Circle of Sisters – Madame Yevonde and her sitters

It’s International Day of the Girl today, and so it seems a timely moment to write about Madame Yevonde, one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable photographers.  Born in 1893 to a well-to-do family, she began her apprenticeship with the photographer, Lallie Charles, and soon set up her own studio in London’s Victoria Street in 1914, at the prodigious age of 21.

Young, innovative, ambitious and thoroughly modern, Madame Yevonde recognised that the demure romanticism of Edwardian photographic portraiture had had its day and soon began to experiment with light, props and backdrops to present her sitters in an individual, original and often unconventional way.  She quickly built up her reputation and with it, a prestigious client base, often offering complimentary sittings to famous actresses and dancers as a way to establish her studio.  As her work began to appear in the smart, glossy society magazines such as The Tatler and The Bystander, her reputation as one of London’s leading portrait photographers increased, and was confirmed after she was selected to take the engagement photographs of Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley in 1922.

The advent of the Vivex colour process in the 1930s, appealed greatly to Madame Yevonde’s creative and dynamic personality and she immediately adopted the process as her own, lecturing evangelically on its creative possibilities.  Her first exhibition in 1932 showed 70 pictures, half of which were in colour, while in 1935, her “Goddesses” project, a set of images of leading society ladies depicted as Greek goddesses might arguably be the zenith of Madame’s creative output.

We have represented Yevonde’s work for over a decade, with images scanned from the Yevonde Portrait Archive’s thousands of negatives and other images, many of them unavailable anywhere else, scanned from our run of society magazines in the ILN archive. We continue to discover more Yevonde images on a weekly basis, and in among the numerous society portraits, there are an intriguing number of portraits of women who were great talents themselves, whether as actresses and dancers, explorers, writers or sculptors.  So on International Day of the Girl, we thought we would hand pick a selection of Yevonde’s notable sitters, some well-known, others obscured by the passage of time, but all (or at least most) deserving to be immortalised through Yevonde’s camera lens.

Margaret Morris (1891-1980), dance pioneer – Yevonde and Margaret Morris were friends, a fact reflected in the number of photographs Yevonde took of her over the years. Morris’s avant-garde ideas about dance began at an early age when she rebelled against the formality of ballet lessons and became influenced by Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora Duncan. She established a dancing school, funded by the novelist John Galsworthy after a brief if intense love affair, and began to adapt her techniques so that all abilities could benefit from her ideas about movement and free expression, notably disabled children. Alongside this, during the First World War she established a social club in Chelsea akin to a salon called the Margaret Morris Club, frequented by luminaries such as Augustus John and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Margaret Morris Movement system remains a touchstone of modern day dance.  Morris herself was still choreographing at the age of eighty-one for a production of ‘Hair’ in Glasgow, where she had settled in 1939 with her partner, the artist John Duncan Fergusson.

Margaret Morris (1891 - 1980), famous dancer and dance teacher.

Clare Sheridan (1885-1970), writer and sculptor – The cousin of Winston Churchill (their mothers were sisters) Clare Sheridan rebelled against her privileged and stultifying existence from an early age. The death of her daughter in 1914, led her to sculpt a memorial headstone and realise she had found a talent, but in addition to her work as a sculptor, she spent periods as a war reporter and writer, living for a time in Soviet Russia, travelling by motorcycle across southern Russia in the 1920s and building a retreat for herself in Biskra, Algeria. The photographs by Yevonde of her in a feathered headdress were taken after she had spent time at an art colony on a Native American reservation in the Rocky Mountains, the result of which was a London exhibition of Native American heads she had whittled from forest trees.

Clare Sheridan by Madame Yevonde

Elizabeth Cowell (1912-1998), TV broadcaster –  As one of the first three BBC television service announcers, Cowell was something of a poster girl for the corporation. She made her debut on 31 August 1936 at Alexandra Palace. This photograph from 1940, showing her examining a photograph of herself taken seven years earlier, is typical of Yevonde’s playful use of symbolic props in her work.

Elizabeth Cowell - television presenter by Yevonde

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) – prolific novelist – Although in later years she was better-known for old-fashioned views on romance and an overpowering penchant for pink, as a young woman, Barbara Cartland began her writing career by providing gossip columns for the Daily Express, propelled mainly due to her family’s dire financial circumstances. By the 1920s, she had climbed to the top of the social pyramid, not only as a journalist but as an indefatigable organiser of fetes, balls and charity matinees. Yevonde’s portraits capture her at different periods of her life – as the fresh ingénue journalist and later, in her primped, glistering, bejewelled splendour in 1970. It’s interesting to note that one Yevonde image was a commission for one of Cartland’s numerous novels.

Barbara Cartland and Raine

Lady Broughton (1894-1968) –  the first wife of Sir Jock Delves Broughton was an intrepid traveller, and this colour photograph, published in The Sketch in 1939, shows her with her squirrel monkey, Mr. Winks, whom she brought from British Guiana in 1938. Previously Miss Vera Griffith-Boscawen, she married Jock in 1913 and divorced him in 1940 (he would go on to marry Diana Caldwell and stand trial for the murder of her lover, Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll in Kenya). Vera travelled widely in South East Asia and was known as a big game hunter and fisherwoman. She was also a highly regarded photographer of natural subjects.

Lady Broughton and Mr Winks by Madame Yevonde

Marie Rambert (1888-1982) – ballet dancer & founder of the Rambert Dance Company. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Polish-born Rambert as “cultivated, dynamic, alert, witty, and chic” and this photograph by Yevonde of her with Frederick Ashton, which was published in The Tatler in June 1926, seems to sum up those qualities. The pair’s pose was to promote a new ballet, “The Tragedy of Fashion” which was written and arranged by Marie’s husband, Ashley Dukes, with music composed by Eugene Goossens.

Marie Rambert & Frederick Ashton - A Tragedy of Fashion

Jeni LeGon (1916-2012) – dancer and actress.  Jeni LeGon’s speciality was tap and she was one of the first African-American women to establish a solo career in tap dancing, working with Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. This photo, which appeared in The Sketch in 1936, was taken at the time she was appearing in Charles Cochran’s Follow the Sun at the Adelphi Theatre. In 1935, she had been offered a contract by MGM, another first for an American woman of colour, but Hollywood casting prejudices meant no role was found for her and she found that, despite her generous salary, she was segregated, taking her meals at the studio separately from the rest of the cast and crew. MGM bought out her contract leaving her to travel to Britain to appear in Cochrane’s revue.  LeGon features as a pivotal inspiration in Zadie Smith’s novel, ‘Swing Time’.

Jeni Le Gon by Madame Yevonde

Marjorie Craigie (1888-1937), textile artist – Compared to other sitters in this list, little is known about Marjorie Craigie, and in fact, this picture, which was reproduced at a quarter page or so in The Sketch in 1930 isn’t the best quality, but I wanted to include it because of the confident modernism of Craigie’s personal style. The photograph was taken when an exhibition of her tapestries had just opened at the Bloomsbury Gallery, London. Working in silk and wool, she was influenced by the style of Picasso.

Marjorie Craigie, tapestry artist

The Mitford Sisters – Talented, eccentric, with wildly differing political views, the six Mitford sisters were regular visitors to Madame Yevonde.  We have photographs of Jessica as a debutante, and Nancy and Diana in mirrored portraits during the 1930s when Yevonde was experimenting with all kinds of artistic effects. There is Debo in regal splendour as the chatelaine of Chatsworth and then, there is Diana, who, portrayed as Venus, was one of Yevonde’s immortal goddesses.  The only one missing is Pam – but we live in hope of finding an image of her by Yevonde.

Jessica Mitford

Jill Thomas (1902-1974), racing driver.  In her smart red ensemble, Eileen “Jill” Thomas is a chic and confident symbol of the growing number of women who took to the wheel during the 1920s and 30s.  Introduced to motor racing by her first husband, William “Bummer” Scott, she took part in races at Brooklands, including the first women’s race in 1927, achieving a top speed of 113mph in a supercharged Sunbeam belonging to her husband. Remembered as a fearless and energetic driver, Jill’s wonderful portrait sits alongside other motoring females we have in the archive such as Mrs Victor Bruce, Violet Cordery and Kay Petre.

Jill Thomas - Motor Racing Driver - Madame Yevonde

Dacia (dates unknown) – dancer.  Dacia, the stage name of Miss D. Smallwood, caused something of a sensation when she appeared in the hit musical ‘Chu Chin Chow’ during the First World War. Yevonde photographed her a number of times, perfectly capturing her sensuous, sultry looks; the 1920 image of her, smoking from a curled glass cigarette holder, shows her out of costume but still exhibiting her trademark exotic allure. In 1919, she married Colonel Critchley Salmonson of the Royal Fusiliers, City of London Regiment and, as far as we can tell from our records here, she did not return to the stage.

The dancer, Dacia by Madame Yevonde

Eileen Bennett Whittingstall (1907-1979) – tennis player.  Eileen Bennett’s legacy suffers somewhat from playing at a time when Helen Wills Moody was dominating women’s tennis. Nevertheless, between 1927 and 1931 she won six Grand Slam doubles titles and was a finalist at the French Championship in 1928 and the US Championship in 1931, losing to Moody on both occasions. As a British player, she was the darling of the illustrated magazines and proved a willing sitter for Yevonde, whose circular portrait of Bennett is particularly inventive.

The Eileen Bennett Circular

For many more portraits of famous (and infamous) men and women, type ‘Madame Yevonde’ into our keyword search box.  Mary Evans Picture Library are copyright owners of all Madame Yevonde’s black & white photography and we are also able to license examples of her colour photography.  Do get in touch if you’d like to discuss a project.

Travelling in Style

This October sees the publication of a new illustrated book on luxury railway travel in Britain which features previously unpublished research material and rare archival images, many of them from the Illustrated London News collection housed here at Mary Evans. Luxury Railway Travel: A Social and Business History by Martyn Pring (Pen & Sword Transport, October 2019) chronicles the products and services shaped by railway companies and hospitality businesses for Britain’s burgeoning upper- and middle-classes in the interwar years. For our latest blog, Martyn explores the connections between women’s fashion and first-class travel.

At the 19th century’s tail end, a marketplace for men’s and women’s fashion accessories evolved; for designers it was not just an opportunity to create new attire but the notion of selling a ‘complete look’ made up of hats and footwear, jewellery, scarves, ties, gloves and bags. Throughout the Edwardian period, interest in fashion gained momentum as women from higher social classes found new freedoms. Not only were restaurants and hotels deemed suitable for groups of women, but a state of independence developed surrounding early forms of a retail or shopping culture.

High-quality suppliers and department stores sprung up around city centres; special malls and arcades of individual shops appeared in prosperous districts of London, Paris, Milan, New York and Chicago selling a variety of high-end products especially women’s fashions. Couturier and dress maker, Lady Lucy Duff Gordon, a female entrepreneur, was typical of the period trend setters. A Titanic survivor, she pioneered sexy underwear having established her credentials during the mid-1890s running a Mayfair shop selling (at the time) breath-taking lingerie. Courtesy of her investor husband, Sir Cosmo, she ran shops in several international cities. This was all part of the Edwardian garden party; historian Professor Bernard Rieger noted first-class passengers were ’part of an expanding market for luxury goods and services that, together with high-class hotels, spas and exclusive retail outlets catered for a clientele of aristocrats, members of the European haute bourgeoisie, and American plutocrats.’ (Bernhard Rieger (2005), Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany 1890-1945, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.)

Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon (1863-1935) English fashion designer developed an international business in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago, designing for stage and screen, as well as the wealthy. Ca. 1915.
Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon (1863-1935)  developed an international business in London, Paris, New York, and Chicago, designing for stage and screen, as well as the wealthy. Photo c. 1915.

Hardly surprising the world of fashion increasingly occupied the minds of publishers who fine-tuned individual titles targeting particular groups of women. The idea of ‘travelling in style’ gained ground. What women wore mirrored the high-class environments of homes, hotels, ocean liners and the first-class train carriage, but for publishers, editorial and advertising appeared side by side with railway holiday arrangements and the special supplements celebrating London society’s yearly sojourns to the Highlands for the grouse season and the mid-winter exodus to the French and Italian Rivera. The illustrated weekly titles were full of the latest fanciful frocks, advice on how to dress, the best possible dress for train travel, fashion tips and what to wear once madam had arrived at her intended destination.

Frocks, Frills and Furbelows by Mrs Jack May. The Neat Travelling Woman. An original design for a neat travelling dress, carried out in alpaca in a pretty mouse shade. 1908. Date: 1908
Frocks, Frills and Furbelows by Mrs Jack May. The Neat Travelling Woman. An original design for a neat travelling dress, carried out in alpaca in a pretty mouse shade. The Bystander, 1908.

Planning for holiday breaks morphed into a veritable industry, as undeniably did the old-fashioned travelling trunk’s replacement—the more modern suitcase reflecting the status of wealthy travellers. Trunks were once considered ideal since they could be stacked on top of each other in railway brake vans, but they outlived their use as they were heavy and cumbersome. By the end of the Victorian era, the suitcase acquired a luxury badge, and was considered as important as the designer outfits inside. For women, how they looked and arrived increasingly became benchmarks of civilized behaviour. The Great War put much on hold as country houses and estates were turned into convalescence homes. The McKenna duties of 1915 placed stinging duties on luxury product imports to fund the war effort. Likewise, the fashion industry took a back seat during troubled times.

A fashionable young woman from the 1920s wearing a fur trimmed coat and a green cloche hat, rest her sore feet while sitting on a very large trunk at a railway station. Date: 1927
A fashionable young woman rests her sore feet while sitting on a trunk at a railway station, by Van Abbe in The Bystander, 1927. And Bagages – Grands et Petits, by Douglas Wales in The Tatler, 1929.

Post-war, a new era was characterised by the dramatic lifting of ladies’ hemlines, though the trend was in fact evident by the outbreak of the First World War. Fiona McDonald suggested the 1920s ‘heralded in a shifting of attitude towards fashion that saw women being able to just about bare all and get away with it.’ (Fiona McDonald (2012), Britain in the 1920s, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books.) They were the decade’s party face, but the main impact of changes for women (and men) was a trend towards looser fitting, more comfortable and casually styled clothes that made travelling so much easier. For ladies this meant an end to the squeezing and prudish fashions that had ruled Victorian and Edwardian lives.

Young woman showing the barrel-line silhouette of the period. She wears a wrap over coat with high fur collar & checker board motif on the hem & a high brimless hat. Date: circa 1920
Dressed for a trip by Luigi Bompard, c.1920. Ladies in travelling clothes, Art, Gout, Beaute, 1926.

In the inter-war years, long-distance train travel in Britain, Europe and America was de-rigueur, as up-to-the-minute new expresses were aided by railway company efforts to enhance passenger experiences with exciting ranges of on-board facilities. Travelling was considered a means to broaden minds and the opportunity to meet new people, providing the chance for railway operators to solidify a burgeoning luxury travel segment. By the end of the later 1920s fashion and luxury train travel were firmly embedded.

Women and their travelling experiences for the first time were put at the heart of much inter-linked marketing activity. LNER, a few years after its formation, ran a series of advertisements placing women on the centre stage of their promotion.

Page from The Bystander, 9th September 1925 featuring adverts for Phyllis Earle hairdressing salons, the millinery department at Marshall & Snelgrove, The Art of Arriving in Scotland from King's Cross by the East Coast Route by L.N.E.R., and Harvey Nichols of Knightsbridge. September 1925
Adverts in The Bystander, 1928 and The Bystander, 1925.

The company by the 1930s had introduced a raft of iconic travel posters featuring well-dressed women enjoying themselves at hotels owned by LNER as well as on their Anglo-Scottish expresses. Norman Hartnell in Spring 1930 launched a tweed outfit called the Flying Scotsman with matching tweed golf bag, hatbox and suitcase. In 1933 The Bystander ran a 12th August fashion feature for ‘those lucky people who are about to board the Flying Scotsman on their way to moors and glens [who] would do well to visit the showrooms at Marshall and Snelgrove before they leave for the North.’ Overseas travel mirrored changing fashion trends as cruising and partying created in today’s terms ‘celebrity destinations’ where top fashion personalities such as Gabrielle ’Coco’ Chanel famously made suntanning on the Riviera fashionable. Travelling and entertaining were features of upper middle-class life during the second half of the 1930s as glamorous trains, liners, and in time, aircraft played their part as essential film settings.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS, Joan Marsh, Ray Milland, 1934 Date: 1934
Comedy film Many Happy Returns with Joan Marsh and Ray Milland, 1934.
A Portfolio of Fashion by Madge Garland, featuring an outfit suggested for travelling on the Flying Scotsman. Date: 1933

Cinema was the most potent image of the age as Hollywood and British film-makers satirised London life. Whilst society was seen to exploit media attention, it also worked the other way as by the end of the decade the media deployed its own agenda. As Dr Ross McKibbon advised ‘the relationship between them and the wider audience for whom these glamorous rituals were intended was never stationary.’ (Ross McKibbin, (2000), Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford, Oxford University Press.) Thus, a modern media celebrity industry was born driving a market for luxury consumer goods with vigorously protected brands for perfume, handbags, stockings and haute couture—fashion and luxury brands closely entwined.

Fashion impacted on other dimensions. Britain possessed a comfortable middle-class whose social horizons were similar to those of the upper-middle-classes but demonstrating growing occupational and residential mobility transforming society and the way one dressed. They bought property around Surrey’s stockbroker-belt areas whilst Sussex and surrounding counties played host to many stylish architecturally designed houses with quick commuter access to the capital aboard Southern’s new Electric Pullmans. Extensions beyond north London became home to John Betjeman’s celebrated ‘Metroland’ living, maintaining standards in dress and diet as well as where people choose to live.

Little surprise inter-war trains, boats and planes and fashion played such a central role. Even by the early 1950s, the nationalised rail system was in on the act cultivating a ‘travelling in style’ fashion stage utilising its crack West Country expresses as a backcloth. A lot has happened in the intervening period, but most travel connoisseurs today would love to harken back to the days of civilised train travel for that long-awaited leisure trip. Not the onerous commuter jaunt, but a delightfully slow tempo (even if the modern train is speeding along at 100 mph plus), where the journey is the destination itself. Of course, the style of a train trip with those little luxuries has changed a little and would perhaps be characterised by mom jeans, esplanade sandals, a well-being book under one’s arm, and a Burberry vintage check trunk in tow, not to forget the odd Instagram story!

Travellers' Joys: the Right Clothes for the Journey. Talking to driver F.W. Page, who leans from the cab of a West of England express, the girl on the left is wearing Jaeger's pure camel hair top coat. On the right is Koupy's 'Romeo', a check wool tweed coat with clever set-on-the-cross back panel. 1950 Date: 1950
Travellers’ Joys: The Right Clothes for the Journey. The girl on the left is wearing Jaeger’s pure camel hair top coat. On the right is Koupy’s ‘Romeo’, a check wool tweed coat with clever set-on-the-cross back panel. The Tatler and Bystander, 1950.

 

 

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret

Benjamin Levy’s book Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret (published by The History Press, with a foreword by Dita Von Teese) is out next week, and tells the tale of a unique institution in the history of British entertainment. Here the author explains why Murray’s was so special, and introduces the hundreds of costume designs that lie at the heart of the book, images that are now available for licensing through the Mary Evans Picture Library website, courtesy of the collection of poster dealer and expert, Charlie Jeffreys.

 

Cabaret Club Menu' - from Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date: 1950

“Working at Murray’s left you in an unreal world: at night-time you entered this fantasy place, where the rich and famous queued for your attention; the days were an endless series of dinner and party invitations, and the social life was truly amazing. It was only after I left Murray’s and returned to the real world that I realised the strange underground fantasy life I had been leading” – Christine Keeler

Night after night, Murray’s Cabaret Club set imaginations ablaze, forged fantasies for deadened aristocrats and Arab businessmen, and provided refuge for the hounded celebrity. In that intimate basement beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street, sexy was never sordid, and nude never naked. That is until the Profumo Affair—a sex-and-spying scandal that involved a love triangle between Murray’s showgirl Christine Keeler, Britain’s Minister of War John Profumo, and a Soviet spy Yevgeny Ivanov—erupted in 1963. In the middle was Murray’s regular, Stephen Ward, an osteopath and socialite who had taken Keeler under his wing. The furore resulted in the eventual downfall of the British government, the advent of the permissive society, and the birth of the Swinging Sixties. London would never be the same again.

 

(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.
(left) Christine Keeler, early 1960s. (centre) British Minister of War John Profumo retuns home after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler, June 18, 1963. (right) Stephen Thomas Ward (1912-1963), the high society osteopath who introduced Christine Keeler to John Profumo, 1963.

 

The club began life in 1913, making it one of London’s very first modern nightclubs. In the Roaring Twenties, it spearheaded the craze for the Folies Bergère and tango fever. London’s Soho district was then a hotspot for gambling dens and clip joints—anywhere to fuel the demand for out-of-hours drinking—but Percival Murray’s nightclub was never part of this druggy underworld. During World War Two, the nightlife aficionado entertained off-duty officers with ingeniously costumed and choreographed cabaret floorshows, and Murray’s was soon employing a 130-strong staff including classically-trained choreographers, inventive lyricists, celebrated bandleaders, and skilled seamstresses.

 

Programme for Murray's Cabaret Club

 

The racy and respectable numbered amongst its illustrious roster of members: royalty (Princess Margaret, King Hussein of Jordan), film stars (Jean Harlow), politicians (Winston Churchill), and all sorts of louche business tycoons and shady sales executives. Racketeers like Peter Rachman, who dated showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies, rubbed shoulders with diplomats such as Henry Kissinger. Many showgirls, including Kay Kendall and Gertrude Lawrence, became household names. Not all for the right reasons; Ruth Ellis danced at Murray’s before shooting her lover, and becoming the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The tragic glamour model Vicki Martin, the peroxide blonde bombshell Carole Lesley, and even the founder of a satanic cult, Mary Ann MacLean, were all once in Mr Murray’s employ. The long-time companion of the actor John Hurt was a showgirl at Murray’s. Her death at a young age was the reason for Hurt’s decision to portray Stephen Ward in the 1989 film Scandal. Similarly, the mother of singer Sarah Brightman was a dancer at the club; this brought it to the attention of Sarah’s husband Andrew Lloyd Webber who, years later, staged the musical Stephen Ward.

 

The exterior and interior of Murray's Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)
The exterior and interior of Murray’s Nightclub, Beak Street, London (1920s)

Though the enduring fascination of Murray’s Cabaret Club is borne out by the attention it has received in the press, in exhibitions, and on stage and screen, all physical remnants of the club apparently disappeared without trace – the whiff of exotica extinguished. “There’s nothing much left of [Murray’s] except the legend and memories,” wrote Keeler, years after the Profumo Affair. She was wrong. In 2014, two albums containing hundreds of costume designs were unearthed at an obscure auction in Surrey. After research, it became clear that this treasure trove, hidden away for decades, was of great value, capable of illuminating the untold history of post-War cabaret in London.

 

Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

Soon, hours of film footage documenting the floorshow routines in glittering technicolour, as well as hundreds of photographs showing life amongst the showgirls off-premises, were discovered sitting in the archives of major public collections, such as London’s V&A Museum. Scores of surviving dancers were tracked down and interviewed and their stories have been preserved in the book: of late-night adventures with businessman Paul Getty; and spy meetings held in the club itself by movie producer Harry Alan Towers. Film footage was found that captured Percival Murray and his wardrobe mistress Elsie Burchmore sifting through those very same portfolios of designs that were revealed sixty years later.

First and foremost, Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret celebrates the ingenuity and inventive wit of the costume designers who chose Murray’s as their stage. Ronald Cobb’s costumes celebrate the Latin craze that was rife through London’s dance clubs of the Fifties, and played out through the sambas of Carmen Miranda and mambos of Perez Prado. Visions inspired by the aesthetics of space exploration and sci-fi movies of the period mingle with costumes that predate the style of Cecil Beaton’s idiosyncratic attire for My Fair Lady and that reflect the glamour of Horst P Horst’s Vogue models. Naughty nurses, stern-stockinged policewomen, racy Bo Peeps, and women wearing nothing but chandeliers don G-strings that incorporate all sorts of sexual puns from fans to violins. Many of these designs are still covered in glitter and gold foil. Michael Bronze’s lithe vamps complement Cobb’s Deco pin-ups. They reflect the costumier’s dual profession of theatre designer and chic dress designer for London’s high society. Hilda Wetton’s ‘fan dancers’ extended a form of entertainment seen at the popular Windmill Theatre to the nightclub scene; historically, the dancers dodged censorship laws that forbade nudes to move on stage by skilfully manipulating a set of ostrich feathers so as to titillate though never reveal all.

 

'Little Bo' - Murray's Cabaret Club costume design

 

The overheads were enormous; at half a million pounds in today’s money for each show, the club’s performers were some of the most expensively-clothed showgirls ever to grace the West End stage. Each costume took around 300 hours to construct, and were made by a team of six seamstresses who worked all year round in permanent employment from a workshop on Percival Murray’s country estate. The extremely elaborate jewelling and ornamentation was intricately stitched by hand. The headdresses were often comprised of thousands of tiny beads or sparkling sequins, and the expense of the fabrics matched the level of craftmanship; for example, only real furs were used. It all made Percival Murray a very rich man indeed. Yet the fleet of Rolls Royces, sumptuous flats in Whitehall and Mayfair, and the country house in Surrey weren’t to last. The Playboy Club arrived in London in 1966 and was sexier and edgier, though—to Mr Murray—unacceptably artless. The writing was on the wall; the club closed, and the dream ended.

Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a burger bar. Step downstairs to the basement and the waitresses, most of whom were born long after the club’s closure in 1975, flit between the tables serving the tourists of Carnaby Street. The wood panelling has been whitewashed, resembling the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’ in the Fifties. Post-war, the West End may have been blighted by austerity, but underground, the oak walls of Murray’s once shimmered as they reflected the sparkle of costumed showgirls dancing.

 

Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray's Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London.     Date:
Original costume design for one of the performers at Murray’s Cabaret Club, 16-18 Beak Street, Soho, London. Date:

 

Murray’s Cabaret Club: Discovering Soho’s Secret preserves the wonderful visuals and is an invaluable resource for fashion students; retro enthusiasts; cabaret and burlesque fans; and professional designers looking for fresh source material.

 

 

 

 

Painting the Picture – Art of Feminism

 

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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.

A life class at the Slade Date: 1881
A life class at the Slade Date: 1881

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.

Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862
Engraving after the painting by Emily Mary Osborn, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and subsequently at the 1862 International Exhibition. A young woman, recently bereaved, visits an art dealer in order to sell a painting. The picture conveyed the isolation felt by women artists at the time in the male-dominated world of art. Date: 1862

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.

A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881
A still life class at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London Date: 1881

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.

A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894
A life class for female art students, Paris. Date: 1894

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.

The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 - 1933. Date:
The Art Class. Sullivan, Edmund Joseph 1869 – 1933. Date:

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.

Art Studio - Queen's College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure... Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s
Art Studio – Queen’s College, Harley Street. Ladies sketching a model, with the teacher alongside. Various classical busts surround the studio as inspiration and examples of the finest classical form and structure… Some of the women have chosen these to draw instead! Date: circa 1910s

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.

Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.
Six girls in art a high school art class drawing plaster casts of classical sculpture. 19th century art training immersed students in classical aesthetics. 1899.

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.”

The women's class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women's academy in Barer Street 21.
The women’s class in an art school in Schwabing while Nude drawing, probably in the women’s academy in Barer Street 21.

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.

A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s
A class of female students at the London County School of Sculpture modelling clay busts based on live models. Date: 1930s

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.

A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957
A sculpture student works on a clay model on a tripod, while a nude model poses for her, at the Central School of Art and Design (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design), London. Date: 1957

© Lucinda Gosling

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‘The Art of Feminism’ is published by Tate Publishing, edited by Helen Reckitt, and written by Lucinda Gosling, Amy Tobin and Hilary Robinson.

Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910
Students at the Painting School, Pelham Street, nr. South Kensington Station, London. Principals: A. S. Cope, A.R.A and J. Watson Nicol. Date: 1910

The Grit in the Pearl: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

Next week marks the publication of a new biography of one of British society’s most infamous figures, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.  Our archive has proved a rich source for material on the woman who was once the country’s most celebrated debutante in her 1930s heyday.  For our latest blog, we invited Lyndsy Spence, author of ‘The Grit in the Pearl’ (The History Press, 11 Feb 2019) to choose images that explore her subject’s rise – and fall.

 

The rise and fall of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll can be chronicled through photographs. Beginning in 1930, when she was named Debutante of the Year, she would become the most photographed women in English society. ‘Miss Margaret Whigham goes everywhere, and photographs of her have appeared so often they are as well known as any film star,’ wrote the News Chronicle. Gracing the pages of The Tatler and The Sketch, she became known as ‘The Whigham’, and her daily life was fair game to the reporters who followed her around and waited patiently outside the Cafe de Paris and the Embassy Club. ‘I was my own little star in a very social world,’ she later said. Reflecting on her talent for using the press to her advantage, she said, of her blue-blooded contemporaries, Jeanne Stourton, Rose Bingham, and Primrose Salt, ‘I was the one that lasted, the others faded after three years.’

Mrs Charles Sweeny, formerly Miss Margaret Whigham and later the Duchess of Argyll (1912 - 1993), pictured as Astrae, the Star-Maiden for the Olympian Party at Claridges on 5 March 1935 in aid of the Greater London Fund for the Blind. The Olympian Party featured a pageant of Olympians consisting of an entertainment of dancing and singing with orchestral accompaniment. Date: 1935
Mrs Charles Sweeny, formerly Miss Margaret Whigham and later the Duchess of Argyll (1912 – 1993), pictured as Astrae, the Star-Maiden for the Olympian Party at Claridges on 5 March 1935 in aid of the Greater London Fund for the Blind. The Olympian Party featured a pageant of Olympians consisting of an entertainment of dancing and singing with orchestral accompaniment. Date: 1935

She was born Ethel Margaret Whigham in 1912, at Broom House, in Newton Mearns, Renfrewshire, to Helen and George Whigham, a self-made millionaire and chairman of the Celanese Company. In her own words, she was, ‘a very vain little girl’. Studio photographs of the infant Margaret set the premise for her future (to quote the Mitfords) ‘photography face’ – taken in profile, she had short, permanent-waved hair, a slouched posture (later known as the ‘Deb Slouch’) and a lantern jaw. The disinterested look is recognisable in photographs taken of her, as a debutante and an elderly woman, and perhaps it was attributed to what a psychiatrist diagnosed as lacking a sense of humour – ‘my . . . unsmiling face’.

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham) (19121993), a notorious British Socialite, infamous for her marriage and subsequent divorce to Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. Date: 1980

As a child she was often reminded, by her mother, of her shortcomings, particularly her stammer and the unsuccessful attempts to cure it . ‘No matter how pretty you are Margaret, and however many lovely things we give you,’ her mother told her,  ‘you will get nowhere in life if you stammer’ It was hardly surprising that she gravitated to the camera lens; it did not capture the flaws of her personality or her voice, and the finished product, the photograph, warranted praise from strangers. ‘She always had this, don’t touch me, don’t disarrange me aura about her,’ said her friend, Moira Lester. It was as though Margaret was always picture-perfect, always waiting to be immortalised as an inanimate object.

Mrs Charles Sweeny (1912-1993), formerly Miss Margaret Whigham, and later, on her second marriage, the Duchess of Argyll, pictured with her parents, Mr and Mrs George Hay Whigham at the film premiere of Jew Suss in London in October 1934, an event also attended by Prince George (Duke of Kent). Date: 1934
Mrs Charles Sweeny (1912-1993), formerly Miss Margaret Whigham, and later, on her second marriage, the Duchess of Argyll, pictured with her parents, Mr and Mrs George Hay Whigham at the film premiere of Jew Suss in London in October 1934, an event also attended by Prince George (Duke of Kent). Date: 1934

It would be dismissive to think of Margaret as little more than a woman who loved the camera. In hindsight the photographs of her offer a glimpse into the past, and into the life of a privileged woman throughout the decades, as society changed. The setting, the clothes she wore, the company she kept, are valuable source material for the social historian or casual onlooker. ‘I wasn’t aware I was rich,’ she said, and therefore she appears completely natural in the medium, not afraid to enhance her beauty with make-up or to appear well-dressed, qualities that her grandmother’s generation would have thought artificial and therefore unacceptable. It also reflects the attitude of the public, and how Margaret satisfied their curiosity for snippets of her private life, on the town, at her parents’ country house in Ascot, or skiing in St Moritz.

Miss Margaret Whigham, later Mrs Charles Sweeny and then Duchess of Argyll, pictured at St. Moritz with the Marquess of Donegall (Edward Chichester) in the year she was presented at court. Date: 1930
Miss Margaret Whigham pictured at St. Moritz with the Marquess of Donegall (Edward Chichester) in the year she was presented at court. Date: 1930

From 1930 until 1933 Margaret had a hedonistic romantic life and was often seen with a male companion or on the arm of her latest fiancée – she was engaged to Prince Aly Khan, Glen Kidston, Max Aitken, and Fulke Warwick. As with Margaret’s preference for artifice, she did not shirk from being photographed with the men in her life – a daring stance in a society that expected a young woman to be discreet.

Photograph showing Miss Margaret Whigham (1912-1993), later Mrs Charles Sweeny and then the Duchess of Argyll, with Charles Guy Greville, 7th Earl Brooke, 7th Earl of Warwick (1919-1984), pictured c.1932. Whigham and Warwick were engaged at the time of the photograph, but later broke it off. Date: 06/04/1932

 

In 1933 Margaret married Charles ‘Charlie’ Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker and amateur golfer, and their wedding at Brompton Oratory halted traffic for three hours. ‘No film star has had a more enthusiastic welcome from her fans than this debutante of a season or two ago,’ a newspaper reported. Two-thousand guests were invited to the nuptials, and a further two-thousand gatecrashers came to see Margaret’s Norman Hartnell wedding dress, with its star appliqués, seed pearls, and glass bugles, that were stitched by thirty seamstresses.

The society wedding of the year in 1933; society beauty and media darling, Miss Margaret Whigham, later Duchess of Argyll, to Mr Charles Sweeny, Oxford University golfer at Brompton Oratory in February 1933. The bride's dress with exquisite pearl star embroidery was designed by Norman Hartnell and its fifty foot train stopped the traffic in Knightsbridge where thousands of people turned out to catch a glimpse of the wedding. Date: 1933
The society wedding of the year in 1933; society beauty and media darling, Miss Margaret Whigham to Mr Charles Sweeny, Oxford University golfer at Brompton Oratory in February 1933. The bride’s dress with exquisite pearl star embroidery was designed by Norman Hartnell and its fifty foot train stopped the traffic in Knightsbridge where thousands of people turned out to catch a glimpse of the wedding. Date: 1933

Although during her fifteen-year marriage to Charlie, Margaret thought of herself as the ‘model wife’, she continued to hold the public’s fascination and when her children, Frances and Brian, were born in 1938 and 1940, respectively, the press were invited to chronicle her family life.

Mr and Mrs Charles Sweeny at the christening of their younger child, Brian at Brompton Oratory on 7 May 1940 with their daughter, Frances (later Duchess of Rutland). Mrs Sweeny was the former Miss Margaret Whigham and later the infamous Duchess of Argyll. Date: 1940
Mr and Mrs Charles Sweeny at the christening of their younger child, Brian at Brompton Oratory on 7 May 1940 with their daughter, Frances (later Duchess of Rutland).

In 1947 Margaret divorced Charlie and in 1951 she married Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll. Becoming a duchess gave Margaret status outside of being, to use a modern term, a celebutante, and her two identities merged to offer the public a new image: chatelaine of Inveraray Castle, her husband’s family seat in Western Scotland, restored with her father’s money, and her work in promoting the Highland’s economy. Despite being one-hundred-percent Scots, and married to a Scottish Duke, Margaret does not look at ease in what should have been her natural environment. Photographs taken during this period reflect her problematic marriage to Ian, a man dependent on alcohol, gambling, and prescription drugs, for although her signature pose remained, she looked brittle, and there was a distance between herself and the lens.

Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, together with his third wife, the former Miss Margaret Whigham and Mrs Charles Sweeny, pictured standing by a portrait of Lord John Campbell, later the 7th Duke, which they had lent for a portrait exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1956. The Duchess was a scion of society, worshipped by the press in her youth, but the scandalous 1963 divorce case between the Duke and Duchess featuring the notorious 'headless man' photographs, ruined her reputation and plunged her into lifelong penury. Date: 1956
Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, together with his third wife, the former Miss Margaret Whigham and Mrs Charles Sweeny, pictured standing by a portrait of Lord John Campbell, later the 7th Duke, which they had lent for a portrait exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1956.

In the mid to late 1950s Margaret was often photographed with her children, particularly her daughter, Frances. It signalled a change in the style of photograph she was accustomed to, for although the setting remained much the same, she was preparing to launch her daughter as a debutante, and for a period she became a secondary figure. Mother and daughter photographed side by side does not indicate rivalry (unlike Margaret and Helen), but a symbol of the generation gap and how photography styles had changed– Margaret, at Frances’s age, was far more intense, whereas Frances looked the epitome of a 1950s teenager.

Margaret Whigham (1912-1993), British society figure, debutante of the year in 1930. Later Mrs Charles Sweeny, after marrying the American golfer, and then Duchess of Argyll, whose scandalous divorce case, involving the photographs of the "headless" man plunged her into disgrace and penury. Pictured when she was Duchess of Argyll with her daughter, Frances Sweeny, who would become Duchess of Rutland - and their pet dachshund, Max. 1953
Margaret Whigham (1912-1993), British society figure. Pictured when she was Duchess of Argyll with her daughter, Frances Sweeny, who would become Duchess of Rutland – and their pet dachshund, Max. 1953

Given the controlled environment of the photograph, it therefore came as a surprise when a series of explicit Polaroids, featuring Margaret and a male companion, photographed from the neck down, and known as the Headless Man, became known to the public. They were stolen by Ian, along with her diaries and letters, and used as evidence in his divorce case, in 1963, as proof that Margaret had been unfaithful.  ‘I shall spare her the indignities of what those photographs depict,’ said Lord Wheatley, the judge presiding over the divorce case. For thirty years her social record had been impeccable, and no longer was she in control of her public image, despite having taken the photographs herself.

The camera, once serving to enhance her fame, later assisted in her betrayal.

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (born Ethel Margaret Whigham) (19121993), a notorious British Socialite, infamous for her marriage and subsequent divorce to Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll. Date: 1986
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Date: 1986 © Tim Mercer/Mary Evans.

The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll by Lyndsy Spence is published by The History Press .

Land Girls and Lumber Jills

In a year commemorating not only the centenary of women’s enfranchisement, but also the end of the First World War, the achievements of women in wartime deserves recognition, not least the efforts of the women who worked on the land through two world wars. A decade ago, in January 2008, it was announced that former members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) were to be awarded a medal commemorating their vital contribution to the war effort during two World Wars. The badge, bearing the Royal Crown and showing a gold wheat sheaf on a white background was surrounded by a circlet of pine branches and pine cones to indicate the work of both the ‘Land Girls’ and the ‘Lumber Jills’. It was long overdue (sixty years overdue, sniffed the Daily Mail at the time), but it was, at last, official recognition for a cohort of women who had thrown their backs, and their hearts into providing the nation with food and timber during World War II.

Land Girl, Pauline Bell, who used to be a Civil Service clerk, working with plough horses on a farm during World War II

By early 1917, and with an estimated three weeks’ food supply left in the country, it was clear that drastic action was needed. Ronald Protheroe, President of the Board of Agriculture engaged the services of (Dame) Meriel Talbot, a leading light of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association, who became director of the first Women’s Land Army. She set about immediately implementing an intensive recruitment drive.

Women's Land Army WW1. Somewhat idealised portrait of a Land Girl in hat and smock. Pitchfork over her shoulder. Captioned, 'National Service' 'Sunshine on the Land'     Date: Circe 1917

Through both World Wars, the WLA struggled with an image problem.  Other, comparatively more glamorous women’s services such as the Women’s Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS) were formed around the same time and offered not only more conducive working hours but an elegant uniform in comparison to the smock and breeches ensemble worn by land girls. Munitions workers of course, earned far more. Farm work meant long hours, physical toil and low wages. Furthermore, many land girls who arrived at farms full of optimism and enthusiasm, found their male employers sceptical about their abilities. The recruiters appealed to the patriotism of the nation’s women, and peppered that with promises of a healthy, wholesome rural idyll. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, quoted in The Landswoman (a magazine launched in January 1918 expressly for WLA members), added his voice to the appeal in June 1918; “…the harvest is in danger…once again therefore…I appeal to women to come forward and help. They have never failed this country yet.” A Times article, reporting on a the 130 land girls who visited London and then Buckingham Palace for a recruitment campaign in March of that year commented enthusiastically on, “the health and happiness, clear skins and bright eyes” of the land girls.

A member of the Women's Auxilary Agricultural Service (Land Army) in hat, smock, shirt, tie and sturdy brogues. Her armband bears the emblem of the crown.     Date: circa 1916

The Women’s Land Army of the Great War, which had recruited approximately 23,000 women to its ranks, was disbanded in 1919 but within twenty years, it would be needed again. Having proved to many doubters in 1918 that women were more than capable of physically taxing work in the fields and forests, the next generation of land girls found themselves facing similar prejudices.

The new WLA reformed in 1939, with Lady Gertrude Denman at its head. Its headquarters were based at her own magnificent country home, Balcombe Park in Sussex where the bedrooms were turned into offices and the stables and squash court transformed into warehouses for storing the thousands of uniforms to be issued to recruits. From here, the Land Girl, a monthly magazine under the editorship of birth control pioneer, Margaret Pyke was produced reaching a circulation of 21,000. Lady Denman was a tireless representative of the WLA. She toured the country, making personal visits to county and regional officers as well as speaking to land girls themselves and was firmly committed to raising the profile and improving conditions for the women under her wing. In 1941, she approached Buckingham Palace to invite Queen Elizabeth to become the WLA patron. The Queen accepted and from then on, took an active interest in the Land Army, attending reviews, subscribing to the WLA Benevolent Fund and throwing an anniversary party for over 300 land girls at Buckingham Palace in 1943.

The WLA’s recruiting slogan was, ‘For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army’. Its most famous poster depicted a glowing young woman, pitchfork poised, in WLA uniform surveying with a satisfied gaze, a large, sun-kissed field stretching out to the horizon. For some, it was an alluring prospect. Indeed, in the months leading up to WWII, when the WLA was already beginning to recruit as the storm clouds of war gathered, the fortnight of training given to Land Girls was regularly described as akin to a holiday. The Hastings Observer, writing in July 1939, suggested, “Land Army work is something which girls and women of all types and ages will find interesting and health-giving…The period of training is only a fortnight, and those who would find a country holiday attractive and are prepared to pay £1 for their board should find the training period as enjoyable as it is instructive.”

World War Two, 1940s, Women's Land Army, tractor, horse, harness, girl on dungarees, fields, village. .     Date:

The bucolic idyll promoted by posters and newspaper editorial rarely lived up to expectations. For most girls, some of whom came from cities and were entirely unused to country life let alone physical work, the reality involved endless weeks of strenuous, back-breaking effort. Jobs could be by turns filthy, dangerous, repetitive, or all three. Nevertheless, by 1943, over 80,000 women had gamely turned their hand to baling, ploughing, weeding, ditching, chaffing, milking, mucking out, plucking chickens, picking potatoes, cutting sugar beet and even rat-catching! One former land girl, Dorothy Wheeler, sent to work on farms in North Wales, recalled the field work she was faced with on her very first day – sorting through clamps of potatoes, separating them into one heap for pigs and another for humans. “Oh, it was horrible sometimes, like custard.” Another girl, Hilda Billings from Salford left her job in the Rennies indigestion tablet factory to join the land army and described her typical working week in the Shropshire countryside as, “getting up to bring in the cows at six, washing their udders with icy-cold water, drying and then milking them. Then breakfast and lots of other work until six. Haymaking time, you’d go back after tea and work till it went really dark.” For a forty-eight hour working week, payment was the underwhelming sum of £1 2 s. 6d., and was considerably lower for girls under the age of eighteen. Promotion to a supervisor was, at least, a chance to improve earning power.

Land Girls working as milkmaids milking cows on a farm in Tooting during World War II. Miss Ivy Baldwin (on the left) was a mulitple shop worker).

Members of the Women’s Timber Corps found themselves in an even more masculine world than their land girl counterparts. With timber imports badly hit by submarine attacks on Allied ships, and the need for a specialisation in this kind of work, the WTA was set up as an offshoot of the WLA in March 1942.  Recruits, who had four weeks of training, earned more than land girls with the result that, at one point, women were volunteering at a rate of 250 per week. The Lumber Jills carried out an enormous range of forestry jobs from working in sawmills to labouring in forests, felling trees and lopping branches. They would also take on the heavy work of haulage and transportation. A key aspect of their job was acquisition work, where WTC members would walk for miles daily, assessing, measuring and selecting trees suitable for war production, whether as telegraph poles, as pit props or for wood that would be laid in front of tanks on beach landings.

Most girls were billeted either at farms, or often in hostels where facilities could be spartan, though the camaraderie of communal living was often preferred to the isolation of living alone with a family in a remote area. Nevertheless, home comforts were thin on the ground. Helen Collett, who worked in Buckinghamshire remembered coming back from the fields after a day knee deep in mud and having to share just four inches of bath water with six other girls. The familiar uniform issued to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills consisted of brown, corduroy breeches (an extra pair was allocated to WTC girls), fawn knee-length woollen socks, fawn Aertex shirt, green pullover and green tie. To top it off was a brown felt ‘slouch’ hat, worn at a jaunty angle by the more sassy girls to avoid looking overly quaint. The green beret that set the Lumberjills apart was infinitely more rakish. For many, this uniform was kept for ‘best’ and daily work was carried out in baggy, brown dungarees with a matching jacket.

Women War Work WW1 Land Army. Members of the Women's Land Army, Forestry Division or Timber Corps, also known as 'Lumber Jills'     Date: 1918

Despite the disadvantages of an unflattering uniform, the land girls still had their fair share of admirers. Those close to RAF or Army bases would cycle (sometimes bicycles were provided) to dances where they jitterbugged with GIs or British airmen. Some went on to marry the servicemen they met while in the WLA. They caught the eye of others too. Many prisoners of war were put to work in the fields and one land girl recalled that while the German POWs were surly yet hard workers, the Italians, unable to subdue their natural flirtatiousness, would spend more time whistling at girls or calling, ‘Bella, bella’.

Most of the Land Girls and Lumber Jills are now in their eighties but still remember their time with the Women’s Land Army fondly – “good years with good friends” as one put it. Peg Francis from Grimsby, speaking in 2010 explained the firm friendships forged out of a shared experience. “I was very young and had never been away from home. I was frightened of cows, but had no fear of hard work. The people I met during those four and half years were full of kindness and generosity and I’m still in touch with some of the girls now.”

Incredibly, it was not until 2000, that the Women’s Land Army was finally invited to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday – in honour of the work they did for their country. Since then, a memorial sculpture to the WTC was unveiled in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle in Stirling in October 2007, a fitting tribute to the so-called ‘Forgotten Corps’. In 2014, finally, after a fundraising campaign, a memorial to the Women’s Land Army was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The figures, by sculptor Denise Dutton, were inspired by those in one of the original WLA recruitment posters. As the original Land Girls become fewer in number, the focus on women’s contribution to the past becomes magnified, and it seems that finally, their voices are beginning to be heard.

Top Ten Royal Wedding Dresses

What do the names Reville & Rossiter, Handley Seymour, Molyneux and Maureen Baker all have in common?  It’s a quiz question that might stump the most ardent of royal enthusiasts, but add a couple more names – Norman Hartnell, David & Elizabeth Emmanuel or Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen – and the penny might drop.  They have all had the honour of designing a royal wedding dress and, in some cases, such as Reville and Hartnell, they have answered the royal call more than once.  The name of the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress for her marriage to Prince Harry this coming Saturday remains very firmly under wraps though a shortlist of possible candidates has been drawn up to include the Australian-born but London-based duo Ralph & Russo (designers of the gown Meghan wore for her engagement photos), to stalwarts of British fashion, Stella McCartney or Dame Vivienne Westwood.

All will be revealed on Saturday, but in the meantime, here is our top ten royal wedding dresses from history:

  1. Lady Pamela Mountbatten in Worth, 1960.  Not strictly royal, but not far off, the younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten married David Hicks in a snow storm, the ideal backdrop for her fur-trimmed show-stopping satin gown by Worth.
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
Lady Pamela Mountbatten, younger daughter of Earl Mountbatten, pictured in her superb wedding dress designed by Worth, for her marriage to interior designer, David Hicks at Romsey Abbey, Hampshire in January 1960. Date: 1960
  1. Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II), Norman Hartnell, 1947.  Britain was still in the grip of rationing, but Hartnell’s design, embellished with seed pearls & symbolism, lifted spirits.  James Laver of the V&A declared, “The occasion demanded a poet, and Mr Hartnell has not failed to string his lyre and to ring in tune.”
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
Group photograph following the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh showing the newlyweds with their best man, bridesmaids and page boys. Date: 1947
  1. Princess Alexandra in Mrs James, 1863.  Arriving in England with a gift of fine Brussels lace, the Danish princess was firmly steered towards a gown of English silk and Honiton lace.  The future Queen Alexandra would in time become a style icon, but as a fresh-faced fashion ingénue, she looked perfectly ravishing in this frothy crinoline confection.
The Wedding' Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
The Wedding’ Bride in white with six bridesmaids, Groom in blue military costume, two Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) standing guard
  1. Edwina Mountbatten in Reville, 1922  Ticking all the 1920s boxes, Edwina wore the era well.  With those mitten sleeves and the minimal bouquet of lilies, this society girl injected more than a dash of chic into royal weddings.
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret's in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
Lord Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley after their wedding in the church of St. Margaret’s in Westminster, pass through the wedding trellis. Date: 1922
  1. Princess Anne in Maureen Baker.  Magnificent modesty with a cool 1970s vibe, Princess Anne’s dress, with its high neck and trumpet sleeves echoed the medieval splendour of Westminster Abbey, but its modernity allowed her to shine.
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
Princess Anne, the Princess Royal seen smiling and waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace following her marriage to Captain Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey on 14 November 1973. Prince Edward, now the Duke of Wessex, who served as a pageboy can be seen beside the couple. Date: 1973
  1. Lady Diana Spencer in Emmanuel, 1981.  Some say meringue, some say romance, everyone says creased, but “Shy Di’s” gown was the fairytale dream every girl wanted.  Shelve your fashion prejudices for a moment: you’ve got to admit that this was an iconic – and unforgettable – dress.
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
A photograph of Lady Diana Spencer arriving at St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London for her marriage to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales. Her dress and train, designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel is being arranged by her bridesmaids. Crowds of 60000 people lined the streets of London to watch the ceremony on 29th July 1981. Date: 29th July 1981
  1. Catherine Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge) in Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, 2011. Sarah Burton’s take on the precision engineering of the house of McQueen saw it meld effortlessly with the bride’s taste and style: a self-assured, graceful, feminine statement.
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
Princess Catherine Middleton and Prince William after their wedding ceremony on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with bridesmaids Grace van Cutsem and Margarita Armstrong-Jones, page boys William Lowther-Pinkerton and Tom Pettifer, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Pippa Middleton and Prince Harry. Date: 2011
  1.  Princess Grace of Monaco in Helen Rose, 1956. A gift from her film studio, Grace Kelly’s exquisite, lace gown was a carefully structured and modestly feminine creation that showcased her cool, classic beauty.  A style classic, many saw echoes of Helen Rose’s design in the Duchess of Cambridge’s 2011 McQueen gown.
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
WEDDING IN MONACO, Grace Kelly, Prince Rainier, 1956 Date: 1956
  1. Princess Marina (Duchess of Kent) in Molyneux, 1934.  A chic fashion icon, the Duchess of Kent did not put a sartorial foot wrong.  Molyneux could have dressed Marina in a bin bag and she’d looked stunning.  But she didn’t have to:  this dress was an elegant 1930s affair with a definite regal aura.
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934
A photograph of the royal wedding between Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece. Date: 29th November 1934

1.Princess Margaret in Norman Hartnell, 1960.  Breathtakingly simple, a strong silhouette, acres of fabric moulded into shapely discipline.  She’s truly the bridal belle of the ball.

The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960
The marriage of HRH The Princess Margaret (1930-2002) to Anthony Armstrong-Jones (1930-). The couple pictured on the balcony of Buckingham Palace acknowledging the cheering crowds after their wedding ceremony on 6th May 1960. Date: 1960

Do you agree with our top ten?  Do let us know your opinions – and enjoy the royal wedding celebrations this weekend.

http://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=42719

 

Suffragettes on the Road to Democracy

In 1817 Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, argued that women should have the vote. It would be another 101 years before they got it. Increasing the number of male voters was controversial enough. In 1831, when the House of Lords rejected a reform bill, there were riots in British cities, buildings were set on fire, and the effigy of a bishop was burnt in a Huddersfield street, before the First Reform Act was passed the following year resulting in a very small increase to the male franchise.

In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831
In Bristol, where only 6000 of the 104,000 population had the vote in 1830, a crowd protest against the House of Lords defeat of the Reform Bill by burning 100 houses Date: 31 October 1831

In the 1860s, John Stuart Mill, another utilitarian thinker and MP for Westminster, began to champion female enfranchisement, the lack of which he considered in his 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’, a severe impediment to the progress of humanity. His plan was to change just one word in the legislation of the 1867 Second Reform Act, from ‘man’ to ‘person’, but he lost this vote by 194 to 73. The 1867 Act gave more men the vote as did that of 1884, but women were still excluded.

Punch Cartoon depicting, 'John Stuart Mill's logic, Franchise for females; "Pray clear the way for these- Persons" Date: 1867
Punch Cartoon depicting, ‘John Stuart Mill’s logic, Franchise for females; “Pray clear the way for these- Persons” Date: 1867

By the end of the 19th century, women, some of whom had earned university degrees and entered various professions, and many of whom were fulfilling valuable roles in society, were still being treated like second-class citizens. To add insult to injury, they were expected to pay their taxes just like men.

In 1903, frustrated by the lack of progress, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. After a few years of campaigning, little progress had been made, and the government under Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were dragging their feet. Women taking part in peaceful deputations to the Houses of Parliament were arrested, and matters quickly escalated, with members of the WSPU resorting to window-breaking, painting-slashing and other subversive activities. The 2nd April 1911 census night saw suffragettes all over the country sleeping rough to keep their names from being recorded. If the votes of women didn’t count, then they themselves shouldn’t be counted either, they reasoned.

Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908
Emmeline Pankhurst speaks in Trafalgar Square, 13th October 1908; suffragette prisoners released from Holloway in a procession of WSPU carts, 31st July 1908; suffragettes Edith New and Mary Leigh in an open carriage after release from prison for breaking windows at 10 Downing Street, 22nd August 1908

By 1914 things were at a stalemate, but the First World War became an unlikely ally in the fight for the female vote. Most women patriotically put their campaigning to one side and turned their energies towards the war effort, nursing the wounded, working in factories, on public transport, on the farms, and generally keeping the country going.

Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works
Women working in traditionally male roles during the First World War: cleaning casks at a brewery, driving a tram, and at a gas works

As if in reward for their wartime work, in early 1918 legislation giving women the vote at last went through, while the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor, did so in 1919. Restrictions which gave the vote only to women over the age of 30 who were householders, married to a householder or holder of a university degree prevented all-out celebration, but this was remedied in 1928, when the qualifying age was brought down to 21. Political equality with men was at last achieved.

Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men
Property-owning women over 30 voting in the general election, 14th December 1918; women aged 21 to 29 voting for the first time in the UK on 20th May 1929, finally achieving equal voting rights to men

The Tango Craze

With a new series of Strictly Come Dancing on our screens, we’ve taken an in-depth look at the original tango craze of 1913.

“Everybody’s doing the Tango, learning the Tango, talking the Tango or watching the Tango. Never, perhaps, has a dance become of such universal interest so quickly…” Thus opined The Sketch in November 1913, reflecting upon the incredible international popularity of ‘tango tea’ dance fever.

An illustration of the Tango in action

The craze for the Argentine tango in its latest incarnation began in Paris in 1912 as the thé dansant, so named from the practice of taking tea as a refresher between dances. The tango tea was rapturously embraced by Parisians of all classes, causing the caricaturist Sem to re-christen the capital ‘Tangoville’, and it wasn’t long before the trend had swept across Europe and beyond.

It’s difficult to over emphasize how enormously popular the tango tea had become by 1913. The prodigious coverage on all aspects of the craze in the illustrated magazines in our archive reveals a world in the throes of tangomania. Whether it was tango teas held at fashionable hotels, the latest steps explained or mocked, reviews of tango ‘exhibitions’ at the theatre or novelties such as tango dancing on roller skates,  the tango was everywhere.

WETFOOT TANGO 1913

Manufacturers embraced any opportunity, however tenuous, to ally their products to any aspect of the lucrative craze. Tango-legend has it that one enterprising dressmaker found himself with a glut of orange fabric, and taking advantage of the mania, re-named the colour “tango”, making it an instant hit. Adverts in the press plugged tango lessons, gramophone records and sheet music –and even tango boot polish.

An advertisement for tango lessons

However, the craze brought much more to the world than just a great merchandising opportunity: it also brought liberation. The new ‘tango’ corsets that offered increased flexibility, and skirts and even trousers that left feet clear for dancing, were designed to give women the freedom of movement required for dancing the tango properly. The physical liberation offered by the tango dress was a stark contrast to the constriction of the fashionable ‘hobble’ skirt, a big trend of 1910. Though women’s liberation would take more drastic forms in 1913 (in the same year, imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strike, and Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at Epsom Derby), the subtle changes wrought by the tango echo those elsewhere in society at that time.

The spread of the tango:the arrest of a militant suffragette
Everyone may have been talking about the tango, but it wasn’t all praise. Boycotted by some religious groups, the tango’s enemies saw not liberation, but moral degeneration. Unlike the more traditional dances of the period, the tango hold was an intimate embrace, which was perceived by some to have a corrupting influence. For an “unnamed peeress”, who wrote to The Times in disgust in May 1913, the dance was full of “scandalous travesties”.  The Illustrated London News cheerfully combined extracts of this letter with a retrospective on the polka, a dance which was also greeted with disgust in 1844, but went on to be widely adopted, and by 1913 was regarded as thoroughly tame.

As 1914 progressed, the passionate fervour for all-things-tango had begun to cool. Even before the First World War had begun, the dazzling magnesium flash of the tango tea had, almost as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene in Paris, burnt out. It was to survive, albeit in a different incarnation, to dance another day.

Tango Festival - London

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.


Debs 1

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.

Debs 3

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

Debs 2

Debs 4