Vogue 100: A Century of Style
VOGUE 100: TALES OF THE CENTURY
Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery opened last month. The exhibition’s curator, Robin Muir, reflects on the publication’s illustrious 100-year-old archive in the February issue of Vogue:
Vogue 100: A Century of Style opened at the National Portrait Gallery in February, taking over the whole ground floor, it is the culmination of five years’ research.
“As curator, I have looked through every issue of British Vogue, as well as many American and French Vogues (and, from the Twenties, the short-lived Vogue Argentina and the Weimar-era German Vogue that almost bankrupted Condé Nast). About 1,800 issues of the magazine in all.
In the early years, from September 1916 to the eve of the Second World War, there were 24 British Vogues a year – a magazine every fortnight – and, when times were good, spin-offs: The Vogue Book of Beauty, The Vogue Pattern Book, The Vogue Book of British Exports.
Since Vogue‘s debut, photography has been its lifeblood. Tracking down prints has taken the Vogue 100 team around the world. We have loans from Costa Rica and Singapore, France, Germany and Belgium, from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Canada, and more.
The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, knew exactly whatVogue 100 was not going to be: black-framed pictures hung on the gallery wall in rows. I agreed. Vogue‘s photographs are “objects” as much as are issues of the magazine itself. Picked out of boxes and cabinets in the archives, prints could be tipped towards the light or flipped over – the reverse as intriguing as the obverse. This was the “stuff of Vogue“, to quote the magazine in 1942. I proposed that for Vogue‘s first 60 years at least, we should try to find the original print used to make the magazine, or as near as possible. If it was distressed, torn or marked-up in crayon, then so much the more fascinating: these were Vogue‘s working documents, the tools of its trade. Where owners would allow it, we would treat their masterworks as unframed “icons”, every blemish a witness to the century.
The historic names in Vogue 100 are the great ones – not just of fashion and portraiture, but of photography in the modern age: Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Charles Sheeler, Lee Miller, Erwin Blumenfeld, Man Ray. It felt fitting to show their work in the form they had originally presented it, despite the patina of age.
From 1946 on, Vogue‘s history is largely intact. Not so before then. The story goes that at the French office, during some redecoration, the contents of the archives spilled on to the street in rubbish bags. Apocryphal? In an age when photography was barely collected and magazine photography not at all, possibly not.
Dead photographers tend, on the whole, to be more accommodating than the living, but I found the latter pliant and agreeable – and the past something else entirely. At British Vogue, officially, the past didn’t exist. That’s because in March 1942, the magazine recycled its archive to help the war effort. The Steichens, Sheelers and de Meyers, Horsts and Beatons, all gone.
Well, almost all gone. In Vogue‘s library in London, we discovered a box labelled “Atoms of the Past”. In our context, this was Howard Carter standing at the tomb of the boy pharaoh. Our treasures: an unpublished print of Vivien Leigh in the studio by Cecil Beaton and an earlier Beaton, Tallulah Bankhead, triply exposed on one dazzling print (1929); a portrait of Baron Adolph de Meyer (circa 1932), considered to be the first professional fashion photographer; an early study by Erwin Blumenfeld; and, most poignantly, a group portrait, Beaton again, of a bomber crew climbing into their lumbering aircraft, as if mounting a scaffold. Each picture was beautiful; none was pristine.
Such gems notwithstanding, we had a search on our hands and I began it in earnest. Vogue‘s very first published photograph is a portrait by EO Hoppé of the stylish Lady Eileen Wellesley. It appeared as the frontispiece of its debut issue. A liaison with the poet Rupert Brooke had raised eyebrows beyond Lady Eileen’s immediate circle: fashion and celebrity in Vogue from the start.
The first real quest, therefore, was to find a Hoppé print. The most celebrated photographer of his day, based in Millais’s former Kensington studio, Hoppé was commissioned for Vogue‘s earliest frontispieces. But there are good Hoppés and better Hoppés. A print of the first frontispiece did not appear to exist but we found the third. Or rather, the NPG’s departing curator of photographs, Terence Pepper, did – unbelievably, on Ebay. Terence would remain involved throughout the Vogue 100 project.
I knew that, when the time came, he would know where several bodies were buried and if he didn’t, he would know who buried them. His knowledge was invaluable. The Hoppé image he discovered was a portrait of Viscountess Maidstone. An American from Philadelphia, she was heiress to the Drexel banking fortune and had married into the British aristocracy, a “cash for coronets” arrangement. She was entrancing in Terence’s print. I had only known her in reproduction and here she was, startlingly vivid, in rich sepia tones.
I was also after something by Arnold Genthe, like Hoppé a master portraitist. He had photographed a young Greta Garbo in New York the moment she stepped off the boat but, alas, not for British Vogue. There was, however, another Genthe that had intrigued me for years – a nude (not very Vogue) retouched to look like a classical sculpture (entirely acceptable). It predated Vogue but the magazine published it later, in 1922 (and again in 1938). This “Hellenic” ideal of physical beauty was influential on Vogue‘s photographers to come, chiefly Hoyningen-Huene and Horst in the Thirties and later Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber.
A good place to start would be the Wilson Centre for Photography in London. Michael Wilson, whose Eon Productions has produced the James Bond films, well, for aeons now, has one of the most important private collections of photography, including many Genthes. Might he have it? I made an appointment.
Meantime, I learned that a vintage print of this Genthe nude had surfaced at Christie’s in New York some years previously and the auction house offered to act as go-between with the owner. That’s a punt. You never usually get a reply.
But unlikely though it was, a reply came in – and the owner would be delighted to lend. He turned out to be a colleague, a private collector, who lived barely 50 minutes from me in Hampshire. He would turn out to have something else equally exquisite, the most famous of all prints by Horst, the Mainbocher Corset (1939) – the inspiration for David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s “Vogue“.
I kept the appointment with the Wilson Centre. And found another beautiful early Vogue portrait by Genthe, a print of actress Maxine Elliott from 1917. They agreed to lend it. We now had three prints from Vogue‘s infancy, a Hoppé and two Genthes. What we needed now was some early, pure fashion photography and it had to be by Vogue‘s earliest star.
When Baron Adolph de Meyer was hired by Condé Nast in 1914, on a salary of $100 a week, fashion photography as a career began. He took fashion out of the Edwardian era, bathing his sitters in artificial light and glamour. Vogue‘s models were mostly drawn from the chorus-line, but the baron’s favourite, Dolores, could neither sing nor dance; instead she was a house mannequin for the couturier Lucile. When she “walked” in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 in the “Episode in Chiffon”, she exchanged the “Lucile slither” for “the Ziegfeld trot”. From the first professional fashion photographer and the first professional model, I wanted the best picture: Dolores and the Crystal Ball (1919), the elegant showgirl in a bridal veil gazing into her future. A cutting in a file in the NPG’s archives revealed that a copy, with good provenance, had come up for sale at Sotheby’s. Deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it was once part of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, the benchmark for connoisseurship. It would be the finest example, but first the dance of advance and recoil with an auction house. This time the reply came back: the owner would “consider it and get in touch”. Which means, “Nothing to see here: move on.” But months later, the owner replied. It had been acquired for Qatar’s national collection by Sheikha Mayassa Al-Thani. The loan was agreed.
It was all going too well. Then, at the beginning of 2014, the bad news. The Pompidou Centre in Paris declined the loan of two prints by Man Ray, one terrific – of socialite Daisy Fellowes – but one so emblematic that I couldn’t envisage Vogue 100 without it. (We knew it was a long shot. The greatest of Man Ray’s images are now too fragile to travel and these were among them.) The essential was a portrait of Nancy Cunard (1927), her arms laden with tribal bangles, endlessly reproduced in books on fashion photography – arguably good reason not to have it, but Vogue 100 was a chance to replay Vogue‘s greatest hits, and this was unquestionably one. Out of nowhere and with minimal fuss, another version declared itself from a source close to the NPG. Tiny and jewel-like, it was breathtaking, the more so for its sheer lack of scale.
Meanwhile, Condé Nast in New York had opened its archive, then on Broadway – for which I still cannot thank them enough. I flew there with a list and gaps were quickly filled. In the early years, as an economic necessity, much of the same material – text and photographs – was featured in both American and British Vogue, and in America there had been no wartime recycling drive.
The first print I wanted to see – and I had no idea if it still existed – was Edward Steichen’s shot of Marion Morehouse, photographed in 1927 in Condé Nast’s Park Avenue penthouse apartment. It did. Hands on hips, uncomplicatedly facing the viewer, Morehouse was the essence of the jazz-age woman, immediately at odds with de Meyer’s orchidaceous beauties. At a stroke, Steichen had propelled Vogue into the modern age.
There was a portrait, too, of Aldous Huxley (1926) by Charles Sheeler, which had resonance. Before Brave New World, Huxley had had a career with Vogue, first as
a sub-editor and then as a sparkling essayist. He sparred with editor Dorothy Todd (she was close to Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, while Huxley favoured Ottoline Morrell’s rival coterie). Huxley quit shortly after sitting on Miss Todd’s new hat – he was famously myopic – with relief on both sides.
Next, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington agreed the loan of Edward Steichen’s magisterial portrait of Charlie Chaplin, also from 1926. This was a rarity. There were others from the sitting but this was the best. He looked exactly what he was at his greatest moment: the British-born king of Hollywood.
Another talismanic image was a watercolour by Cecil Beaton – a small card reproduction, which leant on a shelf in the editor’s office for years. It depicted Mona Williams, the most mondaine of interwar-era figures, at home with her husband Harrison (her third of five). She was customarily described as the best dressed woman in the world, he as the richest man in America. The original had vanished, but it turned out that Mrs Williams had bequeathed to the city of Paris funds to establish a foundation that bears her name today (with her fourth husband’s surname): the Mona Bismarck American Centre for Art & Culture. Located in her hôtel particulier on the Seine, it had opened its doors only recently. Had the countess kept the picture? Did it still exist after 78 years? (It was missing from the definitive Beaton retrospective at the Barbican in 1986.)
It did. In storage at the foundation. I caught the early Eurostar. A minor calamity. Yes, they had it but it was locked in a room and the key was misplaced. A curator laughed: no, they would not break down the door. I waited in a room with a view of the Eiffel Tower and sunlight reflecting off the river. You could see why Mona, Countess Bismarck, chose to live and die in Paris.
They found the key. Three-feet high and framed in gold, Mr and Mrs Harrison Williams (1937) was bigger than anticipated, the colours more subtle than the magazine could ever show. This would be the first time it would be shown in Britain for decades.
Other archives opened their doors. From the James Moores Collection came John Deakin’s evocative 1950 portrait of Dylan Thomas in the graveyard at Laugharne (three years later he would be buried there). Deakin’s prints are famously lucky to have survived his nonchalance. Not for nothing was a 1984 show of his work at the V&A called The Salvage of a Photographer.
Modern photographs we wanted to include in the show were not without backstories. Nick Knight’s fastidious approach and painstaking attention to detail has made him
one of the most celebrated of contemporary British photographers. He spent two years refining one single print of Lily Donaldson in Galliano and a cloud of Diwali dust. You can tell: it is exquisite.
In the end, only two institutions demurred. In many cases, the photographers themselves, and their representatives and curators, have gone to considerable effort to arrange the reprinting of items, demonstrating better than anything else, I think, their admiration for Vogue and for its remarkable story. The world in Vogue in nearly 2,000 issues is an extraordinary one. We hope that when we take you back in time over a century of the magazine, you will delight in its history and recognise that the magic revealed within its pages is, after all, only the magic of our own lives. Its history is our own history.”
“Vogue 100: A Century of Style” is at the National Portrait Gallery, WC2, from February 11 to May 22. Buy your tickets here.