Peter Beard, wildlife photographer.

Born: January 22, 1938

Died: c. March/April 2020

PETER Beard, renowned artist and one of the world’s most celebrated wildlife photographers, has died near his home in Long Island, New York. The New York Times reported he had been lost for several days and was suffering from dementia.

Beard was a dedicated animal lover who spent much of his time in Kenya. Yet, much of his adult life revealed him to be a dedicated party animal, enjoying the lush life with the rich and very famous.

The bohemian lensman enjoyed the company of Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon (who painted at least nine portraits of Beard; a 1976 portrait of Beard by Bacon sold for $15,000 at a New York auction house last April) and Andy Warhol, was at Beard’s side on the 1970s Manhattan party circuit.

Beard, whose works sold for up to half a million dollars, also captured the hearts and minds of the showbiz community, counting the likes of Mick Jagger as a friend and Candace Bergen as an ex-girlfriend.

It’s fair to say Peter Hill Beard had one of the best starts in life. Growing up into great wealth – he was the heir to a railroad fortune on his mother’s side and a tobacco inheritance on his father’s – allowed for the springboard into art and an extremely wild lifestyle.

Young Peter was fascinated both by photography and the idea of chronicling his own life. After studying Art History at Yale University, he moved to Kenya and began capturing the animal tragedy before him.

Beard’s ascendancy into world fame – not made too difficult given his wealth, connections and film star looks – began when he framed the African wilderness exquisitely with his 1965 photo-book The End of the Game, or rather he captured its imminent death.

Beard’s book revealed heart-breaking images of thousands of dying elephants, rhinos and hippos in the Tsavo National Park in Kenya which had given way to starvation, stress and density-related diseases. “When I first went to Kenya in 1955 it had a [human] population of five million,” he recalled. “Ten years later it was 19m. Millions of years of evolutionary processes destroyed in the blink of an eye.”

In the 1970s, however, Beard developed his singular art form, combining photographs, text from his daily journals, drawings of animals and a range of (highly) irregular objects.

His pictures would often feature a border of dry leaves, or insects or perhaps even newspaper cuttings. His collages were sometimes decorated with animal blood, and on occasion his own. It was all part of a deliberate attempt to underline the fragility of the world’s ecological system.

Meantime, he worked as a photographer for the likes of Vanity Fair. And managed to pack his life with as much drama as possible.

Described by one friend as “Half-Tarzan, half-Byron,” Beard’s adventuring almost came close to matching his creative talent. “Whether he’s at a New York nightclub or deep in the African wilderness, world-famous photographer and artist Peter Beard is surrounded by drugs, debts and beautiful women,” said one Vanity Fair feature.

One of those beautiful women was Jackie Onassis – whom he famously photographed skinny-dipping. But often life was far more dangerous. Beard regularly swam in crocodile-infested rivers.

And he came close to death in Africa several times as he pursued great photographic challenges. In 1996, he was gored by an elephant and wasn’t expected to survive, thanks to multiple internal injuries.

In America and London he pursued hedonism as if the concept were about to become extinct. He married three of times (including society figure Mary Cushing, model Cheryl Tiegs and his last wife was Nejma Khanum, a daughter of an Afghan judge) yet he found marriage to be an institutional cage from which he was desperate to escape. “The institution of marriage should be re-examined because of its overwhelming claustrophobia,” he argued.

The artist clearly craved excitement – and release. When aged 69, Beard was recorded by one feature writer emerging from his African tent trailed by four or five Ethiopian women, “all of whom had shared his bed.”

Beard also loved the company of the talented and famous such as Warhol. “I thought Andy was a freak,” he said on first meeting. “He was dressed in all leather. He was very white and slightly scary.”

The artist enjoyed his closeness to Francis Bacon. “I’m the one person, by the way, who Bacon ever let photograph his work in progress.” He added; “I shot a painting of his called The Last Man on Earth, which he then went and ruined that same night—he came home pickled, and painted over it.”

Of Dali he said; “I was exhilarated when I lucked into a friendship with him. He was the idea man of all time. He kept insisting, weirdly enough, that I was his dead brother.”

Mick Jagger said of his American aristocrat friend Peter Beard: “He was a visionary who wasn’t afraid to take risks.”

Beard’s family underlined this notion of absolute individuality. “Peter was an extraordinary man who led an exceptional life,” said a statement. “He lived life to the fullest; he squeezed every drop out of every day.’’

Peter Beard is survived by his daughter Zara, from his marriage to Nejma Khanum.

BRIAN BEACOM