Norman Parkinson Fashion Portraits At The Lady Lever Art Gallery

By Kay Carson | 20 June 2006
a photograph of a women in a fifties era dress suit wearing a hat and coat whilst posing with an umbrella beside a tree in a street

Wenda Parkinson (nee Rogerson) 1951. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

Kay Carson immerses herself in the elegant world of fashion photographer Norman Parkinson at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

We are treated to life through the legendary lens of Norman Parkinson - best known for his chic Vogue covers in the 1950s - in a special exhibition at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

Portraits in Fashion, running until September 24 2006, explains how the photography giant - almost literally, at 6ft 5in - began his rise to fame in the 1930s when he opened a studio at No.1 Dover Street, London, just off Piccadilly and close to The Ritz: an ideal location for society networking.

a side on head and shoulders photograph of a woman with red lipstick and a large red hat. She is slightly out of focus against a grey brocaded background

Adele Collins, Vogue 1959. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

Over an illustrious seven-decade career, Parkinson captured the world’s most celebrated and beautiful people on film, from Noel Coward to Raquel Welch.

But many of the works in this vignette feature his muse; model Wenda Rogerson, who became his third wife. She had the perfect demeanour for the era, a kind of British Barbie doll with a wardrobe of post-war outfits.

Wenda in a Hardy Amies tweed coat; or Wenda in a Simpson’s suit, “keeping cheerful in austere times” in front of the Peabody Trust building in West London, were ideal for gracing front covers in the late 1940s.

a photograph of a woman wearing an orange red dress as she marches across a corridor closely followed by three well groomed teenage boys dressed in suits with white gloves

Andrea Holterhof, Vogue 1979. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

Therein lies the beauty of Parkinson’s creations: you can sense the epoch, the social history, with a single glance. It’s all there. A photograph of Wenda Parkinson from 1951 epitomises London - the blackness of the tree and her umbrella, contrasting with the vague outlines of Hyde Park Corner traffic in the foggy background.

These black and white images make an indelible mark with their exquisite, and often eccentric, composition.

One of the most dazzling is a 1950 study of Enid Boulting in a Helena Geffers suit which the designer dubbed 'Impertinence'. The South African model is staring brazenly at the viewer, cigarette in mouth… long before Sarah Lucas was even born.

a black and white photograph of a short-haired young woman in pedal pushers sat outside a cottage door petting a small donkey

Audrey Hepburn, 1955. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

Boulting’s look - and the fact that she wasn’t using a cigarette holder - caused a sensation at the time. American Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase said: “Smoking in Vogue, so tough, so unfeminine!”

Of course, Parkinson didn’t just work exclusively with women. His New Mayfair Edwardians (1950), portraying three men in bowler hats, long jackets and drainpipe trousers, records a stage in the evolution of Edwardian dress which was later reborn as the Teddy Boy look.

Yes, the times were a-changing. A shift in gait and gaze made for an altogether different mood in Parkinson’s subsequent studies. And, as colour printing was becoming more prevalent, he gradually zoomed out of monochrome and into pieces like After van Dongen (1959), featuring crimson-hatted Adele Collins in super-soft focus set against heavily textured brocade - Parkinson’s homage to Dutch Fauvist Kees van Dongen’s Corn Poppy of 40 years earlier.

a colour photograph of a tall woman with long hair dressed in a red skirt outfit and long red boots waving a soviet flag in front of a Cold War era Soviet propaganda poster

Jerry Hall, Vogue 1975. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

The new generation was given the Parkinson treatment with more exaggerated poses, more exotic locations.

In the 1970s, Jan Ward kneels on a rock in Monument Valley, Utah; in 1975, Jerry Hall waves a huge hammer-and-sickle flag while wearing a red jumpsuit - part of a 17-page portfolio which Hall and the Parkinsons travelled 7,000 miles round Russia to achieve.

The photographs succeeded in catapulting Hall to supermodel status.

a black and white photograph of a woman in a skirt suit and hat pointing an umbrella at something in the street whilst a man in a top hat plays a clarinet and bass drum as a one man band

Barbara Goalen, 1940. Copyright Norman Parkinson Archive

But nothing can be as endearingly Parkinsonian as the oddest, most incongruous scene of all… Wenda, immaculate in twinset and pearls, sits next to a grubby-looking man in a flat cap who is clutching a tankard, at the Hobnails Inn, Little Washbourne (1951).

With knowing smiles, they look at the viewer as if to say: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with us… it must be you.” And you can’t help but agree.

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