Continental Travel: Luggage in Tow

A new well-illustrated book by Martyn Pring Boat Trains: The English Channel & Ocean Liner Specials explores how European travel in the railway era was conducted. The book uses much unpublished research material and rare archival images with many again taken from the Illustrated London News collection housed here at Mary Evans. Martyn’s blog is a fascinating discussion of luxury travel where, increasingly from mid-Victorian times, looking good, the luggage you carried, and the fellow passengers you associated with were just as important as how you got there, courtesy of the various competing railway companies operating cross-channel steamer routes. Boat Trains is published this autumn by Pen & Sword.

Since the Victorian era, specialist boat trains were an everyday phenomenon. Though not timetabled, they served ocean-going steamers as well as more regular English Channel paddlers which in the early days were highly dependent on correct tidal conditions. But when railway companies were allowed to run their own steamer operations from the early 1860s, they quickly established themselves at the forefront of port and harbour expansion. Within a few years the introduction of fast, new turbine steamers particularly aided the development of Continental travel.

Boulogne-sur-Mer: a crowded quayside as the Folkestone packet arrives Date: 1870s
Boulogne-sur-Mer: a crowded quayside as the Folkestone packet arrives Date: 1870s

One set of travellers that did not worry too much about luggage was the day excursionist. With Europe a comparatively short hop away, a day-tripper market rapidly established itself. ‘Trippers’ as opposed to ‘tourists’ returned on steamers the same day; for travellers to be classified as tourists, they were required to spend at least one night away. Nevertheless, fast boat trains to Channel ports from both London and Paris delivered a burgeoning trade either way. And with this progress, fashionable resorts flourished in Belgium, France and the Channel Islands. More importantly, however, cross-channel traffic delivered a steady stream of prosperous Victorians with time on their hands and an eagerness to explore what the Continent had to offer. Apart from Paris, the captivating routes south to the Riviera and Italy summoned the affluent traveller.

Poster, Peninsular-Express, London to Brindisi. A special train service calling at Dover, Calais, Pierrefitte, Villeneuve, Mont Cenis, Modane, Turin, Bologna, and Brindisi. Date: 20th century
Peninsular-Express poster: a special train service calling at Dover, Calais, Pierrefitte, Villeneuve, Mont Cenis, Modane, Turin, Bologna, and Brindisi. Date: early 20th century

European travel was progressively less irksome. But British visitors crossing the English Channel in mid-century were faced with a shock as French officials forced them to hand over luggage for examination. A ‘baggage master’ travelled with each train. Before railway journeys, luggage articles­­­­—the trunk or portmanteau—were handed over at an office from where the traveller was about to commence their journey with the intended destination clearly named. The baggage master strapped a brass disc to each piece, about the size of a penny-piece with a number engraved on it, handing to the owner of the articles corresponding discs, thus providing the passenger with complete confidence. The Railway Traveller’s Handy Book of Hints, Suggestions and Advice of 1862 advised readers the process should be left to the hands of a servant! Despite railway company initiatives, luggage still occasionally disappeared.

The boat train to Paris about to leave Charing Cross. Date: circa 1900
The boat train to Paris about to leave Charing Cross. Date: circa 1900

The Times during the summer season of 1872 reported on several incidents of luggage robbery citing the case of a family leaving Dawlish for Boulogne, travelling as far as Dover, over three different railway lines. On arriving at Boulogne, the keys of the boxes were handed over to a well-known and trustworthy commissionaire, when it was discovered the locks had been broken open and the cases ransacked; jewellery, silk dresses, and other articles had been stolen. The owner applied to the railway companies for compensation, all denied that the robbery could have been effected while the boxes were in transit on their respective lines. In a second case a robbed traveller gave his experiences of Germany, Belgium, and France. He advised travellers to examine their boxes before the commencement and end of every journey, and under no excuse permit their luggage to be left downstairs at hotels!

Leading French railway companies such as Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Nord (Nord), who serviced the French side of the Dover Straights, and Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (PLM) were mindful of the needs of prosperous customers. PLM and their Wagon-Lits partners were one of the first railway organisations to eradicate the process of examining luggage. Transfer to the train wending its way to the Azur coast became a little less arduous.

Poster, Cote d'Azur, South of France, by overnight train. Date: circa 1930s
Poster, Cote d’Azur, South of France, by overnight train. Date: circa 1930s

From June 1895 new developments involved the registering of railway luggage on the Continent based on the American system of registering and forwarding travellers’ luggage so as not to encumber passengers with luggage on journeys. But it was not to everyone’s taste as The Sphere rather tongue-in-cheek reminded readers:

‘It is sheer nonsense to talk of the advantages that attach to the American “check” system, whereby a traveller is permitted to pay two or three shillings for the privilege of having his portmanteau “expressed” to his hotel, where it arrives too late to make dressing for dinner possible. Give me the good old British haphazard method, which allows a man to seize the nearest or newest Gladstone bag from the luggage van and bear it away in a taxi without suffering delay or incurring suspicion.’ (1)

One regular British visitor who did not have problems of managing personal luggage was the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In late Victorian times he could be seen regularly in France as his entourage could rely on the Prince’s own railway carriage permanently parked up in Calais and available for travel at a moment’s notice. By special instruction this could be attached to trains heading to Paris, Biarritz or the French Riviera. One firm, Allen’s Portmanteaus, of 37 West Strand, London were one such organisation that carried a royal seal providing quality luggage fit for the well-heeled independent traveller. Whilst not exactly the shape of the modern suitcase, the company offered travellers sleeker portmanteaus constructed to a similar shape that could be placed under boat train seats or steamer berths and ideal for short trips. For travellers with an inherent dislike of water, one enterprising Liverpool steward came up with a portmanteau that was carried as a bag normally but could be transformed into a lifebelt in two minutes. The device even had secure compartments for wallets and other important personal possessions. In the normal course of events luggage restrictions had little impact on the combined rail and sea travel experience.

A jolly Victorian gent from the days when Britain unquestionably ruled the waves doffs his hat as he floats proudly in his safety device de jour - his portmanteau buoy! Exposure for one's legs seemingly of no concern when one's bowler hat remains dry... Date: late 19th century
A jolly Victorian gent doffs his hat as he floats proudly in his portmanteau buoy! Exposure for one’s legs seemingly of no concern when one’s bowler hat remains dry. Date: late 19th century

At the turn of the 20th century thousands of Americans crossed the Atlantic in the direction of the Old World. Philip Unwin writing in his 1979 book Travelling by Train in the Edwardian Age, (London, George Allen & Unwin) noted ‘Nothing was too good for the richest visitors to England.’ The London & North Western Railway Liverpool Riverside American Special boat train which surpassed all others in the luxury specification of the special stock, carried two luggage vans, ‘essential to convey the huge wardrobe trunks without which no well-dressed lady could cross the Atlantic then.’ (2) Paris was invariably included on the itinerary and practical solutions were always sought for the lady about-town seeking to make suitable Continental impressions.

By late Edwardian times smaller portmanteaus or suitcases—the word had started to creep into the lexicon—were designed specifically to cater for women’s needs. The Sketch magazine considered ‘The Gentle Art of Packing’:

‘We have grown infinitely civilised in our manner of carrying about our belongings. In the fearless old days people used to throw their clothes into a portmanteau and jump on them, or, at least, force far too many things into one receptacle than it could hold, so that frocks and skirts emerged crumpled, creased, and woebegone, and accounted largely for the strange appearance of the Victorian Briton in foreign parts. Then, again, they never took enough hats, and were apt to arrive at Boulogne on their return looking excessively odd about the head. But now we revel in all kinds of luggage, from the upright wardrobe in which the American girl hangs her dresses on a hook, to the neat suit-case or the narrow tin box, for all the world like a magnified sandwich-case, which is to hold our all on the motor-tour. Indeed, so convenient are all our travelling impediments nowadays that good temper, suave gestures, and much tissue-paper are now all that are necessary for us to look as neat as the proverbial pin, even on a rush across Europe.’ (3)

The Graphic even suggested ‘a professor of packing’ should be appointed whereby students undertook a curriculum that embraced proper packing from the smallest handbag to the largest portmanteau!

The South Eastern & Chatham Railway introduced a four carriage Continental Pullman boat train on the Dover-Calais route in 1910. Paris and Riviera bound travellers and their accompanying luggage were looked after with a certain degree of panache. After the Great War, first-class travel slowly recovered and by the early-1920s boarding London-Paris premier Pullman services, newly commissioned cross-channel ferries, and staying at Europe’s leading hotels became deep-rooted conversations especially amongst England’s chattering-classes. And little surprise there should be innovations and developments to aid the travel process. Practical and lighter-weight wardrobe-trunks became de rigueur with some reduced in size to fit easily in car boots, attached to the rear of a sports car or simply placed more easily on luggage racks in railway carriage compartments. As The Sphere noted ‘Fashion and the motor car…have reduced the luggage of both sexes to a minimum.’ (4) By this time there was an undoubted fusion between ladies’ luggage and fashion. Where ladies’ handbags ended and the specially designed travelling carrying bag started, occupied important news by the mid-1920s Riviera Seasons. The illustrated weekly titles were now increasingly supported by the inclusion of fashion photography. With these developments the proverbial hatbox was no longer the important item that it had once been in Victorian times.

Crossing to France? Travel with British Railways. Date: 1953
Crossing to France? Travel with British Railways. Date: 1953

Such travelling accoutrements symbolised holiday escapes, winter warmth and escaping the predictability of Britain’s everyday life. The Blue Train/Le Train Blue and the Golden Arrow/Flèche d’Or and Night Ferry/Ferry du Nuit boat trains summoned distinct images of glamorous travel. Hardly surprisingly pictures of luggage (their labels marked for the Promenade des Anglais) and their owners were added to highly refined travel promotion; the journey became an inspirational element of the total travel experience. Posters showing period travellers wrapped around their stylish luggage became familiar icons to British, Continental and American travellers, and indeed the general population who could only dream of such possibilities.

Three ladies are about to set off on a railway journey, while the porter copes with their ample luggage. Date: 1929
The porter copes with the ample luggage of three fashionable women. Date: 1929
  • The Sphere, 7 March 1914 p.26
  • Unwin, p.93/94
  • The Sketch, 27 July 1910 p.29
  • The Sphere, 27 July 1935 p.156

Tut-mania: When the world went Egypt mad

Egyptian style advertisement for Shell Motor Spirit - King Petrolemy Sendeth Unto Pharaoh Gifts of Precious Spirit. Date: early 20th century

This weekend, the Saatchi Gallery opened its long-awaited exhibition, “Tutankhamun – Treasures of the Golden Pharoah”. As blockbuster exhibitions go, it’s up there with the best of them. Having recently closed in Paris, the exhibition became France’s most visited of all time with attendance of over 1.4 million and is the last opportunity to see 150 objects from the boy-king’s tomb before they become a permanent exhibition at the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is currently under construction. We haven’t been yet but it’s certainly tempting, despite the eye-watering admission price.

When Howard Carter, sponsored by Lord Carnarvon, finally discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922, it was one of the biggest news stories of the century. Even though it would be many more months before it was considered safe enough to begin to remove objects from the burial chamber, nevertheless, the discovery precipitated a global craze for Egyptian style.

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign of 1798-1801 and the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 was the catalyst for the first wave of Egyptomania in the early nineteenth century. Aristocrats commissioned their homes to be decorated in an Egyptian style and even whole buildings referenced its art and statuary. Examples include the Egyptian Hall in London (built in 1812, demolished in 1905), and the curious Egyptian House in Penzance, dating from the early 19th century. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and the British occupation of Egypt from 1882 only served to increase interest. And when Thomas Cook began to offer Egyptian holidays and Nile cruises in the later 19th century, the exotic sights and cultural heritage of Egypt became a familiar style touchstone to a wider society.

Carter’s landmark discovery in 1922 led to a renewed and unprecedented Egyptomania boom.  Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphics were an ancient echo of more modern 1920s designs, and Tut-mania’s influence extended to music, fashion and much more. Here are a just a few examples from our collection, reflecting how when the world went Egypt-mad in the 1920s.

Fashion – A subtle take on Egyptian style by London couturier, Isobel from 1923; a dress, (according to The Tatler magazine’s description) “in Egyptian colours” that includes Egyptian embroidery at the waist, as does the more modest dress with the white collar. The page from The Sketch, July 1923 reports on a variety of outfits displaying the “Tutankhamun Touch”, while the colourful pattern is a fabric design from the 1920s, clearly incorporating Egyptian motifs.

A frock of fine black silk jerseylene featuring embroideries in 'Egyptian colourings' from Isobel, of 4 Maddox Street, London. Worn with a dashing hat and cane. The embroidery reflects the craze for fashion inspired by ancient Egypt following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. Date: 1923

Fancy Dress – Ancient Egypt certainly opened up some glamorous possibilities for fancy dress (debutante Mary Henniker-Heaton won a prize in Monte Carlo for her costume), but the photograph of a mother, father and daughter all getting into the homespun Tutankhamun spirit is particularly charming.

Princess Otto von Bismarck, formerly Miss Anne-Marie Tengbom, pictured in fancy dress as the Moon in an Egyptian tableau 'as produced by King Tutankhamen' at the Galaxy Ball in aid of St. John's Hospital, Lewisham at the Park Lane Hotel in November 1929. The costume was designed by Mr Robin d'Erlanger whose wife was organiser of the ball. 1929

Music – Popular music composers were often the first to absorb current events and topical skits into new tunes. In the Days of Tut-ankh-amen was written and composed by Reg Low and J. P. Long, and sung by musical comedy duo, Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar in the Andre Charlot revue, ‘Rats!’ at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1923.

(read about Gwen and Norah in a new biography by Alison Child here – https://www.behindthelines.info/tell-me-i-m-forgiven-gwen-farrar-norah-blaney/

Music cover, Tutankhamen One Step Song, by Hebe Mack. 1923

Jewellery – Even Cartier brought out new designs of jewellery inspired by pieces of Ancient Egypt. The Illustrated London News featured examples of the “Tutankhamun Influence” while Gazette de Bon Ton featured an illustration of a brooch and drop earrings in 1924.

Egyptian trinkets from 1500 to 3000 years old adapted as modern jewellery: brooches, pendants, earrings and hat pins set wtih real antiques and a tutankhamen replica. All by Cartier. The discover of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter triggered a craze for Egyptian inspired fashion and jewellery. Date: 1924

Architecture – Cinema and theatre was one area where architects could let their imaginations run wild. A number of picture houses built during the inter-war years were an Egyptian riff on the art deco or ‘moderne’ style. The interior of the Egyptian Theater at Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania is an exquisite example, while in London, the former Carlton Cinema on Essex Road in Islington (now a Mecca bingo hall) is pure and unapologetic Egyptian fantasy. The entrance to the Straussenhaus, Berlin Zoo, which is designed in the style of an Egyptian temple is Egyptian style at its most flamboyant and the fact that it was built in 1912, demonstrates that Tutankhamun simply fanned the flames of a craze that had never really gone away.  Of course, if you wanted a touch of Egyptian style in your own home, then you could always embroider some designs courtesy of Weldon’s Beautiful Needlework magazine.

Egyptian designs for home furnishings, an insert page from Weldon's Beautiful Needlework magazine. Date: circa 1920s

needlework

Graphic Design – This cover of The Graphic’s Egypt Number as well as the rather nice illustration by an Egyptian woman applying make-up by Marius Forestier in The Sketch, 1924, are just two examples of how magazine illustrators enjoyed playing around with Egyptian themes. The chic little trade card for an Egypt hotel, and perfume advertisement meld art deco with Egyptian style while the Houdini poster and ‘fortune book’ drew on the perceptions of Egypt as a place of mystery and spiritualism.

Front cover of The Graphic magazine specially designed in an Egyptian style for its number on the same subject. Date: 1930

houdini and fortune book

To see a full range of Tut-mania images, click here: https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=47265

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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 .

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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