Pirelli Calendar 1964:
capturing the mood of the time

Consistently eye-popping and era-defining, the Pirelli Calendar is a cultural icon like no other, playing host to some of the world’s leading photographers and models. But it took a major creative effort to get the formula right – and it was photographer Robert Freeman who succeeded

Home life Pirelli Calendar 1964:
capturing the mood of the time
Pirelli Calendar 1964:
capturing the mood of the time

It was the early 1960s – and the old order was crumbling in the face of social protests, a blossoming counter-culture and a sexual revolution. It was a time for experimentation, daring and freedom.

Within that context a promising young photographer called Robert Freeman, a friend of The Beatles, was given carte blanche to create “a beautiful calendar”. Used to the swinging London scene, he channelled the forces swirling around him to pick models with the look of the moment, transported them to the kind of white sandy beaches that everyday people could only dream of visiting, and shot a set of carefree, upbeat photos that captured the mood of the day.

His creation was the first ever Pirelli Calendar. The year 1964. And a cultural phenomenon was born. But when it was first conceived, the Calendar’s long-term success or mark of originality was far from assured.

1964: Capturing the mood of the times 01

The first entry in the first-ever Pirelli Calendar from 1964 was given over to this dreamy shot of English-born model Jane Lumb on a beach in Majorca. Shot by British lensman Robert Freeman, known for photographing The Beatles, the image was pure escapism, intended to lift any viewer out of their January doldrums. Mission accomplished.

Turning an idea on its head

The concept was hardly new. The British car company Leyland launched a Leyland Ladies calendar in 1930. Brake manufacturer Mintex followed suit in 1956. By the time Pirelli sought to create its own version, “girlie” calendars were a tried-and-tested marketing device in the motor industry, one of a string of gifts handed out to clients that also included glass ashtrays encased in miniature rubber tyres.

Unashamedly lewd, these promotional calendars were designed to be pinned up in backrooms or lockers for the enjoyment of men. But what about a calendar that dealers could display openly in their showrooms for customers? An upmarket version they could hang on the wall with pride. Now that was an original idea. The man who came up with it was Derek Forsyth, then in charge of advertising and publicity at Pirelli’s UK office. Forsyth proposed a calendar that was tasteful and arty and could be a prestigious advert for the Pirelli brand.

His first try was actually in 1963 when he commissioned up-and-coming Vogue photographer Terence Donovan to take pictures of a dozen models from the company’s 12 export regions around the world posing alongside vehicles fitted with Pirelli parts. These included a go-kart, an auto-rickshaw and even large-scale farm machinery. But while the prototype is a collector’s item today, it didn’t get approval for release.

1964: Capturing the mood of the times 02

The only interior shot from the 1964 Pirelli Calendar – the others were photographed outside on the beach in Majorca – this entry from March is so simple and striking (thanks to its pop of red and look to camera) and so very Sixties (perhaps it’s the haircut). The model was Sonny Drane and the photographer Robert Freeman. The end result is classic.

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Only the best talent

Forsyth didn’t give up, however, and decided to give more room to creativity. Throughout his tenure at Pirelli, he pushed to use photographers with “edge” and his choice for the 1964 Calendar, British-born Robert Freeman, certainly had that. He was making a mark at the Sunday Times, taking black-and-white portraits of such figures as Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev and jazz musicians John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. Brian Epstein, then manager for The Beatles, was so impressed by his work that he asked Freeman to shoot the cover for the band’s second album. His cover for their 1963 release With The Beatles is now iconic. Shot using only natural light, it shows the four Liverpudlians lined up in black polo-neck sweaters engulfed in shadow. Beatlemania was just taking off ¬– the band would conquer America the following year – and Freeman would go on to shoot covers for A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Rubber Soul.

1964: Capturing the mood of the times 03

From the start the Pirelli Calendar was home to only the best. English-born model Jane Lumb – shown here in the April shot from the inaugural 1964 Calendar – was an iconic face of the Sixties, thanks in part to her “come-hither pout”. A frequent Vogue cover girl, she had minor parts in Bond film Goldfinger and A Hard Day’s Night, and became a regular fixture alongside Twiggy on the Swinging London scene.

Tasked with shooting Pirelli’s 1964 Calendar, Freeman ditched his signature black and white and embraced colour. The effect is glorious. Shot on the beach in Majorca, Spain, his images are steeped in the sun-baked hues of the Balearics. A powdery blue sky. A tawny drift of sand. And in one standout shot – which ran in August – a model leaping through the surf in a gleaming white bikini. When not in a two-piece, models Sonny Drane and Jane Lumb wore shorts or a shirt. Or nothing at all, except perhaps a carefully draped towel.

The spirit of the Sixties prevailed. The mood was sexy and buoyant and captured the joy of an empty beach where inhibitions could be shaken off as quickly as one’s clothes. The look of the models was crucial. These were not the curvaceous bombshells you might have seen in the 1950s. These were boyish types. Gamines with fringes and bobs. Women who took their lead from the jaunty new It Girls Twiggy and Pattie Boyd. An orange and mauve dress in one set-up fixes the moment and calls to mind the geometric patterns and groovy palette that defined Swinging London.

1964: Capturing the mood of the times 04

Nothing captures the freewheeling spirit and lusty gorgeousness of the inaugural 1964 Pirelli Calendar better than this picture from May of German-born model Sonny Drane sporting a boyfriend shirt on the beach. As it happens, it was shot by her soon-to-be husband, Beatles photographer Robert Freeman. The smile kind of says it all.

Defining the times 

The result was pure escapism and a welcome distraction from the tumult erupting elsewhere. The assassination of President John F Kennedy at the end of 1963 had marked a low point in the history of the United States. Civil-rights marches and protests against the Vietnam War were dominating the headlines. A sexual revolution was underway, but so was a musical one, as The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Supremes and Bob Dylan jostled with The Beatles at the top of the charts. It was also the year that Elizabeth Taylor wed Richard Burton, a celebrity coupling forged on the set of the movie epic Cleopatra that transfixed the world.

When the 1964 Pirelli Calendar was released, it was a tremendous success. But for those involved it proved significant for more personal reasons. Forsyth met his future wife Marisa on that Majorcan beach (she was the last of the three models featured in the Calendar and appeared under November swathed in a large white towel). Freeman similarly fell head over heels for German-born model Sonny Drane. By the time the Calendar came out, the couple were already married. Can you tell from the photographs that love was in the air? Perhaps not. But once you know it was, it’s hard to look at the pictures in the same way again.

1964: Capturing the mood of the times 05

A study in sensuality, the July entry from the 1964 Pirelli Calendar, the first one ever released, captured German-born model Sonny Drane at her most beautiful – bathed in syrupy end-of-day light on a beach in Majorca. Shot by Beatles photographer Robert Freeman, it’s a timeless image that sums up what the uninhibited Sixties were all about.

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