In 2005 I found myself working with Madonna. She was then married to Guy Ritchie and enjoying a very English life between homes in London and the countryside.
The British tabloids had embraced her to the point of fondly calling her ‘Madge’, as her current husband did, and expending miles of newsprint commenting favourably on how she wore tweeds, had taken up riding, and had been seen several times at the local pub. All the dismissive sneering concerning her involvement with Jewish Kabbalah had been replaced by approving articles on how its influence had turned her into a much more agreeable person with a plausible English accent. Our photographs were to take place at her country house, Ashcombe, once upon a time the estate of the multifaceted English artist/photographer/writer Cecil Beaton, whom I had worked with towards the end of his life. Our photographer was to be Tim Walker, a nostalgia-loving character whose body of work looked like he had conjured all his images from children’s fairytales.
Tim had travelled down early to Wiltshire to discuss all the ideas. He and Madonna met in the pub, and when I and the rest of the crew arrived a day later he ecstatically reported that she had embraced every detail he had suggested. All of which surprised me, as some of his ideas were pretty extreme.
Our first shot of her was in the drawing-room wearing a pair of jodhpurs, and that went well enough. Then came a picture in which she was supposed to wear a dress with a very full skirt. She balked at it, saying, ‘This makes me look like a 1950s débutante,’ which, of course, was pretty much the effect we were after.
Things went comparatively smoothly with our next two set-ups. We took a picture of her in bed reading the newspapers with her children. Next we took a shot of Madonna out riding with Guy. Galloping back, she couldn’t have failed to notice that we had started to turn all her sheep pretty shades of pastel in readiness for a picture later on. Then she started to grow testy. ‘I’m going to do the picture of her in the martini glass next,’ Tim told me enthusiastically while Madonna was upstairs changing. I do remember asking if he was absolutely certain she had agreed to this. ‘Oh yes,’ he said as she came down, looked out the window, and saw, on her lawn, an enormous martini glass with a giant cherry in it and a ladder propped at its side waiting to carry her up.
‘I’m not doing that. No way,’ said Madonna grimly. She firmly vetoed the image, and when he suggested another that involved her wearing a hat that looked like a cream cake, she angrily refused that, too.
Finally, she calmed down a little when we set up a photograph reminiscent of a Bruce Weber portrait of Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, feeding the chickens on her country estate at Chatsworth. But after that, even though there was another day to go, the mood was far too negative and the session was, for all intents and purposes, over. Sadly, the extraordinary dress - a huge crinoline that John Galliano had made specially for the shoot - was caught in the crossfire. She looked so gloomy in it that the photograph was never used. Despite all the problems, however, we ended up with a really charming evocation of Madonna’s English interlude.