Tag Archives: Jacob Epstein

Christmas Days: a little bit of Bignell

I had another mini-post almost written when I realised that with a few related pictures and a bit of research I could make it into a full-length post and I never waste those ideas when they come so who could I turn to for today’s mini-post but my old friend John Bignell? I’m breaking my own mini-post rule because I could easily grab a few more Bignell pictures and make it another long post but actually putting this handful of images into a short post throws them into relief and emphasises how special they are.

So here are three great Bignell pictures.

From the artistic world, the Tate Gallery in 1959.

Tate gallery Epstein retrospective 1958

A group of men wrestle with a massive sculpture at a retrospective for Jacob Epstein. Struggle seems to bleed out of the statue into the effort to move it. Not being familiar with Epstein’s work at first glance I thought this was a kiss between two titans, but of course thanks to Google Images I realise now that this is a Biblical struggle – Jacob and the Angel. The figure at the rear is lifting the other upward supported by his alabaster wings.

I’ve taken photos of men moving a massive object (a giant safe which had to be taken out of an archive room and moved the length of the basement to a suitable lift) so I understand the process but Bignell has caught the emotional content of the action. The comparatively thin sculpture at the rear seems to convey a sense of anxiety, for the movers, or the statue.A clever bit of framing by Bignell, or just a piece of luck?

If you look at my post about Lionel Davidson’s novel the Chelsea Murders you’ll see one of Bignell’s fanciful pictures, Satan Triumphant featuring a black clad man in a devil’s mask with a woman in white.

This picture from 1955 is in the same vein.

Virtue fight back - Bignell 1955l

Entitled “Virtue fights back” this is a very strange image. On a rooftop opposite St Paul’s Cathedral another black clad man with the face of a skull and clawed hands fences with a woman who looks like a circus performer. What is going on? Is it the same couple? It looks like the same cape. I’ve yet to find any more Bignell pictures in this vein so you may never read a long post about Bignell and urban fantasy. That’s what it reminds me of though,Neal Gaiman’s novel/TV series Neverwhere and Christopher Fowler’s first (and best in my opinion) novel Roofworld, both about hidden worlds which co-exist with the mundane version of London.

From the circus to a funfair:

Battersea fun fair 1957 jb113

This is another late 50s picture, one of a small set featuring the fun fair in Battersea Park. The woman having some 1950s difficulty with her wide skirt and its supporting petticoat is climbing out of the Caterpillar, a favourite ride for couples.You have to wonder if Bignell set this up but what is definitely genuine is the atmosphere of good humoured fun.

So there’s Bignell playing with the real and the artificial, in three different ways. Every photograph sits somewhere on the line between chance and intention.


Artists, actresses, authors and aristocrats: 20th century celebrities

The history of celebrity doesn’t begin in the 1990s or the 1890s or even the 1790s. The talented, the wealthy and the infamous have been providing entertainment for the general public for centuries. But the technical advances in photojournalism which began in the late 19th century and made it possible for magazines and newspapers to publish photographs on a regular basis were the test bed for celebrity coverage in the early decades of the 20th century. Some of the subjects and techniques of this form of journalism have changed over the years but the basic themes of good looking people living fascinating lives were already there.

Jacob Epstein CS930

Two stories in one in 1912:the young sculptor Jacob Epstein shows off his latest creation, a memorial for Oscar Wilde, to be placed over Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery. In the Daily Chronicle Lewis Hird wrote: “he saw the work in his imagination complete before he touched chisel…Epstein is an Egyptian born in late Victorian days, and to him prudery and prettiness are meaningless….that vast, ageless human-inhuman sphinx-like figure, silent and solitary, grieving yet indifferent”. The moody artist was a common subject. Here is another version:

Augustus John CS934

“Primitive yet strangely modern” is the headline from this 1914 story about “the famous neo-impressionist” Augustus John. The editors of  The Bystander claimed this was “the first true camera study of (this) remarkable personality”.

And don’t forget our old friend Mr Mortimer Menpes, pictured at work in his Japanese house:

Menpes in Lady's Realm articel CS949

The arts provided good subject matter for stories, particularly the theatrical arts:

Miss Thirza Norman and Mr Charles Lander in Romeo and Juliet CS673

Miss Thirza Norman and Mr Charles Lander as Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Court Theatre. The Shakespearian revivals at the Royal Court created many new celebrities.  Here is Miss Ellen O’Malley:

Miss Ellen O'Malley CS675

She’s in costume as Sylvia in the Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Miss Lillah McCarthy as Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman CS689

Miss Lillah McCarthy in a more modern role as Ann Whitefield in G B Shaw’s Man and Superman.

Below, another Shakespearean star of the stage:

Mrs J H Leigh as Miranda CS663

Mrs J H Leigh as Miranda, in the Tempest.

Here she is as herself in a very decorative studio picture:

Mrs J H Leigh CS674

The illustrated magazines were of course also interested in their subjects at home:

Eva Moore - actress at home The King jan 29th 1905 CM1741

Miss Eva Moore, alias Mrs E V Esmond, at home in Whitehead’s Grove with her husband. Mr Esmond admits to a liking for golf, tennis and cycling but his wife is more reticent about her pastimes at home. But the King magazine for January 28th 1905 does say of Mr and Mrs Esmond  that “a more charming host and hostess would be difficult to find”. It’s an early form of the Hello style of visit to a celbrity home.

It’s just a short step from actresses at home to society beauties in their own beautiful establishments.

lady margaret sackville CM1206

Lady Margaret Sackville in her garden at Chelsea. Lady Margaret “has started a toy industry in Chelsea which is so successful that it leaves no time for the writing of poems, at which Lady Margaret excels”. Fortunately, there was a little time in the day for sitting by fountains. (Lady Margarert has adopted a form of rustic or artistic dress, which definitely makes the picture more charming)

A few years later another photogenic young woman was writing a novel:

Miss Phoebe Fenwick Gaye CM2284 01

Vivandiere was a romance set in the Napoleonic Wars. Miss Gaye got the idea after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball in a costume of the period. She looks introspective and thoughtful in this picture but rather more glamorous in this one from 1929:

Miss Phoebe Fenwick Gaye CM2284 03

Her novel had been praised by Arnold Bennett and was becoming a best seller according to the Sketch. Miss Gaye went on to write several more novels and biographies.

Another high achieving lady of 1929:

Lady Maud Hoare CM2249 01

Lady Maud Hoare, wife of the Air Minister and MP for Chelsea. She had gone with her husband on a 12000 mile round trip to inaugurate the London-Cairo-Delhi air service apparently the first woman to travel so far by air, for which she was made a Dame of the British Empire.

We started with a sculptor so we’ll finish with one too.

Mr and Mrs Lambert CM2244

Mr Maurice Lambert and his wife Olga. Note the bust of Stephen Tennant (one of the most  prominent of the bright young things and apparently the model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) on the shelf behind them. Lambert was the brother of the composer Constant Lambert who was the father of Kit Lambert the first manager of the Who. That brings us more or less to the modern age of celebrity which is another story altogether.


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