Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street at the National Portrait Gallery

By Laura Burgess | 17 February 2011
A black and white photo of a young woman staring seriously into a camera
Tilly Losch (1928)© Curatorial Assistance, Inc. / E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection
Exhibition: Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street, National Portrait Gallery, London, February 17 – May 30 2011

There’s been a lot of buzz about ballet recently, what with the spring/summer ‘11 fashion lines from Karl Lagerfeld and Sarah Burton on the catwalk, the V&A’s major show on former ringmaster Serge Diaghilev and the hype around cinema blockbuster Black Swan, which saw Natalie Portman win best actress at the BAFTAs.

This exhibition reveals images of dancers which inspired and fascinated pioneering photographer Emil Otto Hoppé during the 1920s.

Hoppé can be described as a celebrity during the early 20th century, just like his subjects, who were usually eminent figures from literature, politics and art.

The exhibition begins with his admiration of dance sitters, starring the likes of Beatrice Appleyard, an original member of the Vic-Wells Ballet, and Margot Fonteyn, who he shot at the start of her illustrious career before she performed in Symphonic Variations in 1935.

A black and white photo of a young female ballet dancer in a shiny silver dress staring seriously into the camera from side on
Margot Fonteyn (1935)© Curatorial Assistance, Inc. / E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection
Russian ballet dancer Olga Spessivtseva starred as Aurora in the production of The Sleeping Princess in 1921. Hoppé talked highly of Spessivtseva, one of his favourite sitters: “She had the features of one of the Madonnas one finds in Medieval stained glass windows, delicately moulded and with ivory white skin.”

But it was Hoppé’s interest in women which helped launched his career. Book of Fair Women, his 1922 publication, caused a stir. Hoppé chose what he thought were 32 beautiful females with complete different cultural identities, a concept which shocked at the time.

The most exemplified piece of work by Hoppé is of dancer Tilly Losch, an important influence in his work. The picture, on display in the gallery and used to promote the exhibition, is in an unusual square format and is purely of Losch’s face.

With her hair out of focus, it gives the effect that she is emerging out of a space, the artificial studio light reflected in her pupils.

Alongside the dancers, it is clear that Hoppé shot some amazing and iconic faces of the time. Visitors may be fascinated to see the likes of Albert Einstein, Rudyard Kipling and King George V.

In 1914 he photographed writer Thomas Hardy, a man known to be notoriously camera shy. Hoppé took a series of images of Hardy with his wife in the garden, which remain some of the best portraits ever to be taken of the novelist.

There is also a picture of Peter Llewellyn Davies, whose family befriended the writer JM Barrie. It was through their bond that Barrie was influenced by Davies to create the character of Peter Pan in 1940. Davies was awarded a First World War military cross – perhaps contributing to Hoppé’s decision to photograph him.

Once an established artist with three studios in London, Hoppé decided to take to the streets to capture everyday people going about their ordinary business. Sticking to the ideas he used in Book of Fair Women, he played on the idea of contrasting the rich and the poor.

Hoppé’s portraits were extremely popular and he photographed people for Weekly Illustrated. Still focusing on the idea of diversity, he would set up a Kodak brownie camera, hidden by being wrapped in paper.

Visitors can see some remarkable spontaneous images of working class citizens such as in Drinking Tea in Busmen’s Canteen (1936), Westminster Underground (1937) and Passengers on a Bus (1945).

The swathe of almost 150 images show an artist fascinated by people. He was interested in people from very different backgrounds and their paths to fame.

He liked the Ballet Russes because he felt the skills of the dancers, composers, set design and costumes, and he liked human aesthetics, bringing together a mix of people at their most natural. From celebrities to the working class, he captured people at their most relaxed.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Thursday and Friday). Admission £9-£12.10, book online.
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