A Portfolio of Distinguished Britons by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1952

In winter of 1951, LIFE Magazine sent the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt to Britain to take photos of the eminent men here. The magazine wrote: “From the drizzle of drab news that has blown from Great Britain these past few years, the world has sometimes gained the impression of a tired and dispirited nation whose greatness was draining away. The drizzle has clouded but hardly altered a prime fact about Britain’s regenerative powers: that she still possesses and is still producing a great many people of eminence in a great many fields. This is assurance that while Britain is condemned to more austerity, she is by no means condemned to mediocrity.”

LIFE’s view about drabness of Britain was well founded. Rationing of various household items lasted well into 1950s: bread came off rationing in 1948, clothes in 1949, and petrol in May 1950, but sweets, chocolates and sugar rationing would last until 1953, and meat until July 1954. In fact, the last remnants of the rationing state remained until July 1958, when coal rationing ended. Cyril Connolly, a cynical essayist wrote in April 1947:

Most of us are not men and women but members of a vast, seedy, overworked, over-legislated neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, strict, old-world apathies—a care-worn people. And the symbol of this mood is London, now the largest, saddest and dirtiest of great cities, with its miles of unpainted, half-inhabited houses, its chopless chop-houses, its beerless pubs, its once vivid quarters losing all personality, its squares bereft of elegance, its dandies in exile, its antiques in America, its shops full of junk, bunk, and tomorrow, . . . its crowds mooning around the stained green wicker of the cafeterias in their shabby raincoats, under a sky permanently dull and lowering like a metal dish-cover.’

Eisenstaedt spent 10 days in Britain, making house calls to 18 great men of the day. There were no prime ministers or royals here, and apart from Alexander Fleming and Bertrand Russell, most of these figures have largely been forgotten by history, but Eisenstaedt’s portraiture work was at his peak and the work was often considered one of the greatest photo-essays to have ever appeared in LIFE.

The magazine opened with the cover of Augustus Johns, the grumpy grand old man of British painting, and included the portrait photos of:

  • George Macaulay Trevelyan, the most read historian in Britain, who had just retired as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
  • The Very Rev. Martin Cyril D’Arcy, the influential Jesuit priest and philosopher.
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a judge known for his role in the Nuremberg Trials, who had recently been appointed the Home Secretary and the Minister for Welsh Affairs, who was so busy that Eisenstaedt had 4.5 minutes of time with him
  • Viscount Camrose, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph and a confidante of Churchill
  • Sir William Edward Rootes, the founder of Rootes Group, the automotive manufacturers
  • Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin
  • Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and the Nobel laureate (1950)
  • Viscount Moore, the managing director of the Financial Times
  • Sir Hugh Casson, the architect behind the Festival of Britain
  • Sir Edward Bridges, the Permenent Secretary to the Treasury
  • Joyce Cary, the novelist known for innovative narrative techniques
  • Christopher Fry, the playwright known for his verse dramas
  • Sir Henry Dale, a Nobel Prize-winning president of the Royal Society of Science during the war
  • David Low, the political cartoonist
  • Dr. Edgar Douglas Adrian, the physiologist and president of the Royal Society of Science
  • Sir John Douglas Cockcroft, the director of Atomic Energy Research Establishment who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for splitting the atomic nucleus.
  • Gilbert Murray, the classical scholar and public intellectual known for his translations of Greek tragedies
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