Dorothy Wilding: A mentor … then a rival

AS I started acquiring magazines containing features about Joan and her work, I began to piece together details of her life. But most of these articles were from the 1950s and 1960s, when she was well-established as a photographer of female nudes.

I wanted to know how she had become a photographer in the first place. Her father Marshall worked in the offices of the Kirkstall brewery in Leeds, and upon retirement he bought a dairy and moved his family from Leeds to the Wirral. Unfortunately, the business failed (family legend has it this was due to the death of a horse) – so how on earth did Joan go from selling milk in the Wirral to taking portraits on New Bond Street?

A search of the British Library website yielded some promising results. I made plans to visit to access materials in the archives, and ordered a copy of Terence Pepper’s book Dorothy Wilding: The Pursuit of Perfection. Pepper was Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery from 1978 until 2013, and I’d noticed that since then he had donated two Joan Craven postcard photographs to the gallery, of the actresses Yvonne Arnaud and Norah Robinson. Clearly, this was someone who not only knew a huge amount about portrait photography, but knew about Joan’s work in particular.

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Cover of Terence Pepper’s book

From the first paragraph of Pepper’s book, I was gripped. I learned that Dorothy Wilding opened her first studio in 1915 aged just 21, and went on to become England’s most successful portrait photographer and the first woman photographer to be granted “by appointment” status to the royal family.

In 1937 she opened a studio in New York and began working on both sides of the Atlantic. She created a distinctive “Wilding style” and employed dozens of assistants to helped produce portraits in it.

Pepper notes that despite her success, when Wilding died in 1976 “the fact passed unnoticed in both the national and the photographic press”. I was deflated to read this – if England’s most successful portrait photographer had been largely forgotten, this did not bode well for my search. However, the very existence of this book was an encouraging sign that at least someone still cared.

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Dorothy Wilding

Joan Craven merits a mention on p.14 of Pepper’s book, where he notes of Wilding’s thriving third studio: “Such was her success that two of her staff left to set up in competition to her, working in a very similar style”. The first of these, Pegs Jevons, left in 1923 and opened up almost opposite at 20 New Bond Street. “The other,  Joan Craven, left in 1926 and set up her studio at 37 New Bond Street.”

It’s not clear whether Joan was working for Wilding at the time when Jevons jumped ship, but she must surely have been inspired by the other woman’s bold move. Perhaps Wilding’s own biography – from which Pepper drew for his book – will provide further clues. I wasn’t aware of its existence when I made my first visit to the British Library to follow up on a handful of other leads.

But I found plenty of other riches in the reading rooms of the library, including an interview feature in the British Journal of Photography…

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