows and a sandstone replica of the Matterhorn, until his death in 2001 at the age of 58.
‘What we are now is a result of our past actions, and what we’re going to be is a result of our present actions,’ he once said. ‘So for certain things there’s no way out. There’s no way I wasn’t going to be in the Beatles, even though I didn’t know. In retrospect that’s what it was, it was a set-up. At the same time, I do have control over my actions… I can try being a pop star for ever and go on TV and be a celebrity. Or I can be a gardener.’ Which is what ‘Beatle George’ ultimately chose to be.
‘George Harrison: Living in the Material World’ by Olivia Harrison, edited by Mark Holborn, published by Abrams on October 3. To order for £26.99 plus £1.25 p&p call Telegraph Books on 0844-871151 or see books.telegraph.co.uk.
Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the same name will be in cinemas across the UK for one night on October 4, and available to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray from October 10