On Friday, August 22nd, 1969, scarcely more than 30 hours since they’d departed EMI Studios after having finally put the Abbey Road album to bed, the Beatles reconvened at Tittenhurst Park, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s estate in rural Sunningdale near Ascot in Berkshire County. They had gathered together that day for a photo session. And while they had no idea at the time, it would be their last day together.
Having vacated the Montagu Square apartment in London that they had borrowed from Ringo Starr—Jimi Hendrix would move into the flat soon thereafter—John and Yoko had moved into their new home just 11 days earlier. Lennon had purchased the 72-acre property back in May after the sale of Kenwood, his former home with ex-wife Cynthia in Weybridge. Even more regal and grandiose than Kenwood, Tittenhurst Park cost £145,000—a pretty penny at the time—and the sale price included the 26-room main house, well-kempt rolling lawns, and gardens, as well as a cricket pitch, a Victorian-era assembly hall, a Tudor cottage, a chapel, and an assortment of other outbuildings, including servants’ cottages.
Joining the band that day were Apple press officer Derek Taylor and the ever-faithful roadie Mal Evans. Ono was there, too, as was a heavily pregnant Linda McCartney and Paul’s sheepdog Martha. For the occasion, Taylor had invited 23-year-old American photographer Ethan Russell, who had taken photos of the Beatles’ during the January Get Back sessions, as well as The Daily Mail’s popular sports photographer Monte Fresco. Evans also shot numerous photographs that day, as did Linda, who was a professional photographer in her own right, having published her pictures of rock ‘n’ roll glitterati in Town and County and, later, Rolling Stone.
For the Beatles themselves, the event at Tittenhurst Park was merely the latest of a seemingly endless succession of exercises over the years in which they had posed, at times, around bomb craters, in parks, and on beaches, on boats and around steamer trunks, or, more recently, walking along the zebra crossing on stately Abbey Road. “It was just a photo session,” Starr later recalled. “I wasn’t there thinking, ‘Okay, this is the last photo session.’”
But for Russell, who had already spent hours photographing the band earlier in the year, “the vibe was strange.” As the Beatles posed for his camera that day, Russell could tell that “they were not a happy group”—especially George Harrison, who “was just miserable the whole time,” Russell later recalled.
As usual, the Beatles were stylishly dressed for the occasion. Harrison donned a wide-brimmed cowboy hat in comparison with the prim black felt one atop Lennon’s head. While Starr wore a neo-Paisley scarf for the occasion, Paul McCartney preferred the simplicity of a nondescript dark suit, tieless in contrast with the red handkerchief around Harrison’s neck. They might almost have been a group of tourists who had meandered into a novelty shop, hoping to have themselves photographed while decked out in the apparel, if not the mythology itself, of the Old West.
The session commenced at the main house, with the Beatles posing for pictures beneath the terrace canopy. For the most part, Russell took the lead that day, with Fresco hanging back as their small assemblage moved from one backdrop to another. After leaving the terrace, the Beatles loitered near the weathered statue of Diana, the Goddess of the Moon and Hunting, with her glowing orbs gazing off into the distance, as Russell and Fresco snapped their pictures. A short while later, the Beatles posed with a pair of donkeys from the stables, under a spread of Weeping Blue Atlas cedar trees, near the estate’s old Victorian assembly hall, with its enigmatic stone busts, and among the four terraced cottages that led back to the main house.
For a while, the Beatles stood for the photographers in a paddock of tall grass, an old cricket pitch that had long since lost its purpose, having become overgrown with age and languishing from neglect. As woolly Martha rested at her master’s feet, Linda shot 16mm film footage with Paul’s camera. Years later, McCartney would soberly realize that his wife’s moving images would be the last footage of the Beatles.
Russell and Fresco rounded out the day with several pictures of the Beatles, accompanied by Yoko and Linda, looking over the balcony. In the end, the band posed inside the main house, where they were arrayed around a large wooden table. As Fresco shot the final picture of the day, McCartney and Starr were captured in the act of waving goodbye, rather fittingly, for his camera.
– Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. He is the author, most recently, of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966) and Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years, 1966-2016). His next book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, is forthcoming in September 2019. You can learn more about Ken’s work
Photo: “Hey Jude” cover by Ethan Russell