“She was a fantastic sport. I thought to myself, if the rest of the sessions are going to be as much fun as this one, I am going to enjoy shooting the book.” John d Green

Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon was the first subject to be photographed for Birds of Britain. The session took place at John d Green’s Kensington studios on 29 April 1966. She was 19 years old at the time of the shoot, and 20 when the book was published.

John recalled the session vividly in a 1967 newspaper feature: “I knew that her grandfather was one of the best known racing drivers to drive on the old Brooklands track. He had been one of my childhood heroes and I was anxious to photograph her against a background to do with motor cars. But what? It all started off simply enough. We toured London doing pictures with old crocks of motor cars, but by the time we got back to the studio I knew it wasn’t what I wanted.

A can of oil from my own car caught my eye. Let’s do some close-ups of your head with a streak of oil on your forehead. It will look great. It was done in a flash. “More oil.” There wasn’t any so while Mary-Gaye had a cigarette and a drink, David Tree went to the garage next door and brought back a gallon of sump oil that had just been drained out of a 10-year-old Austin Cambridge. I was getting really excited. So was Mary-Gaye. Another cigarette. More talk. Her shoulders were soon completely covered with thick slimy oil. After the session she went to the bathroom, where it took here more than an hour to get herself remotely clean. Even when she had finished she was unrecognisable from the girl who had rung the doorbell three hours earlier. Mary-Gaye told me later that it took her more than two weeks, washing every day, to get all the oil out, but I have a feeling that she thought it was worth it. She does not look anything like a conventional English debutante in my photos, but she does look really fabulous, and that is the highest compliment that my camera and I can pay her.”

Mary-Gaye Curzon recalled many years later: “I wasn’t stripped as the picture may suggest – it was as decent as High Tea – but an aunt of mine was so appalled by Birds of Britain that she put herself to bed for a week. I had to write apology letters to lots of members of the family, saying I didn’t realise what I was getting myself into. ”

View the complete collection of limited edition photographs
Read about the upcoming Big Book of Birds of Britain
In these rare session photographs, Mary-Gaye applies engine oil. Refreshments are supplied.