On a sunny Wednesday in London, Liz and the Documenting Fashion MAs took a trip to the archives of the National Portrait Gallery to view a selection of photographs from our study period of 1920-1960. Tucked behind the main building of the National Portrait Gallery, the archives were an oasis of calm in the centre of bubbling London. The Photographs Collection began in 1972 and today holds about a quarter of a million images. 2000 of these form the primary collection consisting of the most important images with the remainder of the material (photographs, negatives etc.) forming the bulk of the collection. The selection we viewed was wide-ranging including a book, two albums, an illustration and, of course, black and white, as well as colour photography.
Of particular interest to us MAs was an album from the “Lady Ottoline Morrell Albums.” It showed a variety of subject matter ranging from a rather less glamorous cow on a field to the beauty of Claude Monet’s garden. However, seeing one of the albums first hand mainly provided further insight and context to the way in which fashion is also captured in these photographs. We had touched on the album collection’s value and richness in conveying fashion related information in class while discussing Lily Le Brun’s (former Documenting Fashion MA) article on Siegfried Sassoon’s depiction in the album (see below for details of this fascinating read). Other highlights included an illustration by Cecil Beaton which captured a stunning hat and dress with a tiny waist in just a few artistic strokes. As the illustration is merely in black and white, the references to the racecourse scene in the film “My Fair Lady” were strong – Beaton had been responsible for the costume and art direction of the film. A variety of his photographs on display also led us to discuss poses taken by the models or sitters. From the carefully posed and constructed to the informal snapshots from Lady Ottoline’s album, we mused over the different effects each has on the representation of the sitter. Are those in the snapshots truly less aware of a camera being present or is their awareness possibly heightened by trying to stay casual? Interesting backdrops also theme in the selected images. From polka dots, through geometric patterns to a design resembling the form of a bedspring were all instrumental in forming a highly stylised and distinctive look. A photograph taken by Louise Dahl-Wolfe here served as a refreshing contrast. It showed two men sitting in a park, dappled sunlight and shadows on their hair and clothing, resting and enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. Moving onto 1950s and 1960s images on the other hand gave us a chance to peek at photographer Norman Parkinson hanging upside down from a gymnasts climbing wall amongst his models. Beside this, there were three images by Horst, one of which showed a young Carmen Dell’Orefice, as stunning back then as she is today.
Although only a miniscule part of the overall collection, the images on display today showed the wide scope fashion imagery encompasses and the multiple different ways they can be decoded or read. From the personal to the public, the colourful to the dull, the professional glance to the amateur take, all store information on a time gone by, now preserved and ready for inspection in the wonderful archive of the National Portrait Gallery.
Conversation with the Archivists of the NGP, 15/03/17.
Le Brun, Lily, ”Life Lived on the Plane of Poetry:” Images of Siegfried Sassoon in the Lady Ottoline Morell Album Collection, Courtauld Institute of Art, MA Dissertation (2011).