In honour of an astonishing five decades in music, and coinciding with the release of the photographic autobiography Rolling Stones 50, Somerset House hosts the free exhibition Rolling Stones 50: A Photographic Exhibition. Made up of 76 photographs, many previously unreleased, the exhibition offers its visitors a unique journey of discovery and nostalgia.

The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and there is anticipation and a sense of intrigue when entering the east wing of Somerset House. I would urge visitors to refrain from referring to the guide provided and rather experience the rooms as they go; while feeling in control, one also feels the subtle yet masterful orchestration of curator Ileen Gallagher guiding you effortlessly through the pictures in order.

Images documenting the band’s gruelling journey to success are the first to greet the eye and this first room’s trajectory takes the viewer on a journey too, showing the band in humble venues such as the Gaumont Theatre in Norwich in 1964, roadside cafes along Britain’s motorways, and their first forays across the pond. One photo snatches the attention of the viewer, showing the band boarding a plane at Heathrow airport on Thursday 12th January 1967 to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. Due to superstition, they didn’t fly on Friday the 13th. This was the famous occasion where Sullivan demanded that instead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” the song title became “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”.  Indeed, a story like that one comes to accompany every photograph - each having a tale to tell, it feels like you are reminiscing with the band members. It is a promising beginning to an exhibition that feels like an artist’s retrospective: a beginning that serves to illustrate the rocket-propelled nature of their success, taking only two years to achieve their first of many UK number ones.

The next room, entitled “Bad Boys” in the catalogue, shows the wild parties, the drugs, the busts, the controversy and court cases - reminding the viewer that these were not The Beatles, these were The Stones: rebellious and unkempt. Every time you turn your head there is a new gem to ponder. There is a wild-looking Keith Richards in a Victorian wheelchair in his garden, household items strewn about him, wearing boxer shorts, a scruffy shirt and sporting a mane of majestically messy hair. He holds a cigarette to his mouth, staring defiantly at the camera amid his clutter that includes a menacingly large knife, a leopard-skin rug and a toaster, and yet he is magnificent - a lion in his den.

However, the interesting themes begin to peel off rather unsatisfactorily into a stream of photos taken of the band in television performance, recording and on tour. That is not to say that interest is lost, but the sense of storytelling that existed in the first rooms feels rather clumsily unfinished. However, the wonderful anecdotal quality remains throughout, keeping the viewer engaged and on a more intimate level with the photos, and by extension with the band. (To those not necessarily fans, I urge you to keep reading the accompanying text. It entertains and is very interesting - a rare occurrence in an exhibition.) The photos continue to excite and intrigue, recalling the wonderful tour performances of The Rolling Stones from the 1960s to the present, and reminding us of the delightful idiosyncrasies that have come to characterize the Stones such as Mick Jagger’s famous pout.

We are finally, but sadly, brought to rest on the 76th photograph, taken from the huge “Bigger Bang Tour”, shot from the back of the stage as Mick leads the band out. Keith Richards and Charlie Watts embrace on Mick’s right while Ronnie Wood struts casually to his left.  The lack of a visible audience in the photograph illustrates the fact that this band has played to millions, and has bridged three generations with their unique style which spreads itself over many genres: there can be no single audience for The Rolling Stones.

The close proximity of the Rolling Stones 50 memorabilia on sale to the photographs reflects something about the Stones. Over the last fifty years they have transcended music - they are now a brand, a symbol, an institution. They have entered popular culture on every conceivable level and have an appeal for an indefinably diverse demographic, many of whom aren’t quite sure who The Rolling Stones really are.

This is an unmissable experience for Stones fans, and an education in arguably the greatest band ever for the curious impartial that happens to drop in. For the art lover, it is a glorious exhibition of photographs that catalogue one of the most monumental careers in music and an exciting period in modern culture - miss it, and miss out on history.

The Rolling Stones: 50, at Somerset HouseJohn Davis reviews Rolling Stones: 50 at Somerset House.4