22 February 2014

Dorothy Wilding

Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976) was a noted English society photographer with studios in London and New York. Wilding photographed many British film stars in the 1920s and 1930s, but was also the first woman to be appointed as the Official Royal Photographer.

Madeleine Carroll
Madeleine Carroll. British postcard by Real Photograph, London in the Picturegoer series, no. 352a. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Madeleine Carroll
Madeleine Carroll. British postcard by Real Photograph, London in the Picturegoer series, no. 352b. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Brightly Lit Linear Compositions

Dorothy Frances Edith Wilding was born in 1893. She was the last of a large family of 10 children who lived near Gloucester.

Unwanted by her parents, Dorothy was passed on to a childless aunt and uncle in Cheltenham, aged just four. She wanted to become an actress or artist but this career was disallowed by her uncle, so she chose the art of photography.

One day she saw a camera in a shop window in Cheltenham, and according to her memoirs she thought: ‘If they won’t allow me to be an actress, or paint portraits, I’ll do it through the camera instead’.

At the age of 16 Wilding taught herself the art of photography, from lighting to retouching. She finally persuaded her family to let her move to London. She began her photographic career as an apprentice to Bond Street photographer Marian Neilson.

By 1915 she had saved enough money to lease a studio in George Street, Portman Square. She took her first pictures by artificial light, designing a system of tracks that fixed to the ceiling for her two 1,000 watt lamps with pale blue reflectors.

In the 1920s and 1930s, she photographed several film stars including Jessie Matthews, Diana Wynyard, Anna May Wong, Madeleine Carroll, Ivor Novello, Maurice Chevalier, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

According to the National Portrait Gallery website, she is best known for her brightly lit linear compositions photographed in high key lighting against a white background. The success of the Wilding Look was clearly based upon her superb lighting techniques, her high standard of retouching and finishing, and her society connections.

She portrayed such celebrities as Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton, George Bernard Shaw, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Aldous Huxley, and Barbara Hutton. By 1929 she had already moved studio a few times, and employed seven assistants.

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello. British postcard in the Picturegoer series by real Photograph, London, no. 39c. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Matheson Lang
Matheson Lang. British postcard in the Picturegoer series, no. 87A. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

A Sitting Booked For A Mrs. Simpson

Dorothy Wilding shot her first British Royal Family portrait of the 26-year-old Prince George (later Duke of Kent) in 1928. Six years later Wilding was selected to take the official engagement photographs of Prince George before his marriage to Princess Marina of Greece.

In 1935 a sitting booked for a Mrs. Simpson on a Friday found Wilding away from the studio at her country cottage. She had to direct the shoot down the telephone to her leading deputy camera operator.

Wallis Warfield Simpson was the future Duchess of Windsor, and she was accompanied to the studio by Edward, Prince of Wales at a time when the relationship was not mentioned in the British press. A hand-coloured image from this session would later appear on the cover of Time magazine, marking Wallis as 'Woman of the Year'.

A further important series of Royal Sittings were also taken in her absence when Wilding was based in America. This sitting was eventually followed by the famous Wilding portrait of the newly ascended Elizabeth II that was used for a series of definitive postage stamps of Great Britain used between 1952 and 1967, and a series of Canadian stamps in use from 1954 to 1962.

A previous portrait sitting of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wife of George VI, had turned into a double portrait of the royal couple and was adapted for the 1937 Coronation issue stamp.

That portrait led to Wilding being the first woman to be appointed as the Official Royal Photographer for the 1937 Coronation.

John Gielgud
John Gielgud. British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 762A. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

John Gielgud
John Gielgud. British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 762. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Clearly Ahead Of Their Time

In 1937, Dorothy Wilding also opened a second photo studio in New York. There she photographed Fannie Hurst, Tallulah Bankhead, Gracie Fields and Gertrude Lawrence at the time of her appearance in Pygmalion.

In 1940, a German bomb destroyed her London studio. She went to New York with her ailing husband, designer Rufus Leighton-Pearce, who she had met in the 1920s when he created a revolutionary art deco design for her studio. He died there and she dedicated much her time to building her US business.

In the 1940s and 1950s her subjects included Dame Barbara Cartland, Dame Daphne du Maurier, Sir John Gielgud, Harry Belafonte, Yehudi Menuhin, William Somerset Maugham, and Yul Brynner.

She is also known for her pictorial style nude photographs which include the dancer Jacques Cartier and the artist's model Rhoda Beasley photographed shortly before her early tragic death.

John Chillingworth: “Her 1930s commercial and advertising images were clearly ahead of their time, preceding 1960’s eroticism by 30 years!”

Wilding’s relationship with the Royal family, as their favoured photographer, continued right up until 1958 when she decided to sell her Bond Street studio, aged 65. She had closed the 56th Street, Manhattan, studio in 1957.

Her autobiography In Pursuit of Perfection was published in 1958. After her retirement Wilding faded from the public consciousness, and she passed away in a nursing home in 1976. At the time her death hardly got even a line of obituary.

Her surviving archives were presented to the National Portrait Gallery by her sister Mrs. Susan Morton and formed the basis of a major NPG retrospective exhibition and catalogue in 1991, The Pursuit of Perfection.

Elizabeth Allan. British postcard. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Yvonne Arnaud
Yvonne Arnaud. British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. 378A. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

Dorothy Dickson
Dorothy Dickson. British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no T4a. Photo: Dorothy Wilding.

This is the seventh post in a series on film star photographers. Earlier posts were on the Reutlinger Studio in Paris, Italian star photographer Attilio Badodi, the German photographer Ernst Schneider, Dutch photo artist Godfried de Groot, Milanese photographers Arturo Varischi and Giovanni Artico and on the French Studio Lorelle.

Sources: John Chillingworth, National Portrait Gallery, Stamp Online, and Wikipedia. See also the Flickr set on Wilding by dovima_is_devine_II.


Bunched Undies said...

That must be a wonderful collection of images. Das that her death was barely noticed.

TerencePepper said...

Enjoyed reading your biography of Wilding and mention of my research for exhibition and book on Dorothy Wilding at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1991, one of many women photographers who were forgotten and have tried to draw attention to like you great work. Might be worth mentioning her ex assistants who left her empty to set up rival studios such as Joan Craven and the photographic partnership Janet Jevons who comprised Pegs Jevons and Janet Tyrell. More info can be found on Instagram account and shortly to be launched website “ Sisters Of The Lens”

Paul van Yperen said...

Thank Terence. I'll update this post soon and use your info.