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 .

Fashion Fantasies – Elspeth Phelps, artist in dress

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

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

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

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

Lady Eileen Orde and daughters by Madame Yevonde

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

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

 

Lady Eileen Orde working on wallpaper designs

Lady Eileen Orde at work on wallpaper designs, 1931.

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

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

 

Mrs Morrison-Bell as Oak for Nymphs of Forest tableau

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

Evening dress by Elspeth Phelps

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

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

Paula Gellibrand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, 1920s fashion

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

 

To order prints of Elspeth Phelps advertisements follow this link.