Thursday, October 30, 2008

Royal Profile: Dorothy Wilding

According to the National Portrait Gallery, Dorthy Wilding "is best known for her brightly lit linear compositions photographed in high key lighting against a white background." Known as the 'Wilding Look'. She was the first female appointed as the official royal photographer for the 1937 Coronation. However, her royal legacy would be one portrait known to philatelists the world over.

Dorothy Frances Edith Wilding was born on January 10, 1893 near Gloucestershire. She was the last child in a family of 10 and at the age of four she was taken to be raised by a childless aunt and uncle in Cheltenham. Her initial ambition was to be an actress but her uncle disapproved. Fiercely independent she saved up money and at sixteen bought her first camera. She taught herself the art of photography, convincing her family to let her move to London where she began her photographic career as an apprentice to Bond Street photographer Marian Neilson.

In 1915 she had saved up enough money (£60) to lease her own photo studio. Unable to afford a proper lighting set up, she took her portraits in daylight. She gained success and opened a larger studio, moving her business to Bond Street, In 1929 she had her first royal sitting when she photographed 17 year old Prince George, later Duke of Kent. Her royal portraits continued with a session featuring Wallis Simpson. The Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) was so impressed with the photographs that he posed for her himself.

In January 1937 She received a summons to Buckingham Palace to photograph the new Queen Elizabeth. During the session the new King entered the room dressed in his uniform of Admiral of the Fleet. Wilding suggested ‘Your Majesty, don’t you think The Queen looks a little lonely standing there without you? If you joined her, I could make such a lovely portrait of you both’. The King replied: ‘Why not?’ The portrait was used on a Coronation issue stamp and would later be adapted for a Silver Wedding Stamp in 1948. Her portraits of the King were also used on currency and banknotes.

She had mistakenly married young, but met her second husband, Rufus Leighton-Pearce, when he created a revolutionary art deco design for her studio. They would marry some years later after his divorce from an alcoholic wife. With her striking confidence she more than held her own in the male dominated industry. An anecdote from photographer Tom Hustler who worked in her studio, recalled a meeting between Dorothy and Antony Armstrong Jones where he remarked that he preferred natural light to studio work, she replied, "Mr Jones, in my studio I can put the sun where I want it."

She opened her New York Studio around this time and commuted between New York and London by ocean liner. She photographed some of the most famous people of her day and she was particularly known for her "Girls in Pearls" photographs that appeared in society magazines. In 1940, a German bomb destroyed her London studio. She took her ailing husband to New York. After he died she dedicated much her time to building her US business. She was awarded the Royal Warrant in 1943, creating royal portraits for British and Commonwealth stamps.

Image from Wikipedia CommonsHer most famous work was the portrait of Elizabeth II used for the new Queen's stamps - now known by philatelists as the Wilding series. The photograph is known as 'The Dorothy Wilding Portrait'. The session took place at Clarence House on February 26, 1952, three weeks after the death of King George VI. All British definitive stamps bore this Wilding portrait from 1952 until 1967. Her work also appeared on many Commonwealth stamps.

Her working relationship with the royal family continued until 1958 when she sold her Bond Street Studio. Her New York Studio had closed in 1957. Her autobiography In Pursuit of Perfection was published in 1958.

After a long illness, she died in a nursing home on February 9th, 1976. Her surviving archives were presented to the National Portrait Gallery by her sister Mrs Susan Morton in the same year.

© Marilyn Braun 2008

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