Rita Martin; a forgotten photographer
“These pictures are the acme of artificiality and as far removed from nature … as a hat trimmed with artificial summer fruits.”
All the photographs in this post are of Lily Brayton, the beautiful and celebrated star of Shakespearean drama in the Edwardian era, but she is not the focus. That belongs to Rita Martin, the London portrait photographer who was one of the best known in Britain at the time but is strangely neglected today. It is not unusual to encounter photographers who were household names in their time yet don’t crack a mention in any of the encyclopaedias, but what makes Ms Martin’s case special is that where she does get attention it is for the high standard of her work and her innovative techniques: two qualities you’d think historians would have picked up on.
The facts are these: she was born Margareta Weir Martin in Ireland in 1875 and died in 1958. According to the photoLondon Database her studio was at 74 Baker Street, Marylebone, a mile or so away from the studio of her better-known sister Lallie Charles in Curzon Street, Mayfair. The addresses were in exclusive neighbourhoods. A photo by Lallie Charles in the National Portrait Gallery database shows the two women and their sister Bea in what was probably Lallie’s studio C1899. The furnishings and décor are what we would expect of a high-end studio of the age: a distinct oriental element in the screens, rugs and vases, potted ferns (or are they lilies?) and dark, elaborately tooled tables and chairs. The women have that dreamy gaze we associate with the late-Victorian era; as though life in this room is too achingly elegant to risk leaving it. In 1975 Cecil Beaton co-authored with Gail Buckland a personal history of photography, The Magic Mirror, to which he added an appendix; Commercial Photographers of the Victorian and Edwardian Era. Like the other appendices it accounted for photographers who hadn’t fitted with the general theme of the book. Rita Martin and Lallie Charles were given more attention than anyone else in this section. There’s a sense reading it that Beaton knew Martin - not Charles: she died in 1919 - particularly when he intimates that the sisters fell out. It reads like gossip he received first hand.
The quote from Beaton at the top however comes from his book British Photographers, part of the Britain in Pictures series published by William Collins during World War II. Each thin volume contained a short essay by a noted authority and thirty or so reproductions of artworks in colour and black and white. The topics ranged from butterflies to canals to a history of fashion: all of them intended to remind people of what was too precious to let fall into the hands of the Germans. Beaton’s contribution included one of his famous scenes of Saint Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz. Given the brief amount of space Beaton was allowed, that he would give more attention to Rita Martin than he would to Lewis Carroll or Roger Fenton may seem surprising, but when you look at his early work especially it is clear that Martin and Charles had defined for him what studio portraiture could achieve. For Beaton, artificiality is a compliment. In The Magic Mirror he says of both sisters that “they transcended the stereotyped (and) showed a tyranny over their subjects, who were willing to do their bidding, for they knew they were being beautified”. Beaton could be describing his own working methods. During the first decade of the twentieth century, photographic postcards of stage actresses were popular around the world. Most studios placed the subject before an elaborate stage backdrop, emphasizing the theatricality above the performer. Rita Martin preferred to place her women in a stark setting that obliged the viewer to consider their stage presence.
Lallie Charles was a photographer of the royal family and made her name more as a society photographer. To understand how she and her sister developed their styles and reputations, we need to consider Alice Hughes, one of the most formidable presences on London’s late-Victorian photographic scene. She would not photograph men. You might think taking this stand at the beginning of the suffragette era would marginalize her, but around the turn of the century her studio was so popular with society women and stage stars that she employed up to sixty assistants; again, none of them men. Lallie Charles was probably one (this is unclear) but the more important point is that Hughes rejected the standard sepia, Pictorialist view for the very expensive, beautifully rendered platinum prints in sharp focus. One of the criticisms of Pictorialism, then and now, was that the photographers frequently confused artistic excellence with vapid sentimentality. A soft focus view of a society lady admiring a tulip might sound like a good idea in theory but the result could make her look as fascinating as a blade of grass in a paddock. Charles and Martin took Hughes’ ideas and when it came to publishing postcards saw the virtue in refining them, reducing background interference, or removing it altogether. Their success however owed as much to their ability to impart or inspire a performance for the camera, something few actors were seriously expected to do.
According to Beaton, Martin had a contract with the theatre manager George Edwardes that gave her exclusive rights to photograph Lily Elsie and other performers once a month. This may not be entirely accurate, or may have only existed for a short time, because other studios photographed Ms Elsie. One was Foulsham and Banfield, whose work Beaton waspishly described as “rather quaint in their woodenness”. The general impression is that all power resided with management. Edwardes could agree to such a contract, as long as Ms Martin kept her fees to a figure he thought was reasonable. More likely, a successful performer like Lily Brayton had enough influence to ask for Rita Martin, and if sales of postcards justified her demands Edwardes would agree.
Although Ms Martin photographed several leading men of the stage, of the 322 prints held by the National Portrait Gallery, only three are of men alone, though a couple more are of men with their families. The number of prints is enough to be representative and suggests that like Alice Hughes, Ms Martin had principles she couldn’t be persuaded from. The first instinct is to say these were political, but on second thoughts it may have been that she was essentially interested in glamour. That wasn’t a word many male actors would have wanted to be associated with in the 1910s or actually applied to them. It implied an interest in haute couture and other womanly pursuits. When you look through lists of images of male Edwardian actors, they tend to go for either comedy or dashing but respectable, and were typecast as one or the other. Lily Brayton on the other hand could wear costumes from across the centuries and cultures and still transmit an aura of chic allure. For a photographer of the stage, male actors were boring.
According to the NPG website, Lallie Charles photographed some of the suffragettes. Rita Martin photographed Rosamund Massy from the National Women’s Social and Political Union. What does this mean? Were they sympathisers? Were they asked to because they were well-known women photographers? Was it because, like Lily Brayton, the suffragettes were part of the cultural milieu? None of these questions cancels another so the answer may be all three but it’s worth remembering that while London’s theatre world might have been thought progressive, there wasn’t a huge amount of sympathy for the suffragettes. The actress and singer Anna Held complained that they went about slapping men and when they started setting fire to theatres and letting off smoke bombs inside that predictably turned people off them. Rita Martin may have believed that women had the right to vote and agreed to photograph some of the suffragettes but that didn’t mean she was obliged to like any of them.
Which brings us to the important issue of why she has been forgotten. It isn’t as though her work is hard to find, and she was well enough known in the 1940s for Beaton to assume his readers needed no formal introduction to her. It’s one thing to discover a previously unknown photographer, vis-a-vis Vivian Maier, but when a photographer has a substantial body of work in an archive the neglect is not random. Perhaps, like her sister, she’s seen as too establishment, too Edwardian, and her portraits of theatre stars don’t cast a challenging light on the social history. But the photo-historian’s first job should be to write the history, not re-write it and clearly there are spaces that need filling in. A common myth about early theatre portraits is that they were perfunctory commercial jobs and the genre didn’t take off until a handful of photographers in the 1930s (Beaton in particular) introduced an individual style. If that is the case, these portraits of Lily Brayton reveal a relationship between photographer and subject that was decades ahead of its time.
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