Spanning ‘Beer Bottle VC’ Bill Speakman to Olympian Beth Tweddle, Northerners has returned….

The unlikely inspiration for Rory Lewis’ Northerners exhibition? Game of Thrones and its emphasis on North versus South.

Moved to showcase some of northern Britain’s most prominent personalities, Chester-born photographer Lewis spent his Christmas writing over 150 letters to the region’s icons, intending to hold an exhibition in aid of UNICEF.

It’s ironic that, amidst the deluge of rejections and non-responses that followed, his first acceptance was Mancunian actor David Warner; who ‘hates having his photo taken’ and whose last sitting was with Cecil Beaton in the 1960s. Although Lewis admits “it took me four letters and two phone calls. In the end, I had to track him down to a science fiction convention and put a letter in his hand!”

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Fittingly, Northerners includes Game of Thrones stars Ian McShane and Iain Glen

But his persistence paid off. Eventually others followed and Northerners made its 2014 debut with the likes of actors Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, funny man Karl Pilkington and TV stalwart and DJ Craig Charles. The exhibition also jumpstarted Lewis’ photography career, earning him contracts with the likes of The Times and a jet setting lifestyle that sees him spend several weeks a year in Los Angeles (his first star subject there was Captain Kirk actor William Shatner).

Lewis has since undertaken a variety of fascinating projects, shooting everyone from blind veterans to the Italian Army and the first transgender British soldier to serve on the front line - part of an exhibition that served to highlight the prejudice transgender soldiers still face, with many losing their pensions after transitioning. 

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Persistence has paid off for Rory Lewis, pictured shooting actor Sir Patrick Stewart

His exhibition on the British Army, meanwhile, now hangs permanently in the National Army Museum after he contended with a snotty management team (now long gone) that originally only deigned to have it for an evening. Right from its opening, attended by the likes of NATO’s Sir James Rupert, Soldiery’s success proved them wrong; one of many instances Lewis has battled expectations and snobbery to earn respect in his super competitive field. 

None of his projects, however, have been the ongoing labour of love that Northerners has. Which is why, this year, Lewis has returned with a bigger version of his seminal exhibition; featuring even more famous faces from Yorkshire into Scotland. Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle, This is England star Stephen Graham, former Prime Minister Tony Blair…an array of politicians, actors and sportspeople are represented alongside army legends like Major General Susan Ridge (the first woman to hold the rank of Major General in the British Army) and ‘Beer Bottle VC’ Bill Speakman. 

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Peter Norton GC and Bill Speakman VC - two of five Lewis portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Bill Speakman: With thanks to the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association and Mr Speakman’s family

A Victoria Cross recipient, the first person to be honoured by Queen Elizabeth II, Altrincham-born soldier Speakman was famous for supposedly launching beer bottles at the enemy after running out of ammunition during the Korean War. He gave a replica of his Victoria Cross and other medals to the people and government of South Korea during a veterans’ ceremony in 2015. Lewis’ portrait of Speakman is now one of several to hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

From Ant and Dec to Baroness Rona Fairhead, all Northerners portraits are depicted in Lewis’ signature theatrical style, reminiscent of master painters like Caravaggio and Titian. A graduate in medieval history, he was drawn to photography after taking a course in film history and being inspired by ‘the drama’ of it. 

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Northerners features three-time World Champion gymnast Beth Tweddle

But it’s clearly not just his love of art that has now inspired fifteen years behind the lens - it’s Lewis’ love of people and their stories. After yet another intriguing anecdote, he admits, “the camera is just a tool.”

He adds: "Photography of this nature is a rare pleasure and surprising at the same time. You wouldn’t believe that many of these personalities have an aversion to being photographed. If you look online, you will find only a handful of portrait sessions that truly convey the person, not the character.”

In that respect, Northerners really is a portrait of northern charisma.  

Northerners is on from Thursday 1 August to 31 October at Wex Photo Video, Downing Street Industrial Estate, Charlton Pl, Manchester M12 6HH - free entry

All photos: Rory Lewis