Stockholm, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, Istanbul, London. You’ll find street style blogs for almost every major city. Amateur and professional photographers hang around outside fashion shows or just prowl the fashionable shopping streets looking for (mostly) women wearing interesting outfits, taking picture of them and posting them on their blogs. The subjects of these pictures are flattered by the attention, or at least the ones we get to see are. This is a genuinely new phenomenon, a product of the internet, a distinctly 21st century thing. Photographers have taken pictures in the street since it was technically possible but no-one ever did a style blog in the early years of the twentieth century.
But Edward Linley Sambourne came close.
A picture taken in Cromwell Road in July 1906.
Linley Sambourne was by 1906 the chief cartoonist of Punch. He’d had a four decade long career as a cartoonist and illustrator. He was also an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He had taken up photography as an aid to his art. He was a skilled draughtsman, obsessed with getting details correct but he preferred to work with a model. Photography gave him the ability to take pictures of family, friends and professional models which he could use as the basis for his cartoons. He took thousands of pictures in his lifetime most of them for reference purposes including dozens of images of military uniforms, national dress, models in pseudo-classical costumes and fancy dress of all kinds. His wife Marion complained in her diary that photography had become as much an obsession as a hobby.
Much of his work was in his home studio:
These blue-tinged photographs are cyanotypes, a kind of print suitable for the cost-conscious amateur. The second image is of Sambourne’s daughter Maud striking a pose he subsequently used in a cartoon.
In the last decade of his life he also worked outdoors, on holiday and in the streets of Kensington.
What Sambourne captures in his street photography, and why his pictures are of interest to historians of fashion, is a certain casual look all the young women in them have, which is quite different from the formal image of Edwardian fashion you see in many textbooks and costume dramas.
A cyclist struggles with an enormous hat.
A woman Sambourne snobbishly describes as a “shop girl” strolls down Kensington Church Street engrossed in a book.
Without her hat this woman could walk down the Earls Court Road at almost any time in the twentieth century.
The one difference between Sambourne’s street photography and the pictures taken by modern style bloggers is that for the most part his subjects had no idea they were being photographed. Sambourne used a concealed camera. What do we think of this? Does it change your view of the pictures? In Sambourne’s defence it could be said that attitudes to photography were different in the early years of the twentieth century and that notions of the right to privacy hadn’t been completely worked out. But most modern photographers, amateur or professional wouldn’t work like this now.
From our point of view the images are part of history. The subjects are all dead now along with the man who took them. The photographs are interesting because they show us how women looked in a certain part of London in the early 1900s, so I show you some of them here because they are part of the history of Kensington.
I think a few of Sambourne’s subjects had worked out what he was doing. This woman looks curious.
So like her make your own mind up about Edward Linley Sambourne as another woman reads while walking.
And walks away from the camera’s eye.