Photo: Ronald Traeger.
When Vogue 100: A Century of Style opens at the National Portrait Gallery in February, taking over the whole ground floor, it will be the culmination of five years' research. As curator, I have looked through every issue of British Vogue, as well as many American and French Vogues (and, from the Twenties, the short-lived Vogue Argentina and the Weimar-era German Vogue that almost bankrupted Condé Nast). About 1,800 issues of the magazine in all.
In the early years, from September 1916 to the eve of the Second World War, there were 24 British Vogues a year - a magazine every fortnight - and, when times were good, spin-offs: The Vogue Book of Beauty, The Vogue Pattern Book, The Vogue Book of British Exports.
Since Vogue's debut, photography has been its lifeblood. Tracking down prints has taken the Vogue 100 team around the world. We have loans from Costa Rica and Singapore, France, Germany and Belgium, from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Canada, and more.
The magazine's editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, knew exactly what Vogue 100 was not going to be: black-framed pictures hung on the gallery wall in rows. I agreed. Vogue's photographs are "objects" as much as are issues of the magazine itself. Picked out of boxes and cabinets in the archives, prints could be tipped towards the light or flipped over - the reverse as intriguing as the obverse. This was the "stuff of Vogue", to quote the magazine in 1942. I proposed that for Vogue's first 60 years at least, we should try to find the original print used to make the magazine, or as near as possible. If it was distressed, torn or marked-up in crayon, then so much the more fascinating: these were Vogue's working documents, the tools of its trade. Where owners would allow it, we would treat their masterworks as unframed "icons", every blemish a witness to the century.
The historic names in Vogue 100 are the great ones - not just of fashion and portraiture, but of photography in the modern age: Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Charles Sheeler, Lee Miller, Erwin Blumenfeld, Man Ray. It felt fitting to show their work in the form they had originally presented it, despite the patina of age.
From 1946 on, Vogue's history is largely intact. Not so before then. The story goes that at the French office, during some redecoration, the contents of the archives spilled on to the street in rubbish bags. Apocryphal? In an age when photography was barely collected and magazine photography not at all, possibly not.
Dead photographers tend, on the whole, to be more accommodating than the living, but I found the latter pliant and agreeable - and the past something else entirely. At British Vogue, officially, the past didn't exist. That's because in March 1942, the magazine recycled its archive to help the war effort. The Steichens, Sheelers and de Meyers, Horsts and Beatons, all gone.
Well, almost all gone. In Vogue's library in London, we discovered a box labelled "Atoms of the Past". In our context, this was Howard Carter standing at the tomb of the boy pharaoh. Our treasures: an unpublished print of Vivien Leigh in the studio by Cecil Beaton and an earlier Beaton, Tallulah Bankhead, triply exposed on one dazzling print (1929); a portrait of Baron Adolph de Meyer (circa 1932), considered to be the first professional fashion photographer; an early study by Erwin Blumenfeld; and, most poignantly, a group portrait, Beaton again, of a bomber crew climbing into their lumbering aircraft, as if mounting a scaffold. Each picture was beautiful; none was pristine.
Such gems notwithstanding, we had a search on our hands and I began it in earnest. Vogue's very first published photograph is a portrait by EO Hoppé of the stylish Lady Eileen Wellesley. It appeared as the frontispiece of its debut issue. A liaison with the poet Rupert Brooke had raised eyebrows beyond Lady Eileen's immediate circle: fashion and celebrity in Vogue from the start.
The first real quest, therefore, was to find a Hoppé print. The most celebrated photographer of his day, based in Millais's former Kensington studio, Hoppé was commissioned for Vogue's earliest frontispieces. But there are good Hoppés and better Hoppés. A print of the first frontispiece did not appear to exist but we found the third. Or rather, the NPG's departing curator of photographs, Terence Pepper, did - unbelievably, on Ebay. Terence would remain involved throughout the Vogue 100 project.
I knew that, when the time came, he would know where several bodies were buried and if he didn't, he would know who buried them. His knowledge was invaluable. The Hoppé image he discovered was a portrait of Viscountess Maidstone. An American from Philadelphia, she was heiress to the Drexel banking fortune and had married into the British aristocracy, a "cash for coronets" arrangement. She was entrancing in Terence's print. I had only known her in reproduction and here she was, startlingly vivid, in rich sepia tones.
I was also after something by Arnold Genthe, like Hoppé a master portraitist. He had photographed a young Greta Garbo in New York the moment she stepped off the boat but, alas, not for British Vogue. There was, however, another Genthe that had intrigued me for years - a nude (not very Vogue) retouched to look like a classical sculpture (entirely acceptable). It predated Vogue but the magazine published it later, in 1922 (and again in 1938). This "Hellenic" ideal of physical beauty was influential on Vogue's photographers to come, chiefly Hoyningen-Huene and Horst in the Thirties and later Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber.
A good place to start would be the Wilson Centre for Photography in London. Michael Wilson, whose Eon Productions has produced the James Bond films, well, for aeons now, has one of the most important private collections of photography, including many Genthes. Might he have it? I made an appointment.
Photo: Clifford Coffin
Photo: Cecil Beaton
Photo: George Hoyningen Huene