BRIDPORT: Even at the age of 71 the word retirement isn’t in Jill Kennington’s vocabulary.
It is that drive, and the ability to live life to the full, to grasp any and every possibility with a boundless – and fearless – enthusiasm, that ensured her success as one of the earliest ‘super models’.
It has also ensured her continuing success, albeit behind the camera more than in front of it these days, as the people of Bridport will be able to discover when she mounts her own exhibition in the arts centre this autumn People who see Jill, pictured inset, in the street might merely see an elegant woman with a certain sense of style.
They might marvel that she is 71.
What they wouldn’t be able to tell is just what an extraordinary life she’s led – and continues to lead.
She talks almost casually of knowing the icons of the 60s – David Bailey, Omar Sharif, Lord Snowdon, Andy Warhol, Mary Quant, David Lean and more.
But then she was a model in great demand.
Not that she set out to be.
She’d left her happy, bucolic life in Lincolnshire, to come to London where her aunt was a buyer for Harrods.
She got herself a job there and at Christmas party she met a man who stared at her all night before asking her to come and meet him.
It seemed a bit suspicious to the 19-year-old country girl but her aunt said the man was a top agent.
And so a meteoric career was launched.
Her first job was as designer Norman Hartnell’s ‘mascot’ and the jobs rolled in.
Jill said: “There I was the new young thing. I was very, very green with these very sophisticated women who did cat walking all the time.
“I was a completely different creature, like an alien.
“But every time we called in somewhere, all the press photographers always picked me and I felt very comfortable with that for some peculiar reason.”
After a successful nationwide tour she got back to London and was introduced to a very dynamic photographer – John Cowan.
Jill said: “We did some great test shots, very fresh and different from anything that was around.
“This was in late ’61, ’62.”
The difference was Jill was willing, able and fearless – happy to take on anything from bareback riding in a swimming costume in front of the Household Cavalry to modelling in the Arctic. The bookings came in thick and fast for the likes of Queen magazine, Vogue, Tatler and Harpers.
Jill said: “I loved the work, it was really exciting. I came from north east Lincolnshire and life couldn’t be more different.
“By 1963 I was the face of Vogue. It was all very creative work. I didn’t do the static boring studio stuff. I was very good on location and wasn’t afraid of trying things.”
She modelled for 20 years – which certainly wasn’t the norm – then or now.
She’s heard other models bemoan how boring the job is – but it never felt like that to Jill.
“I was really lucky that really cracking people wanted to work with me and vice versa.”
In 1966 she was part of the now cult film Blow Up, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni about a melange of photographers. Blow Up is now featuring in an exhibition in the Albertina Museum in Vienna and Jill was invited to be the guest of honour at its opening.
She moved to Paris in 1968 working for French Elle and Vogue and Marie Claire.
She said: “It was crazy. I was living in the Latin quarter, hoping not to get trapped by police with tear gas. It was fascinating though. You’d go out in the morning to the studio and pass devastation, piles of rubble and trees uprooted. It was very scary when the police were around, it was a war zone really.” She was already working in Italy and New York so decided to uproot again and move to Rome She stayed there for 10 years.
“I got another language under my belt and a lot of culinary skills. It was such a joy to live there.”
After that it was a move to the South of France, working occasionally with photographer Helmut Newton.
By then she was nearly 40.
She said: “I thought it was time to hang up my eyelashes.
“I retired but it didn’t really suit me. I thought I am nearly 40 and people don’t keep doing this at my age. But how wrong was I?”
A divorce saw her coming back to England and although she never thought to marry again, she did, unexpectedly, a year later.
She had two children and the family moved to the country in East Sussex.
By then her own camera and photography had become an extension of herself. People began asking her to photograph their loved ones and she had a new mission.
“I just loved that,” she said.
Her mission grew to try and photograph all the artistic people she admired – beginning with a portrait of Andy Warhol. She said: “I went to New York to see my sister and had lunch in Andy Warhol’s famous Factory.
“I took my camera and he agreed to sit for me for probably four and half minutes.
“Most people were absolutely charming. David Lean and his wife were friends.
“Snowdon was fine, Parkinson was delightful. Tim Page the war photographer was somebody I admired.
“I love the one of Robert Bolt, who wrote Ryan’s Daughter, A Man for All Seasons and Dr Zhivago.
“It was a natural progression for me to move from in front of the camera to behind.
“I am not a modern techy digital photographer. I tick along with what feels part of me – film processing and printing, it’s all still magic.”
There are now 20 of her pictures permanently on display in the national Portrait Gallery and she’s had an exhibition at the V&A.
Not that’s she’s given up being in front of the camera – she took part in a Rimmel documentary this spring when Rimmel London celebrated the style of the 60s,by creating a series to showcase the legacy of mod culture.
In ‘Original Mod’ the company describes Jill as one of the biggest models of 1960s London.
She’s also been involved in a new online beauty magazine Min Max out at the end of month.
Now she’s busy trying to distil her amazing life and career – and the new direction her photography has taken into landscapes – into an exhibition at Bridport Arts Centre.
She said: “It’s taken a bit of thought. I didn’t know whether to do the Jurassic coast and Eggardon Hill but I was told ‘anything but that!’ “So I am in fact doing a life story, a snapshot of my career.”
Jill moved to Powerstock 18 months ago and within weeks was involved in Dorset Art Weeks.
Despite a reluctance to leave her 15-acre home in Sussex she’s fallen in love with West Dorset.
She said: “The first day we were here I sat on the step with a cup of tea and my dogs and thought ‘yes, this feels like home’.