The Last Curtsey – Debutantes & the London Season

If you’re passing through Bexley on the south-eastern fringes of London, then try to find time to seek out Hall Place, a Tudor hidden gem with extensive gardens a couple of minutes from the A2.  We’ve had connections with Hall Place for some time through Bexley Heritage Trust, whose archive we represent, but more recently we’ve collaborated with them on a new exhibition that opened just a fortnight ago, The Last Curtsey.  Inspired by one of Hall Place’s 20th century inhabitants, socialite Baba D’Erlanger, the exhibition aims to recreate the vanished world of that upper class phenomenon, the debutante.


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Debutantes are something of a specialist subject here at the library. The magazines of the ILN archive, specifically The Tatler, The Sketch and The Bystander, were the bibles of the beau monde and consequently are filled each spring with every conceivable highlight of the ‘Season’ from the Royal Academy and Fourth of June to Ascot and Henley.  Alongside these delights were published photographs of the annual crop of ‘debs’ that were to be launched into society together with adverts for court gowns, hair stylists, West End couture houses and catering companies.  Source material doesn’t get much better.

DEBUTANTE PRESENTED

Debutantes of the Year, 1957

And we have form in terms of writing on the subject.  Some forty years ago, Mary and Hilary Evans were authors of  ‘The Party That Lasted 100 Days’, a highly illustrated and wry look at the late Victorian season and more recently, in 2013 I wrote a concise history in, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ for Shire Books.

Debutantes about to be presented at court

The London Season, vestiges of which remain in some of today’s summer sporting and social fixtures, was the dominant feature of the social calendar, a three-month bonanza of events and parties during which the daughters of the upper classes made their ‘debuts’.  The girls and their families descended on the capital from country piles all around Britain to take part in an elaborate and protracted marathon of social interaction that culminated in them being presented at court where they would make their carefully-practised curtsey in front of the King and Queen.  Today, it’s a ritual that seems terribly archaic, and at times rather comic; an outmoded phenomenon that pandered to rigid class distinctions and judged the youthful participants purely on looks and breeding.  And yet, it is also rather glamorous, romantic – and terribly British.  After a modernising drive at Buckingham Palace in 1958, the last debs made their curtsey in March of that year, meaning 2018 marks the 60th anniversary.

"THE SUPREME MOMENT"

Their Majesties' Court by Sir John Lavery

Debutante queuing in the Mall by Rex Whistler

At Hall Place, the exhibition rooms, painted in soothing and elegant tones of lilac pink, take visitors through the debutantes’ typical first season and introduce us to a few key debs from the past including Baba but also the ravishing Henrietta Tiarks, fabulously wealthy Mary Ashley, sister of Edwina Mountbatten and the rebellious Nancy Cunard.  There are some exquisite gowns including a wasp-waisted example from the 1890, a cascading 1920s number and a glamorous strapless gown of mustard satin belonging to Elfrida Eden, one of 1958’s debs.  Curator Kirsty Macklen, who showed us around last week told us that Elfrida’s dress was bought from America, in order to avoid the ghastliness of turning up at a party in the same dress as someone else.  As well as the advertisements, magazine features and portraits lining the walls (50 of which come from Mary Evans, others from the archive at The Lady), there are some fascinating debutante accoutrements such as glove stretchers and papier poudre books (to keep a shiny nose at bay) as well as dance cards lent by Mary Evans and a couple of books from the inter-war period celebrating the debutante from my own collection at home.  For the full deb experience, you can try negotiating the complicated array of cutlery that might face an Edwardian lady sitting down to dinner, or squeeze into a ballgown and practise your curtsey to the Queen.  After just two weeks, the visitors’ comments at the end of the exhibition reflect a deeply felt nostalgia for this long-gone era, though no appetite for its revival in the 21st century.  Like many aspects of history, it is fun to learn more but it should remain exactly where it was left – in 1958.

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Click here to see a selection of images from our archive on the subject https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

‘The Last Curtsey – Etiquette and Elocution, the life of a debutante’ at Hall Place, Bexley, runs until 18th March 2018  https://www.hallplace.org.uk/exhibitions/

Luci will be giving a talk on ‘Debutantes and the London Season’ at Hall Place, Bexley on 10th October at 7pm. Further details here https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

Further reading:  ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ by Lucinda Gosling, Shire Books 2013

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One Man and his Dogs

Miss A. N. Hartley with her prize-winning Deerhound, Champion Betsinda of Rotherwood - with Cruft's Gold Trophy for the Hound Group. Date: 1982

Out of the myriad archives, books and prints acquired by our founder, Mary Evans, since the library’s inception in 1964, that which brought her the most personal joy was arguably the Thomas Fall Collection which came to the library in 2001. The name Thomas Fall is synonymous with the highest quality photographs of pedigree dogs, and Mary’s interest in the archive, the oldest of its kind in the world, was not only professional but born of a lifelong love of canine companions.

Major P. C. G. Haywood judging Golden Retrievers at Crufts

Thomas Fall was born in 1833 when the art, not to mention the science, of photography was in its infancy. In 1826 the first permanent, surviving photograph had been produced by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce who later worked with Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process in 1839 which produced unique but fragile images. Others swiftly followed, refining and developing processes to fix a photographic image. English pioneer Henry Fox Talbot had developed the calotype by 1840, producing a negative from which positive prints could be taken, while John Herschel made the first glass negative in 1839.

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Into this atmosphere of feverish invention, Thomas Fall took his first steps, setting up as a portrait photographer in the 1850s in Bedale in Yorkshire. In the late 1860s he moved to London to work for the established studio of Elliott and Fry in Baker Street, and from there founded his own business in 1875, also in Baker Street. He began to specialise in photographing dogs, perhaps because many of his high society patrons wished their pets immortalised quite as much as their other family members. During the 1890s he was commissioned by the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, to photograph her with her dogs earning the company a Royal Warrant. In 1900 Thomas Fall died, but this was far from the end of the story. In fact the company’s association with the art of photographing dogs was immeasurably strengthened and amplified by those who came after him.

The Judge of the Exhibition of Japanese Spaniels. Date: 1898

In 1910, Edward Hitchings Parker, who had been the young manager of the Finchley Road branch of the expanded Fall enterprise bought both the firm and the name ‘Thomas Fall, Photographer’ from the family, becoming known, somewhat confusingly, to those in the dog world as Mr Fall. In 1927 he was joined, firstly as an assistant and later as a partner, by Barbara Bourn who arrived with an 18-month apprenticeship in photography. Parker was a forceful character who, according to Bourn in an interview with Dog World in October 1970, was not averse to shouting at both assistants and customers in order to get the shots he wanted: “Mr Parker knew exactly where he wanted the dog to look and it didn’t matter what was in that direction, I had to go there to attract the dog. There could be a lake, a wood, a main road, a bed of nettles, it didn’t matter. I would have to go to exactly the right spot so that the dog’s head turned absolutely in profile.”

A little girl surrounded by three Daschunds and six Dandie Dinmonts. Date: 1947

Bourn had an early opportunity to operate the camera herself at Marion Keyte Perry’s Arctic kennel in Haslemere, Surrey, where her ten champion Samoyeds were to be photographed with their owner. “We had this marvellous group arranged with the dogs looking superb [but] we just couldn’t get the dogs looking in the right direction and nothing would persuade them to look at me. Mr Parker got more and more furious until he said you’d better take this photograph, I’ll put it absolutely ready for you…He charged down a long slope and the noise he made was enough to waken the dead. The dogs looked absolutely fabulous…out of all the many takes that was the one.”

Mr Curnow judging at the Dog Centre Birthday Show

Edward Hitchings Parker died in 1958, with Barbara Bourn continuing the firm’s business of photographing pedigree dogs. By the late 1960s, she felt that things were coming to a natural conclusion but was persuaded by fellow photographer William Burrows, who she later married, of the historical worth of the pictures taken since the late 19th century. We are delighted that this flourishing archive is now part of the Mary Evans Picture Library, and has the opportunity of being widely seen by both dog and history lovers.

Crufts Dog Show at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, London - February, 1938. Date: 1938
Over nearly a century, Thomas Fall has been connected with the top kennels of the country, and the remarkable photographs taken in this time are a vital historical record of how breeds have changed. In addition, the images have a charm all of their own, the owners proud, the dogs elegant, noble or just plain cute.

Fourteen Standard Poodles - Winners of the Progeny Class - Windsor Dog Show. Date: 1972

The original Thomas Fall, dog photographer, with a borzoi owned by H.M. Queen Alexandra. Date: 1893

The original Thomas Fall, dog photographer, with a borzoi owned by H.M. Queen Alexandra. Date: 1893

The Brothers Robinson

The William Heath Robinson Museum opened in Pinner in October last year, the culmination of many years’ fundraising by the West House and Heath Robinson Trust.  Regardless of how familiar you are with the work of the so-called, ‘Gadget King’, this lovely museum is well worth the trip to the further reaches of the Metropolitan line.  Located just five minutes or so from Pinner station, the museum’s graceful modern building sits within the picturesque Pinner Memorial Park. Divided into three main spaces, one room is devoted to its rolling programme of exhibitions,  another tells the story of Heath Robinson’s career as an illustrator with a third dedicated to workshops and education.

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson's prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, 'I was fairly launched on my career' of Bruce Ingram's decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 - 1944

WILLIAM HEATH ROBINSON Artist and illustrator, shown working in his studio. Heath Robinson’s prolific career spanned five decades. During this time, he produced countless illustrations for The Sketch and The Bystander as well as other ILN magazines. He is quoted as saying, ‘I was fairly launched on my career’ of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish his illustrations in The Sketch in March 1906. He is best-known for his ingenious contraptions but his work extended to the themes of golf, cricket, war, gardening and more. Date: 1872 – 1944

The area’s connection with Heath Robinson is deeply felt.  Though he was born in Stroud Green, North London, he moved to Hatch End, near the country village of Pinner with his young family in 1908, an area where his older brother Tom – also an illustrator – was already living.  In 1918, Will, as he was known, moved to a larger house in Cranleigh, Surrey, but his decade spent in Pinner saw him flourish and find permanent fame as an illustrator, and where, arguably, he produced some of his finest work.

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Pinner is no longer the rural idyll it was when Will moved there almost 110 years ago, but it retains a village-like air of tranquility and order, and despite the plethora of chain restaurants now occupying the quaint buildings, the delightfully ancient Queen’s Head pub on the high street, where Will and his friends would regularly congregate for a drink, continues to do a roaring trade.  In fact, Will and his two elder brothers Tom and Charles, would form part of a group jovially entitled the Loyal Federation of Frothfinders.  Together they would go on long walks around the Middlesex countryside with convivial breaks along the way at convenient hostelries, a sort of glorified, bucolic pub crawl.  It seems fitting therefore, that as part of the museum’s latest exhibition, ‘The Brothers Robinson’ which explores the shared and separate talents of Tom, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Paradigm Brewery of Hertfordshire have brewed and bottled a special Frothfinders beer, a move that would most certainly have pleased these ale-loving brethren.

A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933
A rather lovely illustration by Charles Robinson, showing a bride and groom arm in arm among an arcadian landscape. Date: 1933

Here at the library, we also have strong connections with William Heath Robinson and his equally talented brothers.  Mary and Hilary collected many children’s books from the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of British publishing when lavish gift books were gloriously illustrated and expensively bound.  Tom, Charles and Will worked both separately and collaboratively on numerous titles we hold here including volumes of Hans Anderson’s Fairy Tales (Will), Old-Time Stories by Charles Perrault (Will) and A Child’s Christmas (Charles).

Children crowd round the window of a Toy Shop to look at the sale bargains within. Date: circa 1908
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Beyond book illustration, it was as a cartoonist that Will found true fame, admitting in his autobiography, ‘My Line of Life’ (also owned by the library), “I was fairly launched on my career as a humorous artist” of Bruce Ingram’s decision to publish him in The Sketch.  The Sketch forms part of the Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at the library.  His series of First World War cartoons in the magazine, as well as the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, also part of the archive, were hugely popular, prompting soldiers to write to him with suggestions for further absurd contraptions with which to foil the dishonourable machinations of the Germans.  Many of Will’s Great War cartoons for The Sketch featured in the museum’s first exhibition, ‘Heath Robinson at War’, together with examples of his work from the Second World War when he was still contributing illustrations to The Sketch, underlining his long association with the title.  The ILN’s run of The Bystander is also a great source for his cartoons during the 1920s, as is The Strand while his advertising work for brands such as Hovis, Ransome’s Lawnmowers and Mackintosh Toffees, appears frequently.

Perhaps most surprising are many of the exquisite illustrations Charles Robinson contributed to the ILN magazines during the 1920s and 30s; his themes, oozing fantasy, are far more adult and sophisticated than the children’s books he is best known for, but retain his trademark romantic watercolour style.

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

Beautiful illustration by Charles Robinson showiong a sailor and a lady friend peering over the edge of a ship to see a bevy of beautiful mermaids in the sea below. Date: 1939

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This new exhibition in Pinner promises to display more than sixty pieces of work by the brothers, many of them not previously seen.  We pulled together our own selection for you to enjoy here, with a reminder that images by William Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson are available for licensing through Mary Evans.  In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to do one weekend soon, why not make a trip to Pinner?

‘The Brothers Robinson’ runs from 21 January 2017 to 26 March 2017 www.heathrobinsonmuseum.org

Designing the Jazz Age – Gordon Conway & Mary Evans at the Fashion & Textile Museum

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The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.

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Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.

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Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’

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Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.

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Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.

We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.

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The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.

The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.

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Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.

To see more Gordon Conway images click here