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.

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.

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Motivational Posters from the Maurice Collins Collection

As we look to the start of a new year, thoughts inevitably turn to New Year’s resolutions and self-improvement.  With the help of the fabulous Maurice Collins collection that we represent here at Mary Evans, we turn the clock back 90 years and take a look at self-improvement 1928-style, through the medium of workplace motivational posters. Never mind mindfulness, forget Feng shui – these posters channel bold, colourful imagery with pithy positivity for the workplace and beyond.

Incentivisation Poster - Gossip
Incentivisation Poster - Look Pleasant
Incentivisation Poster - Who Thought

Parker-Holladay, a now defunct print company, was one producer of these motivational posters, which it made on a subscription basis for business owners to display and disseminate to their employees. Bill Jones, a fictional character created by Parker-Holladay, encouraged punctuality, good self-care, courtesy and teamwork, amongst a raft of other virtues, helping to instill best practice and positive mental attitude in the workplace.

Incentivisation Poster - Late Again
Incentivisation Poster - Health is priceless

Popular in their day, these striking posters fell from favour following the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression of 1929, with economic events dealing a heavy blow to the self-made man and his entrepreneurial spirit. Though thankfully the economy is not suffering  today as it did back in 1929, even nearly a century later these images still convey the power of positivity and the beneficial effect this can have in the work place and on an individual’s outlook.

Incentivisation Poster - Criticism
Incentivisation Poster - Tomorrow
Incentivisation Poster - Who Thought
Incentivisation Poster - Worry

Here on The Inquisitive Archivist, these posters march again, on into 2018, with messages that are still pertinent to the workplace today.  Which of Bill Jones’s maxims will you take into 2018? Wishing all our readers a very happy and productive new year!


Incentivisation Poster - Goodbye Old Year

Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.

FREMINET'S MACHINE

Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.

KLINGERT'S DIVING SUIT 1

Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


AMBER-HUNTER'S SUIT

Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


DIVING SUIT 1922

Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.

DIVING SUIT STRUGGLE

Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.

Diver

Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.

 

Sprucing Up – The History of the Christmas Tree

Bringing home the Christmas tree

On 23 December 1848, The Illustrated London News published an engraving by J. L. Williams of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  The publication of the picture was to mark the defining moment for the Christmas tree and within a short few years, it had, despite Dickens dismissing it as, “the new German toy,” become a widely adopted and accepted part of festive celebrations in Britain.  But the history of the Christmas tree stretches far further into previous centuries.  Allow our timeline to take you on a pine-scented journey back in time.

Christmas Tree

8th century – European legend attributes the origin of Christmas trees to the English St. Boniface, aka Winfrid of Crediton, a missionary in Germany.  Its rather grisly genesis stems from Winfrid’s chopping down of a tree before a crowd of barbarians, used previously as a site for human sacrifices.  According to legend, the blood-stained tree, “fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder” but close by, a young fir tree stood miraculously unharmed leading Winfrid to lecture his audience, “This little tree, a young child in the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight”


ST BONIFACE/SACRED OAK

1533 – There is a belief, particularly in Germany, that Martin Luther invented the custom.  One Christmas Eve he was so apparently moved by a firmament of shining stars that he recreated the spectacle for his family by standing a young fir tree in their darkened house and placing candles on its branches.

1605 – The earliest authentic record of Christmas trees as we known them today is in a manuscript in which a Strasbourg merchant wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets etc.”

Martin Luther with his Family and their Christmas Tree

1737 – A member of the University of Wittenberg describes a country lady who distributed little trees bearing lighted candles to children, together with gifts laid beneath them.  Later in the century, Samuel Coleridge visited Germany and was intrigued by the delight his hosts took in their Christmas tree, which he described as, “a pleasing novelty”.

1800 – Queen Charlotte, German wife of King George III, hosts a children’s party at which a large yew tree is centre stage, decorated with, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Decorating the Christmas tree, 1938.
1820s
– In the household of Queen Caroline, maligned consort of George IV, Germans set up Christmas trees bright with candles and hung with presents for English children of the palace.

1840 – A thriving market for pine-tops are sold at a market in Manchester by German immigrants.

CHRISTMAS/TREE DUG UP

1841 – Prince Albert introduces a bedecked tree into seasonal royal festivities writing, “Today I have two children of my own to give present to who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.”

1845 – First illustration of a Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News on 27 December 1845 accompanying a report on a celebration given by the London Mission Society at the Temperance Hall in Cripplegate for the benefit of 400 London children.  Their enjoyment “was crowned especially by the exhibition of a German Christmas tree, or Tree of Love, which was erected upon the stage of the Hall.”

Christmas tree at the Temperance Hall, 1845

1848 – One of the ILN’s most famous pictures is published in its 23 December issue and leads to the popularisation of the Christmas tree.  The engraving is accompanied by the following explanation of the tree as, “that which is annually prepared by her Majesty’s command for the Royal Children.  Similar trees are arranged in other apartments of the Castle for her Majesty, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and the Royal household.  Her Majesty’s tree is furnished by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, whilst that of the Prince is furnished according to the taste of her Majesty.”

Queen Victoria's Christmas tree

1851 – Although Christmas trees have been introduced to America by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the tradition becomes widespread in this year when a woodsman called Mark Carr begins selling trees from Catskills at what will become Mark Carr’s Corner in New York.

1854 – A giant Christmas tree is erected at Crystal Palace.  Christmas trees for sale in Covent Garden market pictured in The Illustrated London News.

Christmas trees in Covent Garden Market, London

1864 – William Chambers writes of the Christmas tree, “the custom has been introduced into England with the greatest success”

1914 – On the Western Front in December 1914, small decorated Christmas trees are used as signs of a temporary truce by German soldiers.


CHRISTMAS TRUCE 1914 WW1

1930 – Artificial Christmas trees were made from dyed goose feathers in 19th century Germany, but in 1930 a British-based Addis Housewares Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes.  (Aluminium foil Christmas trees appear in America in 1958).

1947 – A large Christmas tree is gifted to Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.  Given annually, the tree is the central focus of Christmas carol-singing in Trafalgar Square every year.

TRAFALGAR SQUARE TREE

2017 – Mary Evans Picture Library has almost 2000 pictures on their website charting the legends and history of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Shopping

 

Postcards from the nursery: the collection of Peter & Dawn cope

The magical collection of postcards and ephemera amassed by Peter and Dawn Cope has been represented by us here at Mary Evans for almost eight years.  We quizzed its owners, the authors of ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ (Cavendish Publishing, 2000) on the origins of this incredible archive.  Read on to discover more:

 

Children with tangled kites
What sparked your interest in postcards and their illustrators?

Good question. It comes down to the fact that Dawn trained as an architect and I was trained as a graphic designer, so we love visual imagery. In the early seventies when we were raising our family, we were attracted to a very shabby copy of Kate Greenaway’s ‘A Apple Pie’ at the Saturday antique market held behind The Standard pub in Blackheath. From there we built up an good collection of Greenaway books which were fashionable at the time.

Then we began to attend book auctions at Sothebys, then held at Chancery Lane. Here we met plenty of book people who opened our eyes to other illustrators including Willebeek le Mair, Charles Robinson, Rackham, etc, etc. I recall that we bid for and bought for £470 a set of 10 watercolours by Millicent Sowerby, illustrated by her for publication in Humphrey Milford children’s annuals. This led us into collecting 1920s children’s books.

On a rainy holiday trudging round a market in Truro we stumbled on a postcard album brim full of postcards illustrated by Humphrey Milford artists like Lilian Govey, Eileen Hood, Susan Pearse and Millicent Sowerby. Contained in the album were 500 postcards sent to two children living in Plymouth by their parents (who were away a lot) and their grandma. This fed our appetite for more, so countless postcard fairs then ensued.

Nursery land

It’s a pretty extensive collection. Do you know how many postcards you have?

About 10,000.

And are you still collecting?

Yes. The collection has broadened to include various artists and publishers whose illustrative work epitomises social taste and the activities of the period 1900-1930 – the years covered by our collection.

Do you have a particular favourite illustrator?

One of our many favourites is Florence Hardy, sister of Dudley Hardy and daughter of marine painter Thomas Bush Hardy. She trained at the Sorbonne as a miniaturist. But by the time she graduated there wasn’t much demand for miniature painting. And when her father drank himself to death in 1897 leaving his new young wife (formerly the family housemaid) with a baby, Florence was obliged to seek work as a postcard and greeting card illustrator, to support the large family. I was told she worked with a magnifying glass. If you look at one of her postcards you will appreciate that it is carried out with the precision of a miniaturist.

Pub: Humphrey Milford, 'Postcards for the Little Ones'. Sky Fairies series. Fairies frolicking in the sky. Artist: Amy Millicent Sowerby Date: 1920

A lot of postcard artists in this genre were women. Why do you think this is?

There is a section on the rise of women artists in our book (see pages 22-25). Briefly, towards the end of the nineteenth century more girls had the freedom to attend art school at a time when women were campaigning for greater independence. Enterprising women, mainly from the middle class, found that they could combine freelance commercial illustration without compromising their family duties. And when World War 1 came along they contributed to the war effort by creating patriotic postcards featuring children, aimed at spreading propaganda to the youngest members of society.

Four little girls dressed in identical red capes and carrying matching fur muffs step out looking very festive. Date: c.1920

Did you meet any of the artists featured in ‘Postcards from the Nursery’?

We met Molly Brett, René Cloke, Kay Nixon, Susan Pearse, Joyce Plumstead, Jenifer Rickard and May Smith. We also met many of the next generation whose artist relatives were by then deceased.

Other than postcards, do you collect any other types of ephemera?

Post-Victorian greeting cards (many illustrated by our favourite postcard illustrators)
Illustrated children’s books including:

Dean’s Rag Books and Rag Sheets 1902-1940 (about 300+ rag books and 100+ rag sheets) Miniature children’s books published by Humphrey Milford (about 300 books)
Kate Greenaway (extensive collection)
Henriette Willebeek le Mair (extensive collection of books, postcards and china)**

Paintings and drawings by children’s book artists including:

Florence Mary Anderson, Maude Angell, Honor Appleton, Edith Berkeley, Edna Clarke-Hall, Muriel Dawson, Charles Folkard, Lilian Govey, Kate Greenaway, Florence Hardy, Helen Jacobs, Helen Grace Marsh Lambert, Ethel Larcombe, Joyce Mercer, Ethel Parkinson, Susan Beatrice Pearse, Rosa Petherick, Agnes Richardson, Millicent Sowerby, Fred Spurgin, Margaret Tarrant, Dorothy Wheeler.

Nursery china
Penguin Books published 1960-1980 (about 2200 books)
Books on art and design

**During the nineteen seventies and eighties I acted as design consultant to a London-based publisher,
reproducing the illustrations of Henriette Willebeek le Mair into books and on to porcelain in a more modern format. As a result we were introduced to the son of her original publisher, Augener. He sold me several signed limited edition copies of her famous books.

Do you have any plans for your collection?

Our prime concern is deciding how best to keep the collection intact after we depart. Currently we are at an advanced stage of building a Filemaker database for the postcard collection which may be extended to our greeting cards and other ephemera in due course. Ideally, we will want to sell the collection as a single entity to a university library or national institution either in the UK or abroad.

Delineator July 1929 - Cover in Art Deco style depicts a woman by the sea with cruise liner. Date: 1929

Have you ever considered an exhibition?

We have held a successful three month exhibition entitled ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ at Bethnal Green Museum in 1979, which was widely reviewed in the national press. One of our guests was Susan Pearse, artist of the Ameliaranne series of books from the twenties, thirties and forties, who was approaching 100 years of age by the time the exhibition opened.

We would love to mount another exhibition and create another book with a fresh presentation, make corrections and add new material and information gleaned over the ensuing years since ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ was published 17 years ago. Ideas and suggestions would be most welcome.

Christmas scene

Can you explain the obsession among postcard artists with Holland?

In Edwardian Britain people began to venture abroad for their summer holidays. Holland was the popular destination of choice. The Dutch were friendly and welcoming and most of them spoke English, whereas the French, after many years battling with the British, tended to be less welcoming towards British holidaymakers.

Spain and Italy were too distant for all but the wealthy. Consequently, the Dutch responded to this surge of British visitors by creating a huge market for souvenirs for the British to take home, and postcards that they could send back to their loved ones. At this time children seldom went abroad with their parents, but remained at home with their governesses, so they would receive postcards from their parents depicting Dutch children.

Here’s a lightbox of 100 images from the Peter & Dawn Cope collection.

Dutch boy and girl in blue

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

Top 10 spookiest photos in the archive

It’s October, the spookiest month of the year and Halloween is only four weeks away.   At Mary Evans Picture Library we have plenty of images to give you a good scare, thanks to our collection of several thousand images on the subject of the ‘paranormal’.

Co-founder of the library, Hilary Evans (1929-2011) was a leading voice and author on the paranormal and helped to co-found the Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena in 1981.  Due to Hilary’s extensive research on the subject, the library amassed many thousands of images on all things otherworldly. In addition he also formed relationships with external paranormal collections which we continue to represent, including the renowned Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, which we exclusively represent along with other collections from independent paranormal investigators and collective societies.

Here are the top 10 most creepy and unsettling images from our paranormal archive, guaranteed to send a chill down your spine.

RAYNHAM HALL GHOST (CL)


1.) The ghost of Raynham Hall, Norfolk.  This figure is not seen but is unknowingly photographed on the staircase; it may be the ghost of Dorothy Walpole, known as ‘The Brown Lady’. 
The image was first published in the December 26 edition of Country Life Magazine 1936 and has since become one of the most famous ‘ghost photographs’ in the world to date.

Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.

Phantom priest in the church at Arundel, Sussex


2.) Phantom priest photographed in the church at Arundel, Sussex, date unknown. 
Image courtesy of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature, University of London.

EASTRY CHURCH 1956


3.) Eastry Church Ghost, Kent, 1956. 
When Bank Manager Mr Bootman took this photograph of Eastry Church in 1956, he claims it was empty.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen's House

4.) Ghosts on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House, Greenwich, London 19 June 1966.

Figures photographed on the Tulip Staircase of the Queen’s House during normal opening hours of the museum, though the photographer saw nothing.  This image was taken by Rev. R W Hardy of White Rock, British Columbia, Canada whilst on holiday in the UK.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.

PHOTO/ENIGMATIC FIGURE


5.) Enigmatic Figure, 23 May 1964. 
When J P Templeton photographed his daughter on Burgh Marsh, Cumberland, this enigmatic figure appeared behind her.  Image courtesy of Peter Underwood.

Ghost of Lord Combermere


6.) Ghost of Lord Combermere 5 December 1981. 
Sybell Corbet’s photograph of the library at Combermere, taken between 2-3 pm, seems to show a figure, resembling Lord Combermere, at the time he was being buried.  Image source: Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol V December 1895 page 167.

ANCIENT RAM INN GHOST

7.) Ancient Ram Inn Ghost, 5 June 1999.  This photograph appears to show an apparition just before an ASSAP (Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena) night vigil at The Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton- Under-Edge, Gloucestershire.  A murder was committed years earlier on this staircase.  We like to fondly refer to this image as ‘The Malibu Ghost’!  Image courtesy of Julie and Mark Hunt.

WATERTOWN PHOTO

8.) Watertown Photo, 1924.  When sailors Courtney and Meehan of American ship S.S. ‘Watertown’ are accidentally killed, then buried at sea, their faces are seen following the ship and photographed.  Image source: Captain Tracy, the vessel’s captain, reproduced in Gaddis, ‘Invisible Horizons’.

GHOST/EALING


Ealing Ghost

9.) Ealing Ghost, date unknown. A figure seen at an upstairs windows of a house where murder and 20 suicides have taken place (possibly the ghost of Ann Hinchfield who killed herself in 1886).  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.

LEEDS POLTERGEIST


10.) Leeds Poltergeist, 1970.
The photograph seems to show papers flying through the air.  This was photographed during a case investigating the disturbance in the offices of Air Heating company, Leeds, centred around  a 16-year old typist : the phenomena continued for six months.  Image courtesy of the Andrew Green collection.


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

Fashion Fantasies – Elspeth Phelps, artist in dress

The Great War was an unexpectedly dynamic period for fashion.  While extravagance was frowned upon, there was also a social dislocation where for the first time women took the place of men in the work environment, and fashionable silhouettes changed in response.  Skirts shortened and widened; military details proliferated and there was a new found confidence in clothing as it moved away from the winsome, restrictive styles of the pre-war era.  But austerity in dress did not entirely eclipse luxury and one of the places where fashion fantasies could be played out, and where the leading designers of the day could showcase their creations was the stage.  To dress leading actresses in high profile West End productions led to coverage in magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, generating the oxygen of publicity and ensuring a stream of well-heeled clients eager to sample such styles themselves.

Elspeth Phelps was a designer whose profile was one of the highest during this time and whose designs frequently ended up being admired by theatre audiences, and yet her fame has now faded to obscurity.  She first came to my attention when I discovered an extraordinary series of advertisements for her brand published in The Tatler in 1920.  They are unlike any other advertisements, fashion or otherwise, appearing at this time.  Drawn in a spidery and occasionally sinister style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielson,  the adverts feature a parade of fictional aristocratic and society types bearing names such as Lobelia Lobb and Priscilla Brinvilliers.  Engaged in typical upper class pursuits, they are clad in the perfectly appropriate ensemble designed by Elspeth Phelps.  Apart from their striking design, they are witty, playful, faintly acerbic and surprisingly self-deprecating.  They gently poke fun at the advertiser and at the advertiser’s clientele, and they’re all the more brilliant for it.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps fashion house, one of a series of highly stylised and witty adverts designed by Lady Eileen Orde (daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington), all featuring upper class characters in various situations wearing a Phelps design. Date: 1920
Elspeth Phelps advertisement, 1920

Intrigued by this audacious promotional approach, I wanted to discover more about not only Elspeth Phelps but also the designer of the adverts, Eileen Orde.  In fact Eileen Orde was Lady Eileen Orde, nee Wellesley, fourth daughter of the 8th Duke of Wellington and wife of the artist Cuthbert Orde. Eileen’s credentials as one of the leading arbiters of style can be in no doubt.  A photographic portrait of her by E. O. Hoppe appeared in British Vogue’s debut issue, the first photograph ever published by the magazine.  And her reputation is given a further boost with the knowledge she had an affair with the Adonis-like Rupert Brooke (she afterwards sold his letters and bought a car with the proceeds).

Lady Eileen Orde and daughters by Madame Yevonde

Captain & Lady Eileen Order in their Chelsea studio
An artistic couple – Eileen and Cuthbert Orde in their Chelsea Studio

Lady Eileen was frequently referred to in our archive magazines as ‘a clever artist’ (‘clever’ being the catch-all adjective of praise in society magazines of the early 20th century).  Yet she did more than dabble, seeming to make quite a career as an artist and designer. The Sketch ran a page of photographs showing Eileen and Cuthbert, who were married in 1916, at home in their Chelsea studio, together with their two daughters, Doonie and Jane.  There are also other references to her creative endeavours.  One photograph from The Bystander, 1931, shows her at work on wallpaper designs, and she seems to have specialised in painting fabric.  There is a reference to the wedding train she decorated for her sister-in-law in 1922, and another mention, in The Tatler’s fashion column of October 1918 gives a rather dismissive critique of a dress she painted for Doris Keane to wear in ‘Roxana’ at the Lyric Theatre.  The fashion journalist M. E. Brooke complained that, ‘However charming the gown may appear in the dressing-room, from the stalls it is a very ordinary affair and not nearly so effective as the cerise evening dress assumed by this clever actress in another scene.”

 

Lady Eileen Orde working on wallpaper designs

Lady Eileen Orde at work on wallpaper designs, 1931.

Lady Eileen Orde and Elspeth Phelps no doubt frequently came into one another’s orbit – it’s likely Lady Eileen was a client of Phelps.  Phelps, who had launched her business in 1906, had by this time established herself as one of the leading dressmakers in London.  Located in Albemarle Street in the heart of Mayfair, she was favoured by the well-to-do and mentioned in the same breath as Worth, Poiret and Lucile.  Mrs Jack May, the fashion columnist for The Bystander, waxed lyrical on Miss Phelps’s talents in its 30 May 1917 issue:

“Elspeth Phelps is a name to conjure with.  Nowhere are there to be formed more exquisite clothes, distinguished by taste above all criticism.  The soft picture-frock is very dear to the heart of this fine couturiere, who is just now having a succes fou with some charming gowns or demi-toilettes.  They fill an important gap now that evening dress en grande tenue is seldom required, while some would not be out of place for the smarter afternoon functions that now and again come along.”

 

Mrs Morrison-Bell as Oak for Nymphs of Forest tableau

Lillah McCarthy (left) and Mrs Morrison-Bell (right) in costumes designed by Elspeth Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau at the Petticoat Lane fundraiser at the Albert Hall, 1917

Evening dress by Elspeth Phelps

Her creations were escapist fantasies, confections of tulle, chiffon, soie de peau, embellished with lace, sequins, beading – perfectly suited to the pages of the smart, society magazines of the day, and to delight theatre audiences when worn by the prettiest and most popular actresses.  Among the women in the public eye who wore her designs were Binnie Hale (in 1920’s ‘The Kiss Call’), the dancer Madame de Kurylo and socialite Paula Gellibrand, pictured in ‘an effective headdress in The Tatler in 1920.  The actress Shirley Kellogg was photographed wearing a magnificent ‘diamond dress’, designed for her part in ‘Razzle Dazzle’ in 1916.  The following year, Kellogg was dressed by Lucile for the show ‘Zig-Zag’ (one cannot help speculating about the rivalry between these two fashion houses – one suspects it was fierce).  For the ‘Nymphs of the Forest’ tableau performed at the Petticoat Lane Bazaar, a wartime fundraiser held over several days in December 1916 at the Albert Hall, she designed costumes for a selection of society’s most beautiful women including Sheila, Lady Loughborough, a love interest of the future George VI.   Another client was Irene Castle, the dancer and unrivalled style icon, for whom Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a trip back to America.  “It is the exception, nowadays, to find the name of Elspeth Phelps absent from a theatrical programme.  She seems to be carrying all before her in the theatrical work of dress, as she has for so long done with those of the haute-monde,” wrote Mrs Jack May in 1917, clearly something of a fan.

Lady Loughborough as Weeping Willow - Elspeth Phelps
Lady Loughborough (formerly Sheila Chisholm, and later, Lady Milbanke), considered one of the great beauties of the day, dressed by Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau, 1917

Paula Gellibrand

Mme de Kurylo wearing designs by Elspeth Phelps
The dancer, Madame de Kurylo modelling a variety of Elspeth Phelps designs in 1920

Mrs Vernon Castle with Rasmus
Irene Castle, dancer and style icon posing with her pet monkey, Rasmus.  Elspeth Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a tour of her native America in 1917

The Queen of Diamonds - Shirley Kellogg in Elspeth Phelps
Actress Shirley Kellogg posing in the magnificent diamond dress designed by Phelps for her to wear in ‘Razzle Dazzle’, 1916

Elspeth Phelps would also have had a prestigious client list, providing wedding dresses, trousseaux for the Season and, every top designer’s bread and butter, court gowns.  She was renowned for her ability to take the latest ideas from Paris and to add her own original twists and to tailor them to individual customers.  She was not only an assured dressmaker, but she was an adept publicist.  In addition to those extraordinary advertisements created by Eileen Orde, whenever one of her designs was published in the press, the accompanying caption featured her name printed prominently in capital letters.  Any misattribution it seems was swiftly dealt with.  On more than one occasion, apologies were printed including one in The Tatler which had managed to attribute the stage costumes in ‘Maggie’, playing at the Oxford Theatre in 1919, to Poiret of Paris.  “We are informed, however, that they are made by the famous dressmaker, Miss Elspeth Phelps of 29 Albemarle Street.  We beg to sincerely apologise to her for giving the credit of these beautiful costumes elsewhere,” the magazine grovelled.

Court gown by Elspeth Phelps
Exquisite beaded court gown by Elspeth Phelps, 1923

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, WW1 fashion
It doesn’t take much to imagine Miss Phelps marching into The Tatler’s office and reducing the sub-editor responsible to a gibbering wreck.  Certainly, if a portrait of Elspeth, published in The Bystander in 1916, is anything to go by, then her appearance suggests a shrewd, steely and redoubtable personality.  Other pieces of evidence hint at her forthright views and pioneering approach.  In 1920, The Tatler credited her with being, “instrumental in annihilating the superstition against green,” and in 1925 she spoke out against the worrying trend for increasingly thin models.  The Tatler quoted her as saying, “we ought to have some nice, plump girls in the mannequin profession…but no monstrosities”.  Not a woman to mince her words then.  Ever the canny businesswomen, she set her sights on the American market in 1920, travelling on the Aquitania and touring the major American cities where she gave mannequin shows of her exquisite designs.  Not until Edward Molyneux shipped British fashion to America during the Second World War did a British designer do as much to woo the wealthy American market.  Naturally, news of this expedition was reported widely in the press.

Elspeth Phelps and Reggie de Veulle, 1917Elspeth Phelps featured in The Bystander in 1916.  Inset is a photograph of her designer Reggie de Veulle, who was implicated in a scandal in 1918 for supplying drugs allegedly leading to the death of actress Billie Carleton.

In 1923, it was announced that Elspeth Phelps, offering ‘original gowns specially designed for each client’ was amalgamating with the famous Parisian fashion house of Paquin.  Paquin bought her out, used her name and she was retained on a handsome salary, continuing to design her bespoke gowns for clients.  With new showrooms in nearby Dover Street, the Paquin-Phelps partnership launched with a splash, placing new advertisements in the press and holding a  ‘soiree dansante’ – the dresses on display described in mouth-watering detail by the papers.

Paquin Phelps advertisement, 1923
Lovely gown worns at the Paquin Phelps soiree dansante
Things unfortunately turned sour only a few years later.  A rather public court case saw Elspeth Phelps (described as Mrs Fox-Pitt; she had married Lionel Fox-Pitt in 1920) suing Paquin for breach of contract.  Meanwhile, Paquin claimed there had been some underhand dealings by Mrs Fox-Pitt who had engaged apprentices for a fee of £50 while pocketing £20 of the money herself.  It is significant that, during the course of the hearing, Elspeth Phelps’s argument that her reputation and skill was an asset to Paquin was boosted by the fact she had no fewer than fifty press books full of cuttings.  It was undoubted proof of her PR wizardry, even if her business dealings had taken an embarrassingly awkward turn for the worse.

The Great War and the 1920s marked the zenith of  Elspeth Phelps’s career.  She re-launched her business and continued to design into the 1940s, but, as is the caprice of fashion, there is scant mention of her after the late 1920s, at least not in our archive of magazines.  There were younger, brighter new stars on the scene – Hartnell, Molyneux, Victor Stiebel – Elspeth Phelps was no longer the fashion pioneer she had been.   Lady Eileen Orde died in 1952, aged 65.

 

I like the idea of these two women, these creative forces, joining together almost a century ago to create some advertising magic.  It is intriguing to imagine their conversations and to think how such a strategy was dreamt up.  Who knows what happened to the original designs but in their absence, I’m ordering one of Eileen Orde’s fantastic advertisements as a framed print, and each time I look at it, I’ll be reminded of two fascinating women and a creative partnership far ahead of its time.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, 1920s fashion

With thanks to Randy Bryan Bigham for providing additional source material on Elspeth Phelps.

 

To order prints of Elspeth Phelps advertisements follow this link.