Real photo postcards from the Edwardian stage
“Romance at short notice was her specialty.”
Saki; The Open Window
Real photo postcards of actresses are one of the enduring legacies of the Edwardian era; ‘enduring’ to mean lasting although the general impression from a recent visit to the Spitalfields Market was that interminable would be more apt. Not surprising when you read how many thousands of millions of postcards were published then sent each year of the 1900s and how photos of stage actresses were far and above the most popular category in Britain. But amidst the glut of portraits of women in ubiquitous broad-brimmed, feathery hats and puffy blouses, with their stiff composures and curiously sexless expressions, there are occasional images that catch the eye. Just about every one of Hettie King will do that. She was one of several actresses who made an art of male impersonation. It seems that while transvestitism among the citizenry could always create an absolute scandal in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, gender impersonation in the theatre was a specialized skill and in demand, with none of the connotations of sexual or political transgression apparent today. Of course, Ms King was a comic actress: she played the man for laughs, and laughs in the Edwardian theatre were often of the double entendre type.
It was already a convention in pantomime that the crotchety widow or the scheming stepmother was played by a man; this was comedy after all. When J. M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan debuted in 1904 it was standard for the lead character to be played by a young actress. The play’s subtitle was the boy who wouldn’t grow up and gender ambiguity was a useful metaphor for somebody trapped in a physical and emotional cocoon. Zena Dare was one of the first actresses to play Peter Pan. Here she is as Napoleon, another comedic role for which the English typically cast women. Well that must have stung Gallic pride, or perhaps not since the Paris music halls had long taken cross-dressing to places the English theatre nervously avoided.
Zena Dare is one of those people, like Gabrielle Ray. Lily Elsie and Marie Studholme, who were prolifically photographed for postcards in the 1900s yet whose name barely stirs a hint of recognition today. This is inevitable when we think of the thousands of actresses and advances in technology since the 1900s, yet it might be also reflect a particularly British attitude. Where the French loved scandal and their theatre stars made the most of that, over the Channel the female artistes were presented as having much more sensible private lives. If the reputations of Cléo de Mérode and Caroline Otero live on it is for their behaviour off-stage whereas someone who enjoyed a few years in the West End limelight then married well and retired from the stage to cross breed apples on the Sussex Downs would at best be damned with faint praise by being heralded as a national treasure.
Not everyone was so apparently blessed. During the first decade of the last century, Gabrielle Ray was reckoned to be the most photographed woman in the world. Though she was acclaimed as an actress and dancer, a look at her résumé suggests she wasn’t being called to play Lady Macbeth or Juliet or any of the other roles that defined a special talent. It may have been her looks alone that attracted so much attention, in which case her tragedy was as typical as it was awful. Agents, directors, producers – especially fat, white and ugly ones – can love a face without caring what lies behind. Even a casual reading of Ray’s biographical details suggests her alcoholism had something to do with her being marketed for her face not her acting. In 1936 she suffered yet another breakdown and spent the rest of her life – all thirty seven years of it – in psychiatric institutions.
Here’s a good quote from Ray found on the Footlight Notes page. As she makes clear, kissing was fun in 1906, but not as much as tearing about the countryside in a motor car: I have done a lot of motoring, but very little kissing. At the same time, I think it would be a pity to discourage those who like kissing because it seems to please them very much. If I have by accident kissed anyone I have never heard any complaint about my mouths; but there, you see, I put cream on my face when going out in a motor-car, because before I used to do so the wind made my face very dry.”
We’ll get back to the subjects but we can’t ignore the photographers: William Downey and his son Daniel, Alexander Bassano, the sisters Rita Martin and Lallie Charles (previously discussed HERE) and Francis Foulsham and Arthur Banfield, whose work Cecil Beaton dismissed as “rather quaint in (its) woodenness”. To be fair, that same criticism could have been levelled at most of the photographers, and to be fair again, it wasn’t always their fault. You get the impression with some people that they couldn’t make the intellectual jump between appearing on stage and before a still camera. Maud Jeffries was an international star, pulling in full houses from London to New York to Sydney, especially for the faux biblical epic The Sign of the Cross. You wouldn’t know it from this image. She looks like someone shoved a papier-mâché crucifix in her hands and told her to look fearful of the Lord. This inability to perform for the camera is a common complaint from the period, and comes from photographers, producers and actors. Numerous Edwardian performers will spurn the cinema while others will take it on and fail. The typical explanation is that the actor needs the human presence, the applause and even the heckling, in order to perform.
Being a photographer to the stars carried responsibilities. The studios above also photographed royalty and anyone else who required an official portrait. What mattered most to their non-theatrical subjects – royals, politicians, etc – was that there be no surprises. Politicians showed gravitas, the prince dignity. They were expected to be a lot more creative with stage performers, which could be hard when the process was a treadmill. Faced with a client list of several dozen performers, each demanding the special touch, even the best photographers could exhaust their repertoire. In the same way, some tricks could startle at first but quickly became clichéd. Phyllis Dare was Zena Dare’s sister. Born in 1890, she began acting when she was nine and by the time she was fifteen was a star in light comedies. When she was seventeen (around the time this photo was taken) she published her autobiography and became one of the first in a long line of juvenile performers to author a necessarily thin and vacuous account of a life so far unlived. The title was From School to Stage, which sounds like it covered everything.
For some of us, the very definition of a perfect Friday afternoon involves sitting down with a pile of century old directories and tracking down long forgotten photographic studios. No matter what joys the exercise holds, there are times when running into brick walls becomes tiring. Who was Kilpatrick? It was usual though not compulsory to attribute the photographer or studio on the postcard but Rotary, which published the card, only licensed the image. There was a studio belonging to a Kilpatrick in Dublin and if Ms Studholme travelled to that city for a performance and the studio paid to photograph her, it could have sold the image on to Rotary. Given that Ms Studholme performed in America and what the English quaintly refer to as ‘the colonies’, the studio could have been anywhere in the English speaking world. Her costume here looks Wagnerian, but operetta rather than opera.
Here’s another minor mystery. This portrait of Lily Brayton is credited to Johnston and Hoffman, recognized as one of the leading studios at the time – in Calcutta. The National Portrait Gallery in London have 52 portraits by the company in their archives, mostly of theatrical stars. Either we are talking about two companies having the same name or Johnston and Hoffmann opened a branch in London. The latter seems more likely, but if so you’d think that would warrant a mention in the entries found in various encyclopaedias. Once again we have a case of the gender role reversals and while there is a passably interesting history of women dressing as eighteenth century highwaymen, what’s really interesting about this is that we see a really professional use of electric lighting. This was uncommon in the early 1900s. Electric lighting was still too expensive for a lot of studios and even those who could afford it needed to relearn photography to understand how to use it properly.
Dover Street Studios are another commonly encountered name. Interesting that among a dozen or so sighted, variations on the Gibson girl look are prominent. It looks like the studio had an agenda. The GG’s identifying features were her hairstyle and the long, tight dress or gown, both seen here in Ms Gertie Sinclair. It was actually a North American fashion. The graphic artist who designed the look, Charles Dana Gibson, wanted to capture the essence of the ideal American women, whose very modernness he attributed to a composite of cultural ethnicities and attitudes. I don’t know how successfully the Gibson Girl caught on in Britain.
The cabbage is a nice touch. Here Ms Millar wears the costermonger’s outfit that inspired the original pearly kings and queens, Like Peter Pan, Aladdin was an obviously male figure commonly played by women and the musical, The New Aladdin transplanted the oriental story to London.
Here’s a well-known study of the Moores, theatrical family of course, of whom Decima and Eva became the best known. As discussed in the post on Rita Martin, the relationship between the theatrical world and the suffragettes was more convoluted than you might think, and thanks in no small part to the suffragettes habit of throwing gas bombs into theatres and ruining performances. The Moores however were firmly behind the movement to give women the vote and were among the founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which among other activities produced the plays, How the Vote was Won and Votes for Women. I want to say more but do the research yourself. It’s worth the effort.
And here is Eva Moore with her son in an image that is strange on several levels though in Edwardian England it would have met with widespread approval. These portraits of actresses with their children are more than commonplace. They are a reminder of the sharp distinction between London and Paris, where it was advisable for an actress not to indicate she had a family. They were also a protest against the popular image of the stage as the home of outcasts and other ne’er do wells. How better to show the world that the theatre was not only glamorous but also respectable than by showing actress mums with their kids. Except of course that young Master Moore looks miserable, as you might if Mum had made you put on a clown costume then dragged you before a camera.
There are of course many postcards of male actors and there is a world waiting to be read in the differences between the two, but let’s end with an image of one of the best known female impersonators of the age, Malcolm Scott. Like Hettie King, his choice of role was no indication of his orientation and it seems he lived an otherwise ordinary life with wife and family in the suburbs. What’s to like about this photo of course is its various assumptions. We are told that is Mr Scott but we don’t know for sure. For all we know it could be Hettie King playing Malcolm Scott playing Hettie King; a conundrum we think made perfect sense to the Edwardians. We are lucky that so many of these photographs lie scattered throughout flea markets in abundance. In an age when some people think they can charge small fortunes for snapshots they didn’t take but bought for 25 cents, it’s great to have so many images from the Edwardian theatre, a world that is both familiar and disruptive.
|THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST|