Gone to the Dogs

Greyhounds over hurdles

The message on the home page of Love the Dogs, London Wimbledon Stadium’s website, reads, “sadly Wimbledon will be finally closing its doors on Saturday 25th March after 89 years of greyhound racing here at Plough Lane.” After the closure in 2008 of the doors of Walthamstow Stadium’s iconic art deco façade, the Wimbledon site, making way for AFC Wimbledon’s new football stadium, is London’s last dog racing venue. It seems tragic for a sport which once welcomed a staggering 25 million people through the turnstiles of its 52 licensed tracks, and employed 30,000 people during its heyday in the 1930s.

It was a Canadian cement magnate, Brigadier-General Alfred Cecil Critchley, who first introduced greyhound racing as we know it to Britain from America after forming a partnership with Charles Munn, an American who saw the potential of track-based greyhound racing with the use of an electric hare. Critchley formed the National Greyhound Racing Association to regulate the sport and worked hard to give it an acceptable, almost glamorous veneer. It was soon attracting “society” to the turnstiles, or more often, to the elegant dining rooms and bar lounges attached to the huge, modern stadium complexes. Wembley’s Empire stadium for instance had a dancing and dining room of an area 15,000 square feet where one thousand diners could be accommodated at a time, while out of its ten bars, one, according to the claim of the stadium authorities, was the longest in the world.

A.C. CRITCHLEY

To 21st century race-goers who associate a night at the dogs with a rather earthy cocktail of working class bonhomie, flat caps and basket meals, it may seem strange to envisage ladies arriving at White City in their bias cut satin evening gowns. But, in fact, greyhound racing of the 1930s attracted all levels of society from the working classes filling the stands to the well-heeled diners watching in the rarefied environs of the stadiums’ silver service restaurants. And smart, society ladies tended to have more than a superficial interest in the sport; many were breeders, owners and trainers. One lady breeder, Mrs C. Clarke who wrote a history of the sport in 1934, noted that, “women have been the keenest supporters of track racing from its commencement: they form a large proportion of the huge crowds seen at various tracks”. Advertisements for race tracks bear out this claim, with illustrations featuring the smart set in evening dress cheering on the winner.

Greyhound racing and dinner at White City

Dining at White City greyhound derby, 1932

Mick the Miller, the most celebrated greyhound champion was owned by Mrs Arundel Kempton, whose husband had bought her the dog as a gift for an enormous sum – 2,000 guineas in 1929 (the equivalent of £91,500 today). The investment proved a canny one as the dog continued his winning streak before pursuing a lucrative film career. Patrons of the greyhound track included Tallulah Bankhead, Gracie Fields, Jack Buchanan and even King Alfonso XIII of Spain who enjoyed the 1930 Greyhound Derby at White City.

Tatler cover - Mrs Arundel Kempton & Mick the Miller

As the sport gained in popularity, so the greyhound came to be a representative icon of the art deco period, its sleek, streamlined appearance the embodiment of 1930s style. Greyhounds were the subjects of paintings and bronzes, and the wittiest cartoonists of the day drew inspiration from dog racing. And with their graceful, good looks and winning ways, greyhounds proved excellent advertising subjects, particularly for whisky brands such as Johnny Walker and Black & White.

DOGS OF THE GREYHOUND WORLD BY H.H. HARRIS

So where did it all go wrong, or, to coin a phrase, go to the dogs? Despite its huge success, greyhound racing did have its detractors in the thirties, notably from the anti-gambling lobby who argued that the phenomenal rise in dog racing had contributed exponentially to an increase in betting and the resulting social problems. Residential groups also opposed new proposed stadiums at Crystal Palace and the Oval but the existing stadiums, numbering over forty by the late 1930s continued to do a roaring trade. Although greyhound racing had begun to fall out of favour with the middle classes by the beginning of the Second World War, it remained the third most popular leisure activity in Britain (behind cinema and football).

Greyhounds arriving at Wembley by carThe Grand National at White City

Even in the late 20th century, greyhound racing enjoyed something of a renaissance: Walthamstow famously welcomed Vinnie Jones and Brad Pitt through its turnstiles for a good, old-fashioned night at the dogs. Some might have argued that there was still hope for the future of greyhound racing but Wimbledon has now gone the way of Catford and the twenty other greyhound stadiums that have closed over the past decade. Unlike the society ladies who once frequented the greyhound stadiums of yesteryear, this particular lady will be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Neon Frontage at Walthamstow Dog Racing Stadium

© Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

A Brief History of Underwear

The first publicity slogan for underwear appeared in the window of a London corset-maker during the 18th century, promoting the efficacious results bestowed by her latest model of corset claiming it, ‘controls the large, supports the small, uplifts the drooping.’ Almost three centuries on, a quick stroll around the lingerie section of M&S suggests that we all still want pretty much the same results from our foundation wear, although admittedly, a medieval or even 18th century drapers would not have sold many pairs of knickers. Most people simply didn’t see the point of wearing them.

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Legend has it that the corset as we know it–the type that shrinks a woman’s waist to doll-like proportions with the aid of whalebone, lacing and no small amount of discomfort–was first introduced by Catherine de Medici during the 16th century. She decreed that any of her ladies with a waist wider than 13 inches would not be welcome at the French court. Rather than face banishment, they breathed in, visited a stay-maker and politely said, ‘Non, merci’ to proffered sweetmeats. After the medieval fashion for rounded, feminine stomachs, suddenly the tummy was tucked away and the waist accentuated, a trend that endured, save for a short breather (literally) during the Empire line fashions of the Regency era, until the First World War. Over the centuries, corsets or ‘stays’ changed along with the vagaries of fashion from the sharp, flat-fronted bodices of the Tudor period to the wasp-waisted fetish of the Victorian era and the exaggerated S-bend shape of the early 20th century. The wealthier the wearer, the more restricted she was likely to be, but mobility was only necessary for those who had to work for a living and as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire confessed, although she was pinched and sore, the soothing quality of admiration made it bearable. Corsetry was not limited to the female market either with dandies of the 18th century particularly fond of the garment’s figure-transforming qualities. In 1834, the increasingly plump Prince Regent was told his stays would be the death of him if he continued to wear them.

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Just prior to the Great War, fashion suddenly became more daring–looser, artistic, diaphanous. In 1913, a New York socialite called Mary Phelps Jacob passed into the annals of underwear history when she was awarded a patent for her invention of the first modern brassiere. Frustrated at the lumpen artifice of her whalebone corset underneath a particularly sheer evening dress, Jacob fashioned a makeshift bra out of two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. This charming creation quickly became popular, with its inventor opting to sell her patent to Warner Bros. Corset Company for $1500. Warner’s went on to make $15 million from it.

But women were never truly truss-free; restrictive underwear still moulded and shaped women’s figures according to style edicts of the 20th century. Twenties’ lingerie was lovely to linger over: silken and suggestive, but the slim-line fashions of the following decade required a sinuous figure to carry them off. Underwear firms such as Kestos offered girdles and corsetry-inspired foundation garments to ensure a lean silhouette under everything from one’s bias cut Molyneux evening gown to a flying suit. The war years required more practical solutions and warm woollen undies together with a scarcity of stockings meant that only pin-up girls emerging from an artist’s brush, unencumbered by ration coupons, could afford the silk fripperies that her flesh and blood sisters so desired. After the war, Dior’s New Look returned once more to the hourglass outline and cinched waists of the 19th century; waspies, corsets and conical bras gave the desired look with advertisements in women’s magazines posing questions that would provoke a public outcry today. One, for Au Fait, insists, ‘What’s the fun of being a woman if you don’t have a good figure?’

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In riposte, some women burned their bras in the sixties, but most inevitably still felt the need for some support. Hip, youthful fashion began to eclipse the ladylike styles of the fifties and underwear followed suit. In the 1970s, Janet Reger was an underwear trailblazer, combining comfort, luxury and sex in silk, satin and lace for discerning women – and men who could rely on the store’s dubious policy of maintaining absolute discretion when someone might be buying for a mistress rather than a wife.

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The choice of underwear on display today would bewilder even the most seasoned Victorian courtesan, but the current vogue for the derivative, early 20th century burlesque styles pedalled by high-end boutiques such as Agent Provacateur shows that lingerie designers are continuing to plunder the past for inspiration. Thankfully, bloomers have yet to enjoy a revival. Pants to that!

One Man and his Dogs

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

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

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

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

FALL/CRUFTS/1956/GREYH'D

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Curnow judging at the Dog Centre Birthday Show

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

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

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

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

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

From Dagenham to Savile Row – Royal Couturier Hardy Amies

Description of a lime green double breasted day dress designed by Hardy Amies for Queen Elizabeth II. Date: circa 1960s

I was fashionably late to Valence House Museum on Saturday, arriving about an hour and a half before their 12-week Hardy Amies exhibition drew to a close.  This small, but perfectly formed show in an impressive local museum, has been celebrating the achievements of a man who was not only one of British couture’s finest exponents, but also one of Dagenham’s most famous sons.  Looking along the plain, identikit post-war houses lining the roads in this part of outer East London – the Becontree Estate was once the largest council housing estate in the world – it is difficult to imagine the area spawning an individual of such style, panache and ambition as Amies. Born in Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale, London in 1909, Edwin Hardy Amies had no fashion training, but was influenced by his mother who had worked as a dressmaker, and then vendeuse at several court dressmakers before the Great War.  He gained valuable business experience working in France and Germany after leaving school and was a salesman for the Avery weighing-machine company when contacts from his mother’s old job recommended him to fashion house Lachasse, previously headed by the designer Digby Morton.  He began initially as business manager but his interest in fashion led him to begin designing, producing his first collection in 1934.  During the Second World War, Amies served in special operations, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel as head of the Belgian section of the SOE.  After the war, he went on to set up his own Savile Row salon and began to design clothes for the then Princess Elizabeth in 1951.  He was appointed as royal dressmaker to H.M. the Queen in 1955 and knighted in 1989, the year he retired.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

In fact, it was Amies’ father, a resident agent for London County Council, who helped to map out the Becontree Estate streets.  His young family moved to The White House after the Great War, a building recently developed into a community arts centre, and the young Hardy Amies went to Brentwood School, an institution he kept a connection with throughout his whole life, even designing the school’s uniform.  A rather battered looking school cap in the exhibition was representative of the designer’s roots on the borders of East London and Essex, and although the exhibition was limited, there were some key highlights that did justice to his illustrious career.  These included his famous ‘Made in England’ tailored woman’s two-piece suit from 1940, the lapels patriotically trimmed (Amies would always be renowned for his impeccable tailoring for both men and women) as well as the pink outfit worn by the Queen for her 1977 Silver Jubilee together with its matching Freddie Fox hat.  Also on display were suits designed by Amies for the menswear retailer, Hepworths.  Designer collaborations with the high street might be commonplace today, but Amies’ side step away from the hallowed salons of Mayfair, was ground-breaking and just one of many commercial and branded ventures he carried out with success.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

Unfortunately, photography was not permitted at the exhibition (‘due to lending agreements’ I was told) but the link here gives some good views – http://createlondon.org/event/hardy-amies/  For a comprehensive and visually rich history of Hardy Amies and his career, I’d highly recommend ‘Hardy Amies’ by Michael Pick, published by ACC Editions.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

We have represented the Hardy Amies archive for some time at Mary Evans, and the book carries many images we hold here including scores of his original designs made for the Queen as well as excellent photographs of Hardy Amies himself and his salon.  We’re sharing some here – as well as a hit parade of royal designs.  Hardy Amies once said of his royal patron, “The Queen has the most perfect manners. She gives you her undivided attention and never makes a critical remark. The only sign of disapproval is a raising of her eyebrows…But you get the message.”  He understood that while the Queen’s wardrobe could faintly echo prevailing trends, she herself had to project an image that rose above fashion.  This intuitive understanding of his client, coupled with his timeless, tailored designs ensured his long tenure as the Queen’s designer of choice.  Not bad for a boy from Dagenham.

 

1. Fitted dress with belt and button detail designed for Princess Elizabeth to wear on her Royal Tour of Canada in 1951.
2. A multi-frilled spagetti-strap evening gown with feather pattern and three flounced tiers, designed by Hardy Amies for Princess Elizabeth to wear on the royal tour of Australia in 1952. The tour was postponed due to the death of King George VI.
3. Another dress designed for the 1952 royal tour, together with a swatch of the pretty floral fabric.
Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library Hardy Aimes
4. Black long sleeved lace evening dress with bow at the waist and matching train, designed by Hardy Amies for Queen Elizabeth II to wear on a State Visit to the Vatican in 1961.
5. Open coat with 3/4 sleeves and day dress with printed skirt, designed for the Queen’s state visit to France, May 1972. Dress and jacket in navy and white printed wool, sleeveless dress with belt in navy and white wool braid, jacket edged with navy and white wool braid, white felt hat with open work crown. This outfit offers a nod towards the simpler silhouettes and shorter hemlines of the 60s and 70s.
6. Pink overcoat with one button at the neck and short sleeves. With matching scarf and hat with hanging blossom. Outfit worn on a walkabout in the City of London to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in 1977. Hat designed by Frederick (Freddie) Fox.
7. Yellow chiffon evening dress in kaftan style, caught below the bust, bodice and cuffs heavily embroidered with diamante, back falling free from shoulders. Designed for the Queen to wear at a Prime Ministers’ reception at Buckingham Palace, 1977.
8. Blue and white faconne spot chiffon loose coat with sleeves cut on the cross; matching head scarf with flower detail.
9. Sketch and swatch of an evening dress worn by Queen Elizabeth II to a reception in California during an official visit to the USA and Mexico in 1983 (the poppy is the state flower of California).
10. Cocktail dress in mauve lace over lilac chiffon and pale pink satin, gently fitted and finished at the hem with a lace scallop and finely sunray pleated lilac chiffon. The 3/4 length sleeves are also finished with a lace scallop. Knee length and floor length versions (the second version was worn to Prince Edward’s wedding on 19 June 1999).
A selection of Hardy Amies designs and images on the Mary Evans Picture Library website can be viewed here.

 

Looking back to the future – robots in the archive

Earlier this month The Science Museum in London opened their much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition ‘Robots’, the first of its kind in the world which charts a comprehensive history of robotics, from their early days right through to the robots of the future.

I wanted to pick out some visual highlights from our archive, which show the diverse nature of how robots have been celebrated in visual media throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Visions of the future

Robots, or ‘automated and mechanical machinery’ were often discussed in 19th century engineering and scientific periodicals, in speculation of how the future may look.  An early example in the archive appears in the ‘La Science Illustrée’, 1896 which shows unusual-looking ‘futuristic’, metallic, almost anthropomorphic machines working on a farm.  In La Nature, 1893 Canadian inventor George Moore’s ‘Steam Man’, a fully mobile robot automaton powered by an internal steam engine is featured.

Early robotics are also featured in an 1886 edition of the British comic ‘Funny Folks’ with a slightly humorous illustration showing a railway commuter in an an automatic shaving and boot polishing chair. ‘The Very Latest Development of the Automatic Mania’, ‘Drop a penny in the hole and take your seat’.

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Rise of the Robot

Robots were first introduced into popular culture by Karel Capek’s science fiction play of 1921, ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’. Capek was a Czech writer who, through theatrics, made the Czech word ‘robot’ popular in the English language and synonymous within the realms of science fiction. A much-loved highlight of the Mary Evans archive is the extensive collection of Pulp Science Fiction magazines, published between the 1920s and 1950s and acquired for the library by Hilary Evans. Whilst the stories inside were published in monochrome, the illustrated front covers were reproduced in vivid colour with imagined, utterly bizarre scenarios and many of the stories were based on, or featured robots. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes not, some from other planets and some closer to home, but nevertheless certainly ‘amazing’ and ‘startling’ as the titles would suggest.

 

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Karel Capek and a programme for the first English production of the play, also known as R.U.R. and written by Karel Capek, when it was performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London.

 

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Unusual news

Robots were also the focus of many non-fiction stories. Throughout the early half of 20th century, the Italian Sunday supplement, Illustrazione del Popolo (supplement of the Gazetta del Popolo), was well known for its vibrant, candid and overtly dramatic covers based on unusual events-of-the-week throughout the world. As well as coverage on subjects such as the paranormal, bizarre crimes and freak weather, robots were also a hugely popular feature of the news. The Illustrazione del Popolo flourished during the early advances of robotics at a time when they were still objects of wonder and fantasy and the newspaper played on this aspect, presenting robots in all sorts of curious situations and interactions with people.

Robots as a feature of disguise were often reported, one cover of the Illustrazione del Popolo, 18 August 1935 edition; shows Zorinna, president of a naturist club in San Diego, California, carried off by a humanoid robot – much to the horror of her fellow club members. The paper reports that this robot is actually a man in disguise, who thought it would be a crafty way to enter the camp, for what we can imagine would certainly be lewd activities (men were barred from entering)!

Another ‘deception by robot’, in the 6 January edition of the same year, we see a robot or a ‘Man from the year 2000’ has been the subject of an arrest in the Italian city of Pavia on the suspicion that it is actually not a robot, but an imposter – merely a man in disguise. The paper reports that the imposter had been disguised as a ‘Mechanical Marvel’  which had been touring around several Italian cities on an extended tour of Europe.

A few more examples include an anthropomorphic robot, which appears in a 1929 edition of the ‘Illustrazione del Popolo’ – in the form of a robotic guard dog, which had been invented by a French engineer. The illustration seems to show the robot in action, having deterred a gang of burglars – very innovative! Another quirky illustrated scene sees a New York impresario replace his chorus girls with electrically powered robots, however his ingenuity is not well received by the audience (!) in the Illustrazione del Popolo, 16 December 1928.

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Eric the robot

Eric the Robot was Britain’s first robot, designed by Captain William Richards and engineer and inventor Alan Reffell (pictured below) Eric was originally built to inaugurate the Model Engineering Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, 1928, in place of the Duke of York who could not attend, but Eric proved so popular he subsequently toured the world and drew in the thousands. They would flock to see this new mechanical man rise, bow, make a ‘speech’ and stare in wonder at his flashing eyes and teeth!

Shortly after his world tour however and with the continued advance of technology, Eric sadly disappeared from the world stage and was long forgotten about, until recently. As of last year the Science Museum had successfully funded via Kickstarter a campaign to rebuild an exact replica of the famous Eric, (what happened to the original Eric remains a mystery) and is now one of the stars of the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition.

A notable example of Eric’s news coverage appeared in the Illustrated London News,15th September edition 1928, in the form of a diagrammatic illustration by artist George Horace David (G.H. Davis) who worked for the Illustrated London News for 40 years up until his death in 1963. The illustration gives a unique cross section showing how, concealed in his body there is an electric motor and a system of pulleys and cables. Eric also featured on the cover of French periodical ‘Le Petit Inventeur’, a wonderful illustration with Eric giving a shoe polish, a caption accompanies the illustration. ‘This scene is not a fantasy, the future will bring us even more surprises’.

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Pictured above right – Mr. Refell, inventor and engineer from Surrey with Eric the robot.

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The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Date: 1929

A greater selection of archive imagery on robots can be viewed here.

Ladies to Love – A Valentines Top 10

Those who remember our Valentine’s Day blog post of Handsome Chaps from History from last year (if not, refresh your memory here), will recall that we promised a similar list of ladies the minute we find an excuse. Well, that excuse has finally arrived, so on Valentine’s Day 2017 let’s kick off our Top 10 of Charming Chapesses with…

10. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Born in Paris to a courtesan mother and unknown father, Sarah Bernhardt rose to become the greatest star of the 19th century theatre, earning the nickname ‘The Divine Sarah’. Although not a conventional beauty, she had talent and charisma in abundance, and was equally at home in both tragedy and comedy. She didn’t shy away from roles such as Hamlet usually reserved for male actors, and was not averse to scandalous productions either, performing in John Wesley De Kay’s ‘Judas’ in New York in 1910. Mary Magdalene, a lover of Pontius Pilate, then of Judas Iscariot, moves on to Jesus whereupon Judas betrays him to the Romans in a fit of jealousy. Even more shockingly, Bernhardt was cast in the title role.
9. Annette Kellerman (1887-1975) Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was once dubbed ‘The Perfect Woman’ for her body’s closeness to the measurements of the Venus de Milo. She discovered a love of swimming in childhood when taken by her parents to the local pool to help the muscles develop in her painfully weak legs, and rapidly progressed to giving swimming and diving exhibitions. Her prowess did not go unnoticed by Hollywood, helped greatly by her provocative championing of a new tight-fitting swimming costume for women. It was so shocking that in 1907 Kellerman was arrested on a beach in Massachusetts for indecency. In 1916 she scandalised further by appearing fully nude in ‘A Daughter of the Gods’, the first million-dollar film production.
8. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (1837-1898). Elisabeth stands out in the roll call of European royalty as unusually beautiful. At 5’8” she was tall, and maintained a strict exercise and beauty regime. She was an impressive horsewoman, riding for hours every day, and drilling on balance beams in front of huge mirrors. Her beauty cult transformed her into an icon. Unhappily, Sisi’s life with the Emperor Franz Joseph was a tragic one. She was stifled by rigid court rules and tyrannised by her mother in law who prevented her having any say in the care of her own children. Her only son died in a suicide pact, an event Sisi never recovered from. She was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist, ensuring her place in the myth of doomed beauty.
7.Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) Intense, dynamic, radical and beautiful, militant suffragette and women’s rights campaigner Christabel Pankhurst inspired complete devotion from her followers. While this no doubt sprung from a shared desire to bring about a state of female emancipation, Pankhurst’s striking good looks and passionate nature can’t have been too much of a turn-off.
6. Cleo de Merode (1875-1966). Cleo de Merode combined talent as a ballet dancer with glamour and stunning good looks to become one of the most famous and imitated women of the Belle Epoche. Born in Paris, she was painted, sculpted and photographed by the pre-eminent artists of the day, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Giovanni Boldini and Felix Nadar, but her reputation was sullied by the public admiration of King Leopold II of Belgium. Salacious gossip spread that she’d become mistress to the 61-year-old, unwanted rumours which Cleo was never able to shake off.
5. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian and American film star, was not only exceedingly beautiful, but also a brilliantly talented inventor. On screen her sparkling sexuality riveted audiences. Off it, she helped to develop a method of transmitting radio signals by frequency hopping that many years later became an important element in modern communication technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Brains and beauty – what more could one desire in a dinner companion?
4. Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702). The great 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys called Frances the greatest beauty I ever saw. While at court as lady-in-waiting to King Charles II’s new bride Catherine of Braganza, she caught the eye of the Merry Monarch who became infatuated with her. To avoid becoming another of Charles’s mistresses, she eloped with the Duke of Richmond, an injury that wounded Charles deeply. He forgave her, and later commissioned a medal of Britannia modelled upon her profile that came to adorn British coinage for centuries.
3. Lily Elsie (1886-1962). Edwardian singer and actress Lily Elsie caused a sensation with her starring role in operetta ‘The Merry Widow’ in London in 1907, and became one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian era. Once again, the Venus de Milo was invoked as the perfect standard of beauty with whom Elsie compared admirably. The Atlanta Constitution newspaper writing in 1915 went on to say that, “everyone agrees that Lily Elsie has the most kissable mouth in all England”.
2. Louise Brooks (1906-1985). Compared with some, Louise Brooks’ film acting career was relatively short, lasting from 1925 to 1938 with four of those years absent from the screen. Her early retirement from film preserved her sleek, glamorous, stylish image as an icon of the Jazz Age. Today, her role as Lulu in German silent film ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1929 is her most well-known. The film is a dark, lurid tale of seduction, murder and downfall with a lesbian fling thrown in for good measure. Although poorly received at the time, it was rediscovered in the 1950s to great acclaim, with French film archivist Henri Langlois famously commentating that, “there is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks”.
1. Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Actress Anna May Wong had star quality in abundance but as a Chinese American woman in the overtly racist climate of twenties and thirties Hollywood, she was never going to be allowed to play the happy romantic lead opposite a white actor, and discriminatory casting denied her major roles even when the characters themselves were Chinese. But she had an exquisite, elegant beauty and a screen presence in which she radiated exotic sensuality, outshining Gilda Gray in ‘Piccadilly’ (1929) and matching headliner Marlene Dietrich in ‘Shanghai Express’ (1932) arched eyebrow for arched eyebrow. Our top Valentine’s Day date.

The Brothers Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bizarre Best Wishes – the Weird & Wonderful World of Victorian Christmas cards

Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

10997093: Children attacking a large pudding on a Christmas card. Date: circa 1890s

For any student of Christmas festive facts, they will know that first Christmas card was designed in 1846 by John Calcott Horsley at the request of Sir Henry Cole, later Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  About one thousand hand-coloured copies were produced, printed by Mr. Jobbins of Holborn and published by Joseph Cundall of Old Bond Street.  The design incorporated two scenes of charity flanking a central picture of a typically Victorian family cheerily raising a glass to toast the recipient of the card.  Although Horsley’s card is the acknowledged ‘first’ Christmas design, another, even earlier card, was designed by Mr. W. N. Egley, and sent by the artist to friends and family in 1842.  Whichever can claim to be truly the first Christmas card, they triggered a trend that became a festive tradition as familiar as trees and mince pies.

These early examples had been private ventures but by the 1860s the firm of Messrs. Goodall had begun to issue Christmas cards to the trade.  In the decades that followed, Christmas card sending rose to prodigious proportions.   During the Christmas period of 1882 for example, more than 14,000,000 letters and packages were delivered in the London area alone.  Such was the demand for new designs of good quality that in 1879, card publishers Raphael Tuck held an exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London, with well-known Academicians as judges and 500 guineas in prizes.  The contest attracted nearly 900 entrants and was so popular that a second and grander competition, judged by Sir John Millais and Marcus Stone, was held in 1882.  This time £5000 was awarded in prizes.  The result was that many famous artists, including Stone, George Clausen, G. D. Leslie and W. F. Yeames, entered the Christmas card market, with one firm paying out £7000 for drawings in a single season.  Years later, a 1936 interview with Desmond Tuck of Raphael Tuck published in The Sphere, revealed that each season the company rose to the challenge of creating no fewer than 3000 original Christmas card designs, achieving this with a permanent staff of fifteen designers, freelance commissions from outside artists and licensing works from art galleries and museums.  Tuck were undoubtedly market leaders.  They exclusively produced the royal family’s Christmas cards each year and ensured that the designs were distributed to the press who duly published them (many featured patriotic scenes or historic royals from the past), and they pioneered novelty cards alongside more sedate, traditional designs.  In 1901, The Tatler magazine commented on a box of Christmas cards sent by the canny marketeers at Raphael Tuck:

“All Raphael Tuck’s cards are pretty and artistic, but what struck me as the most ingenious were the expanding cards, i.e., those cards by which a slight manipulation can be transformed into ships, soldiers and horses of a real shape and form.”

An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

11657256: An 1842 design for a Christmas card by Mr W. N. Egley, though the general consensus is that the first was by John Calcott Horsley for Sir Henry Cole in 1846. There is some debate over whether this one was designed in 1842 or 1848. Nevertheless, a very early example, perhaps the earliest! Date: 1842

Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

10021527: Reputedly the first Christmas card, this was designed by Horsley in 1843, and a coloured version sent out by Sir Henry Cole in 1846 Date: 1843-1846

The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

11657260: The designing room at Raphael Tuck & Sons, fine art publishers of prints, cards, Almanacks and postcards, staffed largely by women. Tuck were one of the leading card and postcard publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Date: 1903

Several examples were shown but it is notable that not one single card appears to us to be particularly festive – there are donkeys on the sands of a coastal resort, a Chinese pleasure boat, circus horses and their riders,  a man-o-war in full dress and eighteenth century dandies carrying a lady in a sedan chair.  Not a single snowflake or twinkling bauble in sight.

211657259 (left): Adolph Tuck, Sir Adolph Tuck, 1st Baronet (1854-1926), fine art publisher and chairman of Raphael Tuck & Sons, pictured with his son passing a design for a Christmas card in 1903
10999514 (right): Invoice from Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, to Mr Frank Blackley, for the supply of one hundred greetings cards, total cost ten shillings and ten pence.

We have an eye-bogglingly varied array of historic Christmas cards in the archive representing this rich period in card publishing.  Many have arrived via our representation of the fabulously bonkers David Pearson Collection featuring designs that range from the mildly inappropriate to the unashamedly weird, most from the late 19th and early 20th century.  We may blame our modern-day sensibilities and taste for laughing at such unfathomable festive themes, but even in 1894, Gleeson White, editor of The Studio, wrote a monograph on Christmas cards in which he commented on the increasingly bizarre and inappropriate styles of card available to consumers.

“It is amusing to note the pictorial accompaniments, considered fit to illustrate the very mundane wish for a ‘A Happy Christmas’.  To accompany this prosaic and wholly carnal greeting we find, often, monsters of nightmareland, pictures of accidents dear to the farce writer, and in short, the subjects, which are in vulgar parlance weird and alarming on the one hand and distinctly uncomfortable on the other.”

Gleeson White, aesthetically sensitive, might have been particularly averse to ‘jokey’ and strangely macabre cards but there was undoubtedly a market at a time when the scale of card-sending meant that designers had to cast about for novel ideas and not all card buyers were discerning enough to prefer the worthy work of an Academician.   Nevertheless, whoever came up with murderous frogs and dead robins, cards in the shape of a hand gun or plucked turkeys lying limp and lifeless on kitchen scales, had perhaps spent rather too long at the drawing board, scraping the brandy barrel of festive ideas.  We don’t care.  Whether it’s Christmas or not, weird Christmas cards continue to be a source of great mirth and amusement at the library.  We’re just waiting for a mischievous someone to select some for a cool and off-beat Christmas card selection box.  We’ll be at the front of the queue.

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A saw on a Christmas card -- the basis of a fairly excruciating pun. Date: circa 1890s

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Little dog with a toy gun on a New Year card. circa 1890s

4  A frog murders another frog for money - a somewhat bizarre Christmas subject ! Date: circa 1880

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To see more Gordon Conway images click here

Hell’s Belles – Bell Ringing & the Gender Question

Engraving showing a view of the peal of bells in St.Paul's Cathedral, London, 1878. Date: 12 October 1878

Following the news this month that bell ringing is facing a national recruitment crisis, bell ringer and picture researcher Lucinda Moore turns to the archive for a historical look at bell ringing, seen through the lens of the current ringer shortage.Even a quick glance through the wealth of bell ringing images on the Mary Evans website does reflect a historical gender bias in favour of male ringers, with many of our pictures showing bands of exclusively male ringers. It was once thought that historically, poorly cast and unwieldy bells could only be managed by big strong men, making male ringers the norm, with women only starting to ring in the very late 19th and early 20th century once bells became easier to handle. However, ringing expert and author Steve Coleman debunks this idea, attributing the all-male bands to the patriarchal structure of society at the time, and to women not being given the opportunity or time outside of the home to become ringers, rather than a lack of physical strength.
Happily, as the 20th century progressed and new opportunities opened up, women began to take up bell ringing. A 1926 article in The Illustrated London News cheerfully entitled ‘The Belles of St Clement’s!’ suggested the changing attitudes, with a band of young, fashionably attired female ringers depicted at St Clement Danes church in the Strand, London. The ILN deemed the sight of female bell ringers sufficiently interesting and unusual in 1926 to dedicate a whole page to their endeavours, and in another post-WW1 article, included a small picture of a lady bell ringer as part of a spread of pictures showing women doing jobs usually performed by men. 21st century bell ringing is inclusive to a fault, with proto-ringers being generally welcomed to the tower (and later, the pub) with a big bear hug of bell ringing enthusiasm, regardless of gender.

 

The interior of the ringing chamber at St Paul's Cathedral, London. The twelve bells of the north tower can be seen here, about to be rung by an all male band of ringers. Date: 1903

 

Physical strength or even age need not be a barrier to learning. Though some bells are heavier to ring than others, and need more ‘oompf’ to get them going, these days brute force is not the key to good bell ringing. The sight of seasoned senior citizens expertly ringing not just their own bell, but also calling out to help correct the mistakes of other ringers, is not uncommon. Starting young is universally acknowledged as being beneficial, with children as young as 10 (often hailing from what are known as ‘ringing families’) able to ring impressively complicated methods.

 

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Fear can be an obstacle to recruitment, but such fears are for the most part unfounded. It’s a commonly held misconception that bell ringing is dangerous, with some fearing suddenly being whisked up towards the ceiling on the end of a wildly flailing rope. Whilst all hobbies have an element of risk, so long as the basics of safety are observed and the bells are respected, bell ringing is pretty safe.  However, the archive does have its share of depictions of sensational bell ringing accidents in the days before health and safety: these dramatic illustrations from the French magazine Le Petit Journal give a flavour of campanological crises on the continent.
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In spite of the difficulty of recruiting new ringers, there are many virtues to learning the ancient art of campanology. No costly or special kit is required; just a regular commitment and a willingness to learn. Much has changed in the world of ringing since these historical pictures were produced, but the simple pleasure that being a ringer brings has not. Whether it’s on grounds of your sex, strength, seniority or of safety, there were some significant barriers in the past to learning to ring, but they are thankfully no longer an issue: why not give it a try?