This weekend, the Saatchi Gallery opened its long-awaited exhibition, “Tutankhamun – Treasures of the Golden Pharoah”. As blockbuster exhibitions go, it’s up there with the best of them. Having recently closed in Paris, the exhibition became France’s most visited of all time with attendance of over 1.4 million and is the last opportunity to see 150 objects from the boy-king’s tomb before they become a permanent exhibition at the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is currently under construction. We haven’t been yet but it’s certainly tempting, despite the eye-watering admission price.
When Howard Carter, sponsored by Lord Carnarvon, finally discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922, it was one of the biggest news stories of the century. Even though it would be many more months before it was considered safe enough to begin to remove objects from the burial chamber, nevertheless, the discovery precipitated a global craze for Egyptian style.
Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign of 1798-1801 and the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 was the catalyst for the first wave of Egyptomania in the early nineteenth century. Aristocrats commissioned their homes to be decorated in an Egyptian style and even whole buildings referenced its art and statuary. Examples include the Egyptian Hall in London (built in 1812, demolished in 1905), and the curious Egyptian House in Penzance, dating from the early 19th century. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the British occupation of Egypt from 1882 only served to increase interest. And when Thomas Cook began to offer Egyptian holidays and Nile cruises in the later 19th century, the exotic sights and cultural heritage of Egypt became a familiar style touchstone to a wider society.
Carter’s landmark discovery in 1922 led to a renewed and unprecedented Egyptomania boom. Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphics were an ancient echo of more modern 1920s designs, and Tut-mania’s influence extended to music, fashion and much more. Here are a just a few examples from our collection, reflecting how when the world went Egypt-mad in the 1920s.
Fashion – A subtle take on Egyptian style by London couturier, Isobel from 1923; a dress, (according to The Tatler magazine’s description) “in Egyptian colours” that includes Egyptian embroidery at the waist, as does the more modest dress with the white collar. The page from The Sketch, July 1923 reports on a variety of outfits displaying the “Tutankhamun Touch”, while the colourful pattern is a fabric design from the 1920s, clearly incorporating Egyptian motifs.
Fancy Dress – Ancient Egypt certainly opened up some glamorous possibilities for fancy dress (debutante Mary Henniker-Heaton won a prize in Monte Carlo for her costume), but the photograph of a mother, father and daughter all getting into the homespun Tutankhamun spirit is particularly charming.
Music – Popular music composers were often the first to absorb current events and topical skits into new tunes. In the Days of Tut-ankh-amen was written and composed by Reg Low and J. P. Long, and sung by musical comedy duo, Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar in the Andre Charlot revue, ‘Rats!’ at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1923.
(read about Gwen and Norah in a new biography by Alison Child here – https://www.behindthelines.info/tell-me-i-m-forgiven-gwen-farrar-norah-blaney/
Jewellery – Even Cartier brought out new designs of jewellery inspired by pieces of Ancient Egypt. The Illustrated London News featured examples of the “Tutankhamun Influence” while Gazette de Bon Ton featured an illustration of a brooch and drop earrings in 1924.
Architecture – Cinema and theatre was one area where architects could let their imaginations run wild. A number of picture houses built during the inter-war years were an Egyptian riff on the art deco or ‘moderne’ style. The interior of the Egyptian Theater at Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania is an exquisite example, while in London, the former Carlton Cinema on Essex Road in Islington (now a Mecca bingo hall) is pure and unapologetic Egyptian fantasy. The entrance to the Straussenhaus, Berlin Zoo, which is designed in the style of an Egyptian temple is Egyptian style at its most flamboyant and the fact that it was built in 1912, demonstrates that Tutankhamun simply fanned the flames of a craze that had never really gone away. Of course, if you wanted a touch of Egyptian style in your own home, then you could always embroider some designs courtesy of Weldon’s Beautiful Needlework magazine.
Graphic Design – This cover of The Graphic’s Egypt Number as well as the rather nice illustration by an Egyptian woman applying make-up by Marius Forestier in The Sketch, 1924, are just two examples of how magazine illustrators enjoyed playing around with Egyptian themes. The chic little trade card for an Egypt hotel, and perfume advertisement meld art deco with Egyptian style while the Houdini poster and ‘fortune book’ drew on the perceptions of Egypt as a place of mystery and spiritualism.
Just over a week ago, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at one of the Tate Britain’s ‘Tate Lates’ evenings. Tate Publishing have recently brought out in the UK a new title surveying feminist art called, ‘Art of Feminism’ of which I had been one of the contributing writers, putting together the first section covering women’s art broadly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. About a third of the images for the section came from our archives here at the library. The discussion at this particular Friday late, focused on women artists, past, present and future, and I spoke alongside Sofia Karamani, curator of the Tate Britain’s ‘Sixty Years’ annual exhibition which this year focused on work by women artists in the Tate’s collection. Also involved were researcher and curator, Helena Reckitt who teaches at Goldsmith’s. Helena had been consultant editor on the book and chaired the panel, which also included artists, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tamara Al-Mashouk. It proved a thought-provoking discussion on the past challenges and present issues still facing women artists in the 21st century. My job, as the writer of the first part of ‘Art of Feminism’ was to look at the past, set the scene, and map out the obstacles facing women artists a century before a defined feminist movement emerged. Packing a century of art into 25,000 words and around 75 pages proved difficult, and inevitably it was impossible to include everything I wanted to, but I hope my section presents a balanced and thoughtful overview on the female experience of the art world during this time.
Over four chapters, I cover women artists and photographers during world conflicts, who overcame marginalisation and prejudice to record their, often unique, view of war. I wrote about the inter-war period with its explosion of experimental art movements and the rise of the modern woman, some of whom achieved economic agency and independence through their art. And of course, there is a chapter devoted to the art of the suffrage campaign, a political movement which harnessed art and design – mainly by women – to create a distinctive brand and visual identity, still exuding a powerful pull a century since it was conceived. Forming the foundations of the section, I try to convey the struggle women artists faced in the nineteenth century, and the obstacles they had to overcome to achieve parity with men. It is not only about WHAT they painted, but also how they managed to become artists at all.
As part of the discussion, I chose to show, ‘Nameless & Friendless’ by Emily Mary Osborn, a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857, and on display at the Tate Britain (in the 1840 room if you’d like to go and see it https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/emily-mary-osborn-12441), which speaks very eloquently about the isolation of women artists in a male-dominated world. Our version shows an engraving of the painting which appeared in The Illustrated London News in July 1862, at the time the picture was on display at the International Exhibition. In many ways, the painting follows a traditional Victorian narrative tradition, and mines the rather bleak but popular themes of poverty and destitution. The central figure of the painting is a young woman who brings in a painting to sell to an art dealer. Her black dress suggests she has been recently bereaved, and the little boy at her side is most likely a younger brother, for whom she is now responsible. Consequently, the painting she brings to be assessed, is a device that seems to embody her future, making for a nerve-wracking scene. What Emily Mary Osborn is very good at is making us, the viewer, feel as uncomfortable as the subject herself. Here she is, entering a male domain, one in which she, inexperienced, nervous, grieving, has to attempt an economic transaction. As well as the disdainful look of the art dealer, who isn’t going to give her nearly as much as she’d hope for the picture, there is the pity of his assistant looking down on them from the vantage point of a ladder. Worse still, a couple of wolfish city swells, lounge around looking at prints of dancers with their shapely legs; they appraise the modest looking young women and we can imagine what they are thinking. Her only potential ally, another woman, accompanied by her son, is already bustling out of the shop, making her isolated position seem even more acute. It shows us that the art world is not a kind or encouraging place for a woman to be. It’s somewhere where she must find her own way.
In the nineteenth century, there was a dichotomy when it came to women and art. It’s not that women didn’t paint. In fact, middle and upper class women were positively encouraged to do so. Art was an accomplishment that a young lady should take pains to develop. Godey’s Lady’s Book, with a circulation of 150,000 in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, featured “A Course of Lessons on Drawing,” though more pages focused on needlework and decorative art for the household. British writer, Sarah Stickney Ellis addressed the subject of art and its benefits to young women in Daughters of England, (a copy of which we have in the library alongside Godey’s), one of four popular advice manuals she authored. “Amongst these advantages” she wrote of drawing “I will begin with the least – it is quiet. It disturbs no one; for however defective the performance may be, it does not necessarily, like music, jar upon the sense. It is true, it may when seen offend the practised eye; but we can always draw in private, and keep our productions to ourselves.” Stickney’s suggestion that art could be carried out by women quietly, and without disturbing anyone, speaks volumes about the idea that any learning or cultivation of talents should be exercised purely within the framework of family obligations. But, to turn a benign hobby into a successful career? To exhibit and sell pictures? To BE a professional artist? That’s where the encouragement stopped and the barriers went up. There was an implicit & collective belief that woman’s designated role was to be the ‘angel of the home’. An unmarried woman’s ambition was to marry, and then, once married, her prime focus was to raise a family in a good & Christian way.
If women wanted an art education in the 1800s, they had to fight for it. Some were lucky, like Emily Mary Osborn, who had a progressive family who encouraged her to become an artist. She had a strong support network, not only familial, but she was a central figure in female networks including the Society for Women Artists, which formed in 1857. She was also involved in the early suffrage movement (it is notable, though perhaps unsurprising, that a number of women artists were also suffrage supporters), but other women would not have the same advantages.
Two art schools opened for women in London in the 1840s – the Female School of Art, and the National Art Training School. Both emphasised training in the applied arts for manufacturing and industry. While this suited many women, for those who wished to become ‘fine’ artists, opportunities were scarce. Central to an art education was the study of the human form in life classes. And in most cases, women were denied access to a life class with a nude model in the interests of propriety. The Royal Academy, the hub of the art establishment, would not admit women to their school, despite two women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kaufmann being among its founding members in the eighteenth century. In 1860, artist Laura Herford submitted a picture signed only with her initials, which was judged of sufficient standard to gain admittance for its artist. When her identity was revealed, the Academy could find no rules to prevent her entering the school. To say Herford opened the floodgates for women at the Royal Academy would be to exaggerate. The RA remained reluctant for several decades and did little to encourage women students, some years putting a stop to their entry altogether. Not until 1922, did they admit a female associate member (Laura Swynnerton) and finally, in 1936, Laura Knight became its first woman Academician since the institution’s founding. The opening of the Slade School of art in 1871 was to mark a watershed moment, in that men and women both attended. It offered a serious alternative to the Royal Academy school as part of a liberal arts university, and could count Kate Greenaway, Evelyn de Morgan, Gwen John and Winifred Knights among its female alumni. Life classes however, remained segregated and for women attending the nude model was not actually nude but draped. Some women art students, in both Paris and London, felt so frustrated at the obstructions to this, they paid for their own anatomy classes, or life classes where the model was undraped. It goes without saying that privilege also played a part in women gaining access to an art education. In the latter part of the 19th century, hoards of American women art students travelled to Paris to seek training in artists’ ateliers, or at the Academie Julian, or Academie Colorossi, both of which opened up their studios to female students. Clearly an art education was impossible for any woman without the means to fund it.
As I picked my way through this century of women artists, what became very clear is that, in many ways, there was no such defining feature of ‘women’s art’. The images I chose had to be as much about the experience of being a woman in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the feminist signals within their work. On one of the first pages, an impressionist portrait of two sisters by Berthe Morisot, sits alongside the muscular dynamism of The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur. Two women working at a similar time but with vastly differing styles. After all, why should women artists be lumped together into a homogeonous mass, and produce only one ‘type’ or style of painting? Their work was as individual (and as good or bad) as male artists. But if women wanted the freedom to paint what they wished but be taken seriously and perhaps forge a career, they had to have that training.
By the turn of the century, schools such as the Slade, and, in Paris, Academie Julian had far more female students than men, and the idea of the art student as female had become much more accepted. Magazines in our archive such as The Sketch and Lady’s Realm (with a largely female readership) ran regular in-depth articles on various art schools and their specialities. Women continued to fight to gain equality in the art world. For instance, women students were charged 30 per cent more in fees than their male counterparts in some schools. One of the reasons for this argued the Academie Colorossi was because women insisted the place was clean and the floors were swept! At the Academie Julian however, the weekly art competition, where paintings were submitted anonymously, were frequently won by woman. Interviewed in The Sketch in 1893, Rodolphe Julian, founder of the school, praised his female students as hard working and diligent. He added, in a comment that would have been considered radical a few decades earlier, “People often say that, with only one or two exceptions, no woman has made a great name in art; but they were given none of the opportunities which each artist claimed as his right.”
By the Second World War, a quarter of artists commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee were women. This was some sort of progress, but nowhere near equality, especially as most were paid less and given fewer commissions. Only one woman – Evelyn Dunbar – was salaried.
So where are we now? The evening’s discussion was rounded off listening to the experiences of Tamara and Michelle, both of whom still encountered issues when creating their work, whether related to funding, or finding that, as women artists of colour, they were often limited by perceptions of identity, and offered fewer opportunities to exhibit. Afterwards, I wondered what the women artists of a century and a half ago would have thought about those of today. Would they view them as lucky with opportunities and freedoms they could only have dreamt of? Would they be in awe that in the last decade, women Turner Prize winners have outnumbered men. Or would they still feel frustration that male artists still vastly outnumber female artists in almost every gallery around the world? The women who broke convention to seek an art education, and who painted pictures that proved they were the equal of male artists, were an integral part of the history of the women’s rights movement, and laid strong foundations for future generations of female artists. It was a fascinating and illuminating experience to be able to tell their story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
The original Thomas Fall, dog photographer, with a borzoi owned by H.M. Queen Alexandra. Date: 1893
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
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.
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
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).
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
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 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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.